Women In Academia

Women in Academia: the Tenure Track Drop-Off

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), in 2004, women received 42% of the doctorates in science and engineering fields but made up less than 18% of all tenured positions (Dirks and Cunningham, 2006). I apologize that I do not have the numbers on hand for the social sciences and humanities, but reports from Harvard and Princeton about their respective institutions suggest that women are better represented in those fields, but not by much. I’m sure we’ve all experienced or seen the factors that lead to this disparity, so academic-pals, let’s talk about whether or not tenure is in our future and why.I’m not really expecting to hit all the issues now, but I figured it’d be good to just sort of go ahead and jump in. I expect the comments to provide a lot of great insight as they have basically every week I’ve done this thing. It’s just that it’s hard to parse these issues out without additional input, even within the graduate community that I interact with here on campus. Many of the seminars focusing on women in academia tend to focus on the family-forming aspects. Honestly, bias against hiring women with children coupled with the difficulty of juggling family and career probably plays a role in the disparity between men and women in tenure track positions. I don’t have children, but I have conversations with women who try to plan conception ““ dissertation writing year seems like a popular time, as does the first year or two after being hired into a tenure track position. Men do not express these concerns.

Compounding the issue, recent studies suggest that female scientists, when coupled, still do about 54% of the housework (yay! Almost parity!). But let’s compare that to male scientists with partners ““ BAM! They do only 28% of the housework. Just from a selfish standpoint, how the heck can I compete with someone who has, on average, five extra hours of free time a week (Schiebinger and Gilmartin, 2010)? Five hours, they don’t even have to be spent on work. If I had five extra hours a week to unwind, man, I don’t know, I guess I’d spend more time online or reading bad books, but ideally, I’d spend it enhancing my life in real and productive ways.

But even without these temporal obstacles, women tend not to be as drawn to academia as men. That’s the part that I find most interesting: what are we responding to that drives us away? To some extent, there’s the OBC (old boy’s club) mentality. Then there’s the emphasis on women to pursue careers that add to the social good, you know, community involvement, “giving back.” Honestly, with the recent emphasis on strengthening broader impacts sections (basically, how will you use your research to build a strong community outreach program) in grant applications, I am beginning to see that this ivory tower vs. community involvement dichotomy is false. It’s still marketed as real, but there is a lot of potential for giving back within academia. Heck, even without having complex outreach plans, female faculty members can serve as models for future women academics.

Personally, I’m not sure if I’m going to stay in academia when I’m done with my doctorate. I’m really torn about it. One the one hand, I feel like there is so much I could do outside of academia and I don’t know if the constant fight for funding is for me. Honestly, I sometimes don’t feel like I “belong” in academia, and I know I am not alone in that. On the other hand, I like what I do and I love teaching/working with undergrads/having access to all these cool resources.

So how about you? Do you want to get a tenure track position? Why or why not? What are your experiences in navigating a career in academia?


21 replies on “Women in Academia: the Tenure Track Drop-Off”

A general worry about the two body problem and academic women. I’ve noticed that academic couples almost always end of compromising someone’s career- and it’s nearly always the woman in a het couple. Even when she is more talented! Good thing my partner is a nurse- he can and offers go wherever my career takes me!

I do want a tenure track job someday, but I’m willing to compromise about where. A top tier research school would be toward the bottom of my list. I’m in the humanities, so I do want to publish and contribute, but mostly I want to teach and engage students in new and interesting ideas about my field. I don’t want to get sucked into ten years of publish or perish and miss time with my partner or our potential future children. Also I’m a little concerned there won’t be any TT jobs left when I finish graduate school, so I don’t want to get my heart too set on one.

The reason I left academia had less to do with obstacles around being a woman (I’m not all that interested in kids, which makes academia or other time-intensive careers a bit of an easier decision) and more to do with the huge divide between academics studying my subject and the practitioners of it. But I suppose that’s a little off topic, so I’ll save it for another day. I did enjoy reading this post.

I’m t-6 months or so until the end of my PhD in politics/IR, and I’m almost certainly going to jump ship (maybe after a postdoc, but it depends if this one postdoc works out – otherwise I’m off to work in policy). I can’t bear the thought of a future spent frantically grasping for funding and, more importantly, I loathe my subject’s increasingly desperate attempts to justify its existence by retreating into ever more deductive, theoretical and abstract crap. I’m not saying there’s no room for the kind of IR that’s all regression analyses and models, but it can’t be the only orthodoxy. As I’ve said in other posts, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my male-dominated department is constantly trying to become more like other male-dominated fields (economics) and less like the supposedly ‘fluffier’ disciplines from which we can equally borrow a lot (sociology in particular). By contrast I’m taking a break right now to work in policy and although it can be a bit of a boys’ club too, I feel significantly more as if I’m being judged on my problem-solving skills, rather than on whether I’m doing the fashionable thing or not.

Then there’s the life aspect. The policy/think tank world is pretty unstable, but at least it’s all based in major cities – London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin. I’m getting married in a few months and neither myself nor RahBoy have any interest in living in some crazy town in the middle of nowhere because that’s the only place there’s a job for me. Serious academic careers almost require you to have a spouse willing to tag along after you everywhere you go, and it’s just not worth it to me.

Aha! Another political scientist. Having come into my grad program after working in politics for a few years, I found the whole thing to be incredibly frustrating. Models are so abstract and leave out important real world implications so they can do some fancy math, and as a result, no one actually practicing politics wants to take a chance on using those results. So who are political scientists writing for? Each other? It was maddening while I was studying and researching, but now that I’ve returned to the field, it’s maddening in a different way because no one wants to hear about political science literature offering suggestions or solutions that might actually be of use in practice.

Sorry, @Ailanthus-altissima, I guess I went off the rails anyway.

No need to apologize at all. Your comment and this discussion here are on target and interesting. The divide between academia and “real world” practitioners in various fields was something that I had thought about briefly but didn’t get to address completely, in large part because I am still sorting it out for myself. This conversation is super fruitful.

It’s funny because when I took some courses in the sociology department, things there were much more fluid between the two groups – some of the professors in the department even consulted on the side on practical projects. It seems to differ radically by field, and political science just happens to have a giant, gaping chasm between people who study it and people who “do” it.

I’d really like to check out working at a higher-education think tank (or an education think tank more generally), because I think it could offer a lot of things I’m excited about minus the problems of academia, but on the other hand academia offers a lot of things I want, too.

I’m a graduate assistant in a humanities department and I was originally planning on pursuing a PhD. I love my research, I love sharing my subject with undergraduate students, and I love our community. While there are more male scholars in my field, women have a pretty strong position in it too. What I just can’t get past is the uppity attitude that some people in academia have.

I know there will always be uppity people in other lines of work, but I guess because I too feel like to don’t “belong” in academia it bothers me more. What I LOVE about teaching is the dialectical relationship between teacher and student, where we are both teaching and learning from each other. Sometimes, it feels like some academics just want to prove to other exceedingly bright people how exceedingly bright they are.

But I do also see the field trying to reach out to the community more and that makes me feel better.

I did read the Chronicles of Higher Ed until I felt that the whole thing was a very bitter tirade about how the sky is falling. It’s important to be aware of the reality of job prospects, costs, etc, but it was more negative than necessary.

In my field, the ivory tower elitism is found more in younger scientists than in people who’ve been working a while and have had the opportunity to have that elitist attitude knocked out of them. But it is very grating. I mentioned this last week, the the elitist attitude extends not just to people outside of academia, but also to people within it who happen to be in “softer” disciplines/subdisciplines. It’s so fractured.

Hey there- I don’t know which one of the humanities you work in, but I used to work in literature, and jumped ship for (analytic) philosophy of science- I know, weird transition! I’m much, much, much happier. I fit in so much better (I went from mostly trendy ladies to mostly nerdy men)- no one makes fun of my grammar or my taste in music or other class-markers. It’s ironic that the disipline that introduced me to Marxism was so elitist! Anyways, you might poke around related fields/other departments. Sometimes you can still work on what you love and avoid the snot-itude.

I’m a 4th year grad student in the biological sciences and I definitely do not want a tenure track position.

My adviser is young faculty and seeing him jump through the hoops makes TT positions seem so unappealing. Plus it seems like the further up you go, the less time you have for the stuff that original made me want to be a scientist. Most PIs are rarely, if ever, in the lab and I just don’t want to spend the majority of my time behind a desk writing grants and dealing with students.

Then there’s the job security factor which is a huge issue for me. Universities are producing more PhDs than there are academic jobs, so there’s fierce competition for positions, which means I would probably have to compromise a lot on where I go for a job (not to mention the two body problem). Then once I actually get a TT track job I’d actually have to get, well, tenure. And if I don’t get tenure then all of the work towards building my academic career is basically wasted.

Honestly, it just doesn’t seem to be worth the effort (or generally a clear path to a stable and happy life).

” Universities are producing more PhDs than there are academic jobs, so there’s fierce competition for positions, which means I would probably have to compromise a lot on where I go for a job (not to mention the two body problem).”

This is something I’ve thought about, too. While I have some flexibility in where I want to be geographically, the idea of being stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere because that’s the only place that needs me is off-putting. Further, the idea that me (and my partner) are at the whims of the hiring-gods, moreso than many other careers, makes it a lot more difficult to plan long term. With post-docs and the like, it’ll be another 5-6 years before I can settle down to the point of being able to plan a future. And that’s frustrating.

I think about this a lot. I’m in the last year that I can be a post-doc at my university. I don’t want a tenure track position- my boss had her third child two weeks ago, and she’s already back in the lab. Her mom and her husband are caring for the child until he’s old enough to go into daycare. Although, she seems to thrive off of working that hard.

I work in a dept in the social sciences at Harvard, and this is what I find fascinating: our lecturers are 50/50 men and women across all ethnicities. But the standing committee is 95% white men. There are also two women and one black male. Lecturers only are allowed a three-year appointment, so all the awesome people at the bottom–meaning, all the people the students actually interact with–have to leave after three years, since getting a tenure-track offer is ridiculously difficult, and my dept can’t offer any, since we’re not a “full” dept.
We’re in the middle hiring right now, and it’s a constant struggle with trying to diversify the dept, yet picking the most qualified candidates, knowing we can only give them three years.

I’m consistently in awe of the women I work with, and I applaud all you Ph.D students out there who are fighting your way through the barriers of academia.

I’m a Graduate student in the Sciences. I’ve always wanted to run my own lab, teach classes etc.

Why? Because I love the environment of a university. It’s also in my blood a bit, because my dad is a professor in a university.

Also, one think I want to mention, the choice that women have to make between children and career scares the shit out of me. I love science and I love kids, I don’t want to sacrifice one for the other. I hope that one day, women don’t need to make this choice.

I’m a scientist who went to a top-tier PhD program and that alone made me not want a tenure-track job in academia. Why? It seems physically impossible to be great at teaching AND research. There just aren’t enough hours in the day (and I should know – my amazing advisor slept 4 hours a night and couldn’t “do it all”). So I choose to do just half of that equation, and it’s STILL a lot to master. Maybe women are just less satified with being only satisfactory in some aspects of their job.

But let me add, as a busy single lady, the housework was the first to ball to fall.

me too! As a grad student, I’ve become a sloppy housekeeper. Good thing I have an awesome advisor in his late 70’s who is an ardent feminist- he told me right at the beginning that cleaning would and should be the first thing to go, and not to feel bad about it, because the guys certainly don’t.

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