Women’s Equality Day — marking the 96th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote — is a time to reflect both on the progress that has been made on gender equality and on how much work still remains.
As academics, we are well aware that gender gaps continue to exist on American campuses. It is true that female students now outnumber male students, and also that more women earn professional degrees compared to men. But it is also true that only 28 percent of tenured faculty are women.
Tenure represents a permanent job contract. It usually takes about six or seven years of being on tenure track — a probationary period during which a junior professor’s publication record, teaching ability and departmental service are monitored and assessed — to get tenure.
In recent years, many research universities have adopted more “family-friendly” tenure rules aimed at helping women balance family and career. Our research shows that despite such policies, gender equality remains elusive in academia when it comes to tenure consideration. Rather, some of these policies are helping men, not women.
For most people, the tenure process occurs during their late 20s and early 30s. These years typically align with women’s prime child-bearing years. This can hinder women’s research productivity and thus reduce their chances of earning tenure.
More generally, having children could reduce the probability of being promoted in a variety of professions. Women’s early career productivity could fall due to the time time spent in child bearing and child care.
However, the problem might be particularly acute at research universities where research productivity during the few years before the tenure decision is especially important.
In response, during the 1990s and 2000s many research institutions adopted “gender-neutral tenure clock-stopping policies.” These policies were intended to make it easier for women who have children to earn tenure.
The policies are gender-neutral: That is, they allow parents of either gender to avail their benefits. They allow new parents to extend their terms as assistant professors. They stop the tenure clock for one year for each new child, up to a maximum of two.
In other words, new parents get more time before they have to go up for tenure. These policies are independent of leave-taking, meaning that assistant professors can continue to work while gaining the extra time on their tenure clocks.
The idea is to allow new parents to make up for lost research time. And also, so women and men should not need to sacrifice family for career, and vice versa.
We recently conducted a study, “Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies,” on these tenure clock-stopping policies.
Our study focuses on economics professors – a very male-dominated field. A 2014 survey by the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) shows that in economics, women constitute 30 percent of assistant professors, 23 percent of tenured associate professors and only 12 percent of full professors.
Gender-neutral policies are believed to reduce stigma about use by encouraging male participation, at least with regard to economics faculty. We believe one of the primary reasons universities have adopted gender-neutral policies is that there was low take-up under policies that only applied to women.
However, we found no evidence that they have helped women earn tenure.
In fact, we found the policy — designed to help women get tenure — instead raised male tenure rates, at least in top economics departments.
The probability of a man getting tenure in his first job increased by 19 percentage points after such a policy was adopted. By contrast, the probability of a female academic getting tenure fell by 22 percentage points.
We believe male publication rates rise with the extra time, but female publication rates do not.
So, these gender-neutral policies are equal in the sense that they give the same benefit to women and men who have children. But they are inequitable in that the time cost (or productivity loss) experienced by men and women is quite different.
For example, it is women who become pregnant, experience morning sickness, give birth and breastfeed. As such, we believe, giving an equal extension without an equal productivity loss might better be described as unequal. And it is certainly less than clear that it will level the playing field in terms of tenure rates.
Although our results represent a single discipline, they certainly raise concerns that this could be a problem across a broad range of fields. Female tenure rates are lower across almost all academic disciplines. In science disciplines, men who have children before tenure are 24 percentage points more likely to earn tenure compared to women with children. And in the humanities and social sciences, men with children are 20 percentage points more likely to earn tenure.
Our results suggest we might want to rethink these policies. One of the arguments in favor of “gender-neutral clock-stopping” policies stems from women having been discouraged — by their male colleagues — from taking advantage of policies that apply to mothers only.
Our research findings, based in the discipline of economics, do raise the question whether extending equal benefits to men and women is equitable in practice. We also don’t know if these policies had a similar effect in other disciplines with different publication requirements.
While it is easy to instruct the people making tenure decisions to ignore the additional time on the tenure clock, it is not as easy to know how it actually affects their thinking about the tenure case and hence their evaluation.
In theory, gender-neutral policies that attempt to level the playing field by adjusting measures of productivity to account for early child-rearing sound promising. However, as our research shows, such policies could have unintended consequences that actually hurt women.
We believe university administrators need to reopen the discussion on tenure policies, and the extent to which these benefits are extended to men and women.
But universities are not the only places where family-friendly policies may have unintended consequences. Lawyers, financial professionals and doctors are also likely to be promoted based on early measures of success. Evidence shows family gaps in each of these professions, especially among top earners.
As we move on from Friday's Women’s Equality Day, let us emphasize the need for more family-friendly policies to create a more level playing field for high-skill professionals who face rigid and important promotion decisions early in their careers.
Kelly Bedard, Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Barbara; Heather Antecol, Boswell Professor of Economics, Claremont McKenna College, and Jenna Stearns, Ph.D. Student, University of California, Santa Barbara