Equal Start, Less Equal Progress in Social Sciences

Women begin post-Ph.D. careers with same success levels as men, but face significant differences in terms of work-family balance, new analysis finds.
August 21, 2008

Women could be poised to assume "equal footing" in the social sciences, and are starting their academic careers at levels of equity with men, a new report finds. But at the same time, gaps in progress appear for women within 10 years of earning their Ph.D.'s -- and women in the social sciences differ significantly from men in terms of the impact of work/family balance, the report finds.

"Finally Equal Footing for Women in Social Science Careers?," by the University of Washington Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education, is based on data from "Social Science Ph.D.'s Five+ Years Out," as well as from the Survey of Earned Doctorates. For purposes of the study, the disciplines covered were anthropology, communication, geography, history, political science and sociology. Economics, which was not included, generally has smaller proportions of women than do other social science fields.

Many disciplinary organizations have been analyzing the status of women in their fields, and this latest report is an attempt to broaden the discussion by looking at a group of disciplines together -- and in particular to examine disciplines that have seen huge changes in the last generation in terms of gender participation. In 2005, women earned 45 percent of the Ph.D.'s awarded in the social sciences fields studied, up from 27 percent in 1980 and 10 percent in 1966. With women now a majority of new doctorates in fields such as anthropology, the report attempts to see how they are progressing in their careers.

Generally, the evidence is very positive for women -- as their careers start. Women are slightly more likely than men to have their first jobs on the tenure track (42 percent vs. 40 percent) and slightly less likely than men to have faculty jobs off the tenure track (26 percent vs. 28 percent). But these figures reverse themselves 6 to 10 years after a Ph.D., at which point men are more likely to have tenure or jobs outside of academe (generally with higher salaries than those for professors) and women are more likely to have jobs off the tenure track.

Employment Status by Gender 6-10 Years After Ph.D. in Social Sciences

Job Status Women Men
Tenured 30% 33%
Tenure-track, but not tenured 32% 32%
Non-tenure track 13% 9%
Other academic 8% 6%
Business, government or nonprofit 17% 20%

While not answering definitively why this gap appears, the report notes significant differences for men and women in marriage (or partnerships) and family life.

Men are more likely to be married 6-10 years out (79 percent to 71 percent). But the more significant difference may be who male and female social scientists marry. Women still "marry up," the report says, noting that women in the survey are much more likely to be married to fellow Ph.D.'s while men are more likely to be married to people with less education than they have.

Just this week, a Stanford University study noted that academic woman at top research universities are more likely than their male counterparts to be married to fellow academics -- and noted that this makes their career advancement in academe more difficult as they need to navigate dual-career issues. The study on the social sciences suggests that this situation extends well beyond the top universities examined by Stanford.

Educational Attainment of Partners of Social Science Ph.D.'s

  Women Men
Partner has Ph.D. 34% 17%
Partner has other doctoral degree (M.D., J.D. etc.) 10% 7%
Partner has master's degree 27% 35%
Partner has bachelor's degree or less 29% 41%

Perhaps not surprisingly, in light of those statistics, women in the social sciences are more likely than men to report that they changed jobs because their partner needed to move for professional reasons.

About three-fourths of the social scientists studied -- men and women alike -- said that they wanted to be parents. But 6 to 10 years out, men were more likely (66 percent to 61 percent) to have become parents. And of those who wanted to become parents, half of all women had delayed parenthood for career-related reasons -- more than twice the figure for men.

The study was prepared by Elizabeth Rudd, Emory Morrison, Joseph Picciano and Maresi Nerad. In an interview Wednesday, Rudd said that the question of "equal footing" still hadn't been answered. She said that, if Ph.D. production continues with equal numbers of men and women, some of the gaps in job experience and personal choices may also change. But that clearly hasn't happened yet, said Rudd, a research scientist at the University of Washington.

New equity measures may be needed, she said. When men and women are equally likely to delay childbirth or in other family/work balance issues, she said, "that will be an important indicator."


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