Which Groups Are Favored?

In hiring of tenure-track STEM instructors, female, black and Latino academics have an edge, while Asians are at a disadvantage. But the picture for tenure is more nuanced -- and women with young children lose out.

April 20, 2015

Last week a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stunned many with its conclusion that women are more likely than men to be hired for faculty positions in science, mathematics and technology. To many who are familiar with the widespread reports of bias against women in STEM, the findings just didn't make sense.

This weekend another study was released at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association -- and this new study also found that men (and specifically white men) do not have the advantage that many assume they do in being hired in STEM fields. Women and black and Latino researchers instead have an advantage, the study found. It also found an apparent disadvantage for Asian researchers starting their careers.

The research suggests mixed patterns for those who are not white men when it comes to winning tenure. And women with a young child (a demographic group that includes many women) appear to be at a disadvantage in hiring and tenure.

The PNAS study was based on an experiment in which scientists were asked to evaluate fictional candidates for faculty jobs, identical in every way except for their names, which indicated whether they were men or women.

The study released at AERA is based on real people and what happened to them. The findings use data from the national Survey of Doctorate Recipients from 1993 through 2010, and focused on length of time for the various academics to obtain a tenure-track position and then to earn tenure. The latest study is by three scholars at the University of Wisconsin at Madison's Wisconsin Center for Education Research: Mark R. Connolly, You-Geon Lee and Julia N. Savoy.

Their findings:

  • Black and Latino Ph.D.s were more likely to be hired promptly than were white doctorate recipients. Asian doctoral recipients, in turn, were "significantly less likely" to be hired than were white doctoral recipients. The authors speculate that this reflects the relatively small number of black and Latino Ph.D. recipients in STEM and policies at many colleges and universities designed to encourage hiring of minority professors. Asian Ph.D.s do not benefit, because they "continue to be overrepresented," the paper says, given that they make up 8.4 percent of full-time faculty members and 5.6 percent of the U.S. population. In some ways, the hiring of black and Latino doctorates is an "encouraging" sign of progress, the authors write.
  • Black assistant professors have a "persistent disadvantage" in receiving tenure, creating a "revolving door" for black academics in STEM fields. The study suggests that this points to the need for enhanced efforts at "minimizing isolation through better mentoring and stronger collegiality."
  • Women have an advantage in obtaining tenure-track positions, but appear to have some disadvantage, on average, in obtaining tenure. "One implication of our finding is that the nature of sex inequality has changed over time as women doctorates’ representation is growing," the authors write. "While this does not mean that sex inequality already disappeared, it is evident that the opportunity structure for women’s academic careers has changed."
  • Women with young children continue to face a "baby penalty." Those with a child under the age of 6 face a "persistent and significant disadvantage" in obtaining tenure-track positions, and those who do obtain one also face a disadvantage in winning tenure. The paper suggests that the phrase "baby penalty" is accurate because women with children aged 6-17 appear to be more likely than other women to obtain a tenure-track job and face no notable impact on odds of earning tenure.

The authors end their report by asserting that they see both real progress in equity in faculty hiring and tenure in STEM, but also lingering challenges. "Our study found that, compared with prior research, conditions for women and persons of color in the pathway to and through a tenure-track academic career may have slightly improved over the past 20 years," the paper says. "Nonetheless, our findings suggest the persistent lack of equity in faculty hiring and tenure processes must still be acknowledged, resisted and overcome."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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