Does Academe Hinder Parenthood?

2 new studies suggest that many professors, especially women, are less likely than other professionals or men in their field to have kids.
May 23, 2008

Numerous reports and accounts suggest that balancing parenthood and academic careers can be difficult, particularly for women. Two new studies suggest that, possibly as a result, many female academics may be opting not to have kids.

One study compares female academics to those in other professions that have substantial training time and finds professors far less likely to procreate. The other study, in anthropology, finds male anthropologists more likely to have children than are their female counterparts -- and finds significant evidence that women in academe (even in a discipline not seen as promoting outdated gender roles) find their careers limited by responsibilities at home.

The study comparing professions tracks recent household "birth events" (having a child aged zero or one) in households of physicians, lawyers, and academics -- with the thinking being that all three professions require many years of training and long work hours to succeed. The study, based on 2000 Census data, finds that academics are the least likely to have experienced recent birth events, and that the gap is greatest for women. (Physicians are most likely to have had children recently, and lawyers are in the middle.)

Controlling for such factors as age, weekly hours worked, and race or ethnicity, male faculty members are 21 percent less likely than male physicians to have recently had a birth in their households. Controlling the same factors for women, those who are academics are 41 percent less likely than physicians to have recently had children. When controlling for marital status, the gap between female faculty members and physicians narrows, but the study finds that female faculty members are the most likely of the three job categories to be separated, divorced or widowed.

One factor that makes it easier for the male doctors to have recent offspring is that, in addition to earning more than professors, the M.D.'s are less likely to have child-care needs. That's because male doctors are almost twice as likely to have spouses out of the labor force as are male academics (40 percent vs. 22 percent). In another sign of the impact of academic careers on parenthood, male professionals whose wives are physicians or lawyers are disproportionately likely to have had recent birth events, while male professionals whose wives are academics do not have any greater than average chance of new parenthood.

"Given the high rate at which academics marry other academics, it appears likely that the low fertility of female professors ... can account for the relative paucity of birth events among male faculty," the report finds.

The study, "Alone in the Ivory Tower: How Birth Events Vary Among Fast-Track Professionals," was presented at the meeting this spring of the Population Association of America. The authors are Nicholas Wolfinger, associate professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah; Mary Ann Mason, former graduate dean at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Mothers on the Fast Track; and Marc Goulden, director of data initiatives in academic affairs at Berkeley. Mason and Goulden are also members of the team that leads research work at the UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge, which promotes policies to help academics with family obligations.

While the population study compared academics to other professions, a committee of the American Anthropological Association has just released a report on the status of women in the field -- featuring survey comparisons of male and female anthropologists. The report notes a number of differences between men and women in anthropology, and a greater satisfaction by men than women with the work environment. Men were more likely than women in a national survey of faculty members to feel that policies were supportive, while many women felt that they were burdened with a disproportionate share of administrative work in departments.

Key differences were found with regard to work/home balance: men in the field are more likely to be parents, but women are more likely to be more responsible for child care or other family obligations. For instance, of men who experienced a career interruption, 7.4 percent cited child care as the reason and 3.7 percent cited the experience of being a "trailing spouse," one who moves when a partner is hired elsewhere. Of women who experienced career interruptions, 22.9 percent cited child care and 9.1 percent cited being a trailing spouse. And women were much more likely (52.9 percent to 5.6 percent) to anticipate a future career interruption due to child care responsibilities.

In looking at marital and parental status, men were more likely than women to be married and to have children. But given those gaps and the large gender gaps in career interruption due to childcare, one surprising figure in the survey is the percentage of men with children reporting that they are the primary caregiver -- not as high a percentage as women with children, but high. (Of course, it is self-reported.)

Marital and Child Status of Male and Female Anthropologists

  White Men White Women Non-White Men Non-White Women
Married or in domestic partnership 88% 73% 81% 59%
Has children 75% 58% 70% 40%
% with children under 18 reporting self as primary care-giver 59% 82% 72% 94%


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top