Universities are failing women when it comes to parental leave

March 4, 2021

Higher education doesn't necessarily give protection from cognitive decline as we age. (Unsplash/Matthew TenBruggencate)

Women's productivity in academia takes a sharp hit after they become mothers, while new fathers on average experience virtually no productivity penalty, according to a study of tenure-track faculty that researchers say underscores that universities must better support female academics.

Some potential solutions, the researchers said, include better family-leave policies and on-campus child care.

"The research is really about identifying, where are the specific structural things that make the playing field less level?" said Aaron Clauset, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

The paper, published Feb. 24 in Science Advances, drew on a survey of 3,064 tenure-track faculty and a review of 15 years worth of the respondents' publishing history, as well as an evaluation of family leave policies at the 450 American and Canadian Ph.D.-granting departments where they worked. 

The researchers found that over a 15-year period, early-career mothers in computer science, business and history departments produced, on average, 13.1, 3.5 and 3.1 fewer papers, respectively, than early-career fathers.

In 2016, a study published by the Institute of Labor Economics gained widespread attention for saying that gender-neutral parental leave policies disproportionately benefited men. That study — which only looked at economics professors — suggested that men used extra time intended for child care to boost their careers. 

"I love to complain about that study," Clauset said. "That paper was not able to look at, as we did, what happens at the event of parenthood." 

In the 2021 study conducted by Clauset and his colleagues, the disparity in the years after childbirth "just shows that on average, women experience this more systemically, more systematically, and for men, it washes out," he said. "Everyone in academia knows a father who used parental leave to write more papers or to write their book. But the fact that it ends up being sort of a wash implies that there are just as many men on the other side who are not getting as much done because they're actively involved in raising their children in that first period."

In the survey, women reported more often than men that they considered family leave policies when evaluating job offers, suggesting that institutions could attract more female scholars with simpler and more generous policies. While 45.9% of female faculty said leave was somewhat or very important when they accepted their position, only 20.6% of male faculty said the same. 

Allison Morgan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the lead author of the paper, told The Academic Times in an email that her work shows that the "complexity or nonexistence [of parental leave policies] can shape the composition of this workforce." Morgan was unavailable for a phone interview by press time.

Clauset, a father of a 10-year-old, a 5-year-old and a 10-month-old who's "at that really dangerous stage where she's curious about everything and has no fears," has taken family leave three times but did not consider it when he took his current job. 

"In retrospect, I realized that I got very lucky in where I ended up as faculty," he said. 

The University of Colorado implemented the policy recommended by the American Association of University Professors in 2001 — gender-neutral, no-questions-asked leave of one paid semester off teaching, service and research requirements and an option to stop the tenure clock. 

"Making that bar really low is great," Clauset said. "It means that people are willing to take it." 

In contrast, he found that at many universities, "It was sort of staggering how complicated these policies were."

The data Clauset used to evaluate many of the parental leave policies is now publicly available on his website.

"It was depressing because only about 60% of universities had any paid leave for faculty, and so in some places, like my friends who work [outside academia] who had to go back to work after two weeks, that would be the policy at a university," he said. 

If a person wanted more time off, Clauset added, they would have to invoke the Family and Medical Leave Act, use all of their sick leave and vacation time, negotiate for reduced duties or have a doctor certify that they're medically disabled. 

"All of these things create barriers in order to receive a benefit," he said.

The study, "The unequal impact of parenthood in academia," published Feb. 24 in Science Advances, was authored by Allison C. Morgan, Samuel F. Way, Michael J. D. Hoefer and Daniel B. Larremore, University of Colorado, Boulder; Aaron Clauset, University of Colorado, Boulder and Santa Fe Institute; and Mirta Galesic, Santa Fe Institute.

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