Unintended Help for Male Professors

Colleges adopted policies to stop the tenure clock to help professors who are new parents, especially mothers. Study suggests fathers may be the real beneficiaries.

June 27, 2016

Stopping the tenure clock is among the policies many colleges have adopted to support faculty members who are new parents. While most colleges' policies apply to all new parents, they are typically viewed as a way to especially help female faculty members, since women -- across American society -- have more child-care responsibilities than do men, not to mention the physical burdens of pregnancy and childbirth.

A new study, however, suggests that the biggest beneficiaries of the policies are male faculty members, and that the odds of a female faculty member earning tenure could go down when institutions enact policies to stop the tenure clock.

The study, "Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits From Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies?" was conducted in a limited subset of higher education: economics departments ranked among the top 50 in the United States. These are all departments that place a large emphasis on research. But the results are striking, and likely to alarm advocates for women in academe across a range of institutions.

The study was conducted by Heather Antecol of Claremont McKenna College, and Kelly Bedard and Jenna Stearns of the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was published by the Institute for the Study of Labor, a German research organization.

The study included data from 49 top economics departments and examined the impact of clock-stopping policies that are open (as has become the norm) to both male and female professors who become parents. Stopping the clock typically involves giving tenure candidates an extra year before they are evaluated for tenure. Notably, stopping the clock does not require a leave of absence, so the extra time covers a period when faculty members are in many cases working and being paid. The study was based on data about 1,299 assistant professors hired by these departments between 1985 and 2004.

The findings are based on comparing the tenure rates for male and female candidates before and after adopting clock-stopping policies that cover all faculty members who have a child. At these universities, only a minority of men and women were earning tenure prior to the adoption of the policies -- so earning tenure was not a given for anyone.

The bombshell finding was that, when comparing candidates for tenure, the success rate for male candidates increased by 19.4 percentage points after stopping the clock was offered. For women, the rate fell by 22.4 percentage points. (Many appeared to go on to win tenure at institutions whose economics departments were not as highly ranked as those where they started.) While each tenure case is unique, the authors did not find other changes in tenure policies to explain the numbers.

The authors of the paper then tried to look for factors that changed in the productivity or success of the job candidates. They found one factor: male professors, after adoption of stopping the clock policies, were more likely to publish in the top five economics journals, and women were not. This appeared to raise the tenure bar for all, but with men more able to get over that bar.

In economics, journal articles are the coin of the realm in tenure decisions, and top-ranked departments pay a lot of attention to which journals publish an assistant professor. The paper defines the top five journals as American Economic Review, Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics and Review of Economic Studies.

Trying to publish in those journals, while desirable to any up-and-coming economist, is also risky, due to their higher rejection rates than other journals. The authors of the new paper speculate that male economists who become fathers are taking the extra year on the tenure track not to nurture their offspring, but to write more articles and to have time to submit them to top journals. They then had time, if rejected by those journals, to submit elsewhere.

"These results imply that gender-neutral tenure-clock-stopping policies do not adequately reflect the true gender-specific productivity losses associated with having children," the paper says. "Men are more likely to be productive while their tenure clock is stopped and women are much less able to do so, yet they are treated equally under these policies. As a result, the policies actually increase the family gap in economics at research-intensive universities. Since tenure at a highly ranked school is a measure of professional success, this finding is important even if women are not more likely to leave the profession altogether."

Gender and Stopping the Clock

As stopping the clock spread as a tenure practice, others have studied the impact on male and female professors.

A study presented in 2012 at the inaugural meeting of the Work and Family Researchers Network suggested a negative impact for men.

Faculty members who use the benefit are more likely than others to earn tenure -- but may end up earning less than comparable colleagues who don't, the study found. The biggest salary impact was found to be on men.


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