ATLANTA -- Why are some disciplines more successful than others at attracting female faculty members and having them rise through the ranks? After decades of discussion of gender equity in the professoriate, increasing attention is going to the phenomenon that disciplinary patterns differ -- both in attracting a critical mass of women and in their satisfaction levels.
Research presented this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association explores some of those differences, including patterns in becoming (or not becoming) parents, and the impact that different combinations of parenthood and marital status have on academic careers. In many of the comparisons in two research papers presented here, men (or certain kinds of men) have clear advantages, but they are not uniform and many men say they are also facing significant issues related to work-family balance.
One study examined physicists and biologists. The study -- by Anne E. Lincoln of Southern Methodist University and Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University -- was based on a survey of faculty members at the 20 top-ranked graduate programs in both physics and biology. While men are in the majority for both fields, women make up 43 percent of biologists in the departments and only 20 percent of the physicists. The men and women in the study differed in key family characteristics. Men were more likely to be married (83 percent vs. 72 percent) while women were more likely to be divorced (22 percent vs. 16 percent). Men had only slightly more children than did women in the two fields, with men having an average of just over two children, and women just under two.
While the gap in numbers of children was small, attitudes about children and careers were notably different. Of the women in the survey, 45 percent said they had fewer children than they would have liked because of their scientific careers. Only 24 percent of men felt that way. While the numbers show that these regrets are much more prevalent among women, the authors of the paper wrote that they found the male regrets to be "striking." In fact, the title they gave to their presentation was "Male Scientists Want to Be Fathers."
In another finding that they noted reflected both the increased pressure on women as well as the pressure on many men, they said that 48 percent of women and 32 percent of men believed that aiming for work/family balance had hindered their scientific careers. The authors of the paper stressed the importance of these disciplines and others recognizing that work-family balance isn't just a women's issue.
In fact, they noted that while there wasn't a strong correlation between women's concerns about not having as many children as they would like and their life happiness, there was a strong negative correlation for the male scientists who wished they had more children.
At the same time, Susan J. Ferguson of Grinnell College, the discussant for the paper, raised a question of whether the figures might understate the impact of the issue on women. The women surveyed, she said, went ahead with scientific careers despite, in many cases, having been told that doing so might make it difficult for them to have the number of children they might like. Might there be another cohort, she asked, of women who -- because of that knowledge -- abandoned academic science altogether?
Consistent with a recent study  by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education , the paper found that there wasn't a clear correlation between the gender split in the fields and the satisfaction of women within them. While women make up a much larger share of the biology faculty than of the physics faculty, the women in the two disciplines were equally likely to be married, had roughly the same number of children on average and had similar perspectives on impediments in their careers. (There were actually more differences among men in the two fields, with male biologists more likely than male physicists to be married, have children and work longer hours -- and slightly less likely to be happy in their careers.)
Premiums and Penalties for Parents
Another paper presented at the same session explored whether there are parenthood premiums and penalties in academic salaries. The researchers -- using national data from faculty at four-year institutions, and excluding some specialized fields such as medicine and theology -- found that the patterns in academe don't follow the national trends, in which women with children generally earn less, and many men with children generally earn more, than other comparable employees in their organizations.
Linda Grant of the University of Georgia, who presented the paper she co-wrote with Kimberly Kelly of Mississippi State University, noted that many experts would expect science fields to be particularly likely to impose a penalty in average salaries on mothers with children. After all, she noted that academic science has many of the characteristics of what sociologists call "greedy institutions" -- those that demand absolute loyalty of time and commitment.
But Grant and Kelly found no premium or penalty based on parenthood alone among faculty members in mathematics and science fields. To the extent that there are unexplained salary differentials in these fields, they punish single women -- with the greatest damage to single women who are parents.
Among faculty members outside of math and science fields, they found different patterns. Married men, controlling for other factors, appear to have a salary advantage, with the greatest advantage going to men with children. The greatest disadvantage goes to single women without children.
Before scientists start boasting that they are more equitable than their counterparts elsewhere in academe, they may want to consider one theory Grant and Kelly offer to explain their findings -- which is consistent with Ferguson's response to the other paper. "STEM disciplines may indeed be such 'greedy' institutions that anyone who enters them, to be successful, must manage personal life in such a way or subordinate personal concerns so that work always will be central in their lives," they write.
Both pairs of authors -- and audience members -- suggested that the findings suggested a need for more drilling down into the data, with a focus on differing patterns by discipline and family status, given all of the variables involved. But the general consensus was that, while the research suggests the flaws of across-the-board statements about the way academe treats women or parents or scientists, significant differences in the treatment and experience of various subgroups require attention.