Motherhood Penalty in Academia

In late 2014, two sociologists were featured in the New York Times (NYT) talking about the “cultural bias against mothers” in the paid work force. Professor Michelle Budig’s research finds that high income men with kids enjoy the biggest career benefits while low-income women suffer as a result of having children. In part, this is because employers think that marriage and children makes men more stable, while women with children are stigmatised as being less reliable (employers see mothers as “flaky”). This stereotype goes back to the traditional male breadwinner model that arise during the Industrial Revolution, which became solidified in post-WWII period during the 1950s. People presume the model we know today has always existed but that’s not the case. Marketing and economic relations have made it seem as if married men are ideal workers, while women are supposedly made for care-giving. This is not the case, when we look to institutional barriers and employer biases.

Motherhood penalty
Motherhood penalty


Professor Shelley J. Correll’s research was also cited in the NYT. She sent out fake CVs with a line about being part of a parent-teacher association. CVs with women’s names were half as likely to get a call back as men. The presumption is that women are going to be too busy looking after their kids to devote themselves to the job. The flipside of this assumption is that, because women are socially expected to provide most of the primary care-giving in families, male employees will be free to work harder. In another study, Correll found that the starting wage offered to mothers was $13,000 less than for fathers, and $11,000 less than for childless women. On top of this are a range of other biases, that depend upon race and industry, with Black working class applicants suffering even more due to employer bias.

How does this situation look in academia? Well it’s not much better.

Fatherhood Bonus in Academia

Historian Robert Townsend’s study shows that married male historians move up quickly through the academic ladder while married women are pushed back. On average, married men achieve full professorship within 5.9 years. In comparison, married women took 7.8 years to become professors. A curious pattern emerges for unmarried academics: unmarried men took 6.4 years (so longer than married men, but much quicker than married women). Unmarried women took 6.7 years to get full tenure. Other studies show the same is true in other fields, like sociology. Clearly parenthood is a career asset to married men. Many people assume that women’s career suffer because they take time off to look after babies when they’re first born, but Townsend controlled for this and looked at other variables. Married academic women are more likely than married academic men to have a partner with a PhD. This means that men’s academic careers receive additional support by their (non-academic) wives in a way that’s not true for academic women with academic partners.

Townsend also finds that married academic women make “more career sacrifices” than men. While both men and women are spending the same amount of time on professional activities, women are putting in two to seven hours extra on childcare than men. Additionally, women are almost three times as likely as men to leave their positions to support their husband’s career. Given that men progress quicker in academia and therefore earn more money, this becomes a self-fulfilling cycle as women can’t get ahead. By the time they reach full professors, women are twice as likely as men to be divorced, thus placing a greater child-caring burden on women that married men don’t experience. Gender obscures how men and women perceive academia. While almost 85% of the male history professors think that their faculty treats women fairly, only 55% of women professors agreed.

Other research still shows that the logistics of being a mother make it harder to reach full potential in academia, from the lack of breastfeeding facilities at universities, to the types of socialising events that men and women participate in, to the opportunities to publish research, to the types of grants awarded, and so on.

Double Burden

Together these studies show that from working class jobs to academia, married women with children bear a “double burden” of inequality in the paid labour force, as well as additional work in the family. The two spheres of inequality reinforce one another. The additional social barriers faced by ethnic minorities and LGBTQI mothers is even greater.

To be clear, motherhood isn’t the problem. It’s the cultural bias against mothers, including active discrimination by employers; the way in which paid work is structured to favour men; and the systemic failure to recognise and reward the work of mothers.

This post was first published on my Google+ page.

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