A report by the National Academy of Sciences has gotten some attention this week, pointing out some of the causes of low female participation in the sciences and other math-heavy areas in higher education. I don’t want to bore you with statistics, so I hope you’ll trust me when I relate the finding that female participation starts out low and gets lower at each successive level (PhD, starting professorships, tenure-track positions, tenured positions).
Part of this has been attributed to choices (women tend to be more people-focused, so they go into medicine and life sciences while men are more object-oriented and go into fields like math, physics, and let’s say computer science to bring my pun full circle). Another chunk of this has been attributed to the increased difficulty in achieving tenure while having babies. (For those of you who don’t know, many tenure-track positions basically work like this: “In X years we’ll ask experts in your field how much you’ve contributed, and if it’s a lot, you’ve got a job for life, and if not, you’re fired.”) I’m not sure why this applies to sciency and mathy fields more than others, but it’s still a fair critique of academia in general.
The ensuing coverage of this NAS report has dragged another report into the discussion–a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). And this is where things get interesting: one recommendation that’s been getting a lot of attention is to provide certain benefits to female scholars who wish to pursue both a family and a tenured professorship. This would include potential benefits like part-time options and an extension of the tenure clock in the event of a birth.
One of the fundamental laws in economics and public policy is the Law of Unintended Consequences (though that’s a little dramatic). The basic principle is this: people respond to incentives, but not always in the way you expect or want them to. I think in some families, these extra benefits for women will actually HURT the female’s career. And here’s why:
Plenty of professors are married to other professors. There’s a lot of good reasons for this, including not having a life, being huge nerds, compatible intelligence levels, and spending most of your 20s and/or 30s so financially destitute that you can’t compete in the real-world dating market with all the well-to-do bankers, consultants, kindergarten teachers and convenience store clerks. So what happens when Mr. and Mrs. Professor decide to procreate? They geekily combine some genetic material, wait an appropriate gestation period, and voila, out pops offspring. Now they have to decide who’s going to do most of the caretaking for said offspring. For a whatever reasons, usually the woman gets most of these duties (I imagine it’s some combination of predisposition and not trusting the man to keep anything alive for more than a week). But not always. Sometimes the father is the primary caretaker, and other times it’s an even split. But what happens when females–and ONLY females–get these benefits the GAO is recommending? The happy couple now has a strong incentive to choose the female. While the benefits make pursuing a career and family easier, they don’t completely negate the damage done by taking a break from work.
Simply put, the benefits would lessen the damage done by taking time off to care for children, but if offered only to women, one might reasonably expect the number of women suffering damage to increase. How long do you think it will take quantitatively-oriented PhD-holding professors to figure out that the government just awarded women a comparative advantage in caring for babies? My guess is not that long.
So while it may be counter-intuitive, if you want to help women with these benefits, offer them to men who want to spend extra time with their kids too.