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As more colleges have adopted "family friendly" policies for professors, many experts have noted that relatively small shares of those eligible for the flexible arrangements use them. Much has been written about why this is the case, with many observers guessing that young parents, especially women, fear that asking for flexible arrangements may hurt them in the tenure process.

A new report from the American Sociological Association tries to look beyond that supposition by examining who uses -- and who doesn't use -- available "family friendly" policies. The study, based on sociology Ph.D.'s in academe, suggests that women who are well on the road to successful academic careers are more likely than less successful women to use these benefits. The study's authors write that this suggests that colleges are using flexible arrangements as a reward for talent, not as a benefit to which people are entitled.

Further, the study examines general levels of support given to people with various family statuses. Fathers not only end up with far more rewards than mothers, but they also do better (by smaller margins) than men and women without children.

The findings are based on a longitudinal study of people who earned their Ph.D.'s in sociology between June 1996 and August 1997 and who became academics. While the authors acknowledge they looked at only their discipline, they note that it is similar to others in that its Ph.D. population is increasingly female, but there are proportionately few women in the upper professorial ranks.

When the study looked at whether different groups of sociologists had work-family policies available to them, and whether they used them, the researchers found that similar percentages of people in different categories were aware of policies available to them. But mothers were far more likely to make use of them, even though it was a minority of mothers who did so.

Availability and Use of Work-Family Policies

Group % Who Have at Least One Policy % Who Have Used at Least One Policy
Mothers 67% 40%
Fathers 71% 26%
Women without children 66% 7%
Men without children 65% 3%

The researchers then started to examine characteristics about the women who used work-family policies and those who didn't. Even though many of the work-family policies might result in less official work time, the most productive female sociologists in the sample were those who used the policies.

By 2003, the median number of peer-reviewed publications from mothers who used work-family policies was nine, while the medians were four for mothers who didn't use the policies and five for women without children. This of courses creates a "cause and effect problem," as the authors note. Did women become more productive because of the policies or so they would be able to ask for the flexibility they wanted?

The authors noted that there was also a positive correlation between starting to publish in graduate school and between attending high prestige graduate programs and using work-family policies. In interviews with some of the women in the cohort, the authors found that these factors are all inter-related. "Some mothers that we interviewed in the course of this study reported deliberately developing a strategy of publishing as much as possible before embarking on maternity in order to increase their chair's interest in their continued success," the report says.

Together, the authors write, the evidence suggests that chairs reach out to those who are more productive and have more prestigious backgrounds, making it easier for such women to use family-friendly policies. "This study suggests that work-family policy use is a reward, not a resource," write the authors.

The sociologists also examined the question of how parental status correlated with various levels of support. Academics in the cohort were asked whether they had received five or more "general resources," defined as things like teaching assistants, graders, laptops, course relief, private offices and travel money. In addition, they were asked whether they had received specific research support, such as research assistants and help in publishing. In both categories, fathers obtained more than any other group, and considerably more than mothers.

Allocation of Resources by Parental Status

Parental Status Granted 5 or More General Resources Granted at Least 1 Research Resource
Mothers 24.4% 60.0%
Fathers 38.1% 73.8%
Women without children 32.2% 71.2%
Men without children 29.0% 61.3%

The report may be purchased online. It was written by Roberta Spalter-Roth, director of research and development at the sociology association, and William Erskine, a research associate.


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