Is Biology Destiny?

Jean Spencer MPP ’13, our first guest blogger, writes on the challenges facing women in academia. I don’t know about you, but I definitely felt my heart rate rising as I read her piece…how can these barriers be knocked down?

When it comes to getting a proportionate number of women on the faculty at prestigious universities, you’re not going to get anywhere unless you deal with the biology issue. The bottom line is that women have babies. And being pregnant and then taking care of a baby is a huge drain on a woman’s energy. You can cover it with flowers and a Hallmark card, but there is no getting around that basic fact.Add to biology the continuing cultural reality that women carry far more of the household burden than men, and it becomes more clear why you aren’t getting more women on the faculty. According to a 2008 study funded by the National Science Foundation, “Married women with more than three kids recorded an average of about 28 hours of housework a week, while married men with more than three kids logged only about 10 hours of housework a week.” Even for those without children, being married still leads to more household labor. That same study also found that women do seven more hours of housework a week after marriage than before, while men do an hour less.

Now take a profession that requires four years of undergraduate education, five to seven years of graduate school, and then six more years slogging it out, trying to get tenure. The math just doesn’t add up. Say you go straight through without ever getting any experience outside academia. You graduate from college at 22. You get your Ph.D. at 28. You are fortunate enough to get a tenure track position right away. You get tenure at 34. You are a star! And you are already into your years of declining fertility. If you don’t wait that long to try and have a family, you are off-track. Meanwhile, your male colleagues are plugging along with no pesky biological inconveniences to worry about. I asked a fried of mine, who is both an assistant professor at a top-tier research university and the mother of a two-year-old, for her thoughts on gender parity in academia. This is what she said:

To be honest, I’ve thought a lot about this, and I don’t have a really good answer. The obvious problem is that the pre-tenure years are the years when most women are having kids, and that is a HUGE factor in how much they are able to produce. And while many places give people who have kids an extra year on the tenure clock, that clearly doesn’t do enough to balance out the lost productivity. And an even bigger issue, at least in my mind, is that many schools now also give paternity leave to new fathers, which also comes with an additional year on the clock.

While a lovely idea in theory, and I’m all for men doing equal parenting, the reality from my experience is that most women use that year to spend with their kids, and most men use that extra year to get more work done. I’m not exactly sure how universities could police this better. Maybe the first set is to more vigorously enforce the rule (which many places do already have) that if you take maternity/paternity leave, you have to be the primary caregiver for your new child during that time. Which means you may not come into the office, you may not use your research funds, etc. But my guess is that people who want to will still figure out how to use this time as they want rather than as it is intended.The unfortunate takeaway from her comment is that even when universities try to be family-friendly and fair, the result is still unfair. That leads me to think that the only way you are going to get a proportionate number of women on the faculty is if you treat them differently than men, and a lot of people are not going to like that. Right now, you have a stable system that favors those who don’t take time out to bear children. It could be argued that it is a system based solely on excellence, but that’s not quite right. It’s based on excellence in a given time frame. A woman may be excellent, but if she doesn’t make tenure at an elite school because the clock ran out while she was taking care of her family, then she has to move down the food chain to a less prestigious university.  She loses. The prestigious school loses its investment in her. And society in general loses because the voices of women who are both professionals and mothers are not sufficiently represented at the elite level. In a department like public policy, that means that issues that are of critical importance to women will not be given the weight that they deserve.