Universities need to do more for women in math fields

Mar 22, 2011

Researchers at Cornell University say the numbers show that women are still underrepresented in math-heavy fields - which suggests that universities need to enact new policies.

You may remember the initial release of the study - we've been working to follow up with the husband and wife research team behind the data ever since.

Finally, after automotive breakdowns, a family bout of flu, and a near house-fire from a clogged laundry vent, Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams finally found time in their busy work-family schedule to sit down and talk about what might be done to make working-while-parenting a little bit easier. 

Ceci and Williams were surprised to find the biggest contributor to women’s underrepresentation in mathematical fields in the academy is not bias. It's the collision of the tenure calendar with a woman’s biological clock.

Here's an edited excerpt from our conversation.

Can you recap what appeared to be the cause of women’s underrepresentation in math fields?

Stephen Ceci: In our analysis, there are many factors involved in women’s underrepresentation. But the single largest explanatory factor was family formation. And what I mean by that is women struggling to balance work and family. Even though men are doing more today than they were 30 years ago, women still do the overwhelming share of childcare.

So that was the single biggest factor that women expressed repeatedly when they were in graduate school and on post-docs, that they were deciding not to go and compete for tenure track positions because they just didn’t think it was possible with also fulfilling their goals of having a family.

Wendy Williams: It strikes me that there’s two ways to accomplish having children if a woman chooses to and one is to have them very young, maybe at 21, 22, 23, delay grad school somewhat, and that way when a woman enters the workforce, takes an assistant professorship, her children are old enough that they don’t require the same commitment of time on a daily basis. This is an extremely unusual path to take, for women who eventually do go on to a PhD.

The other is pretty obvious. And that is to wait to the very end of the reproductive lifespan and have children at 37, 38, 40. And that’s pretty common as a choice. Because it allows a woman to get out of grad school, build a career, get an assistant professorship, get tenure and then have a child (or children) at the very end of her reproductive years, when she has more time to devote to it. And modern medicine fortunately is helping women to circumvent some of the problems [associated with that].

But I don’t see having children in the middle of an assistant professorship as being a tenable path for most women. And that was the key finding that we arrived at: that women are making a choice. They’re being forced to make a choice. Men are not forced to make it.

What are your takeaways were in terms of recommendations or policy?

Stephen Ceci: There are various policy commissions and working groups in various disciplines that have proposed a number of strategies that would be more family-friendly. For example summer childcare – if you’re say a mathematician or someone, and you’re really depending on the summer to publish papers and attend conferences and so on, you really need to have someone who’s going to take care of children during vacations, during the school year, after-school programs.  Also re-entry grants – if a woman goes on maternity leave and stays out for the first say year after her child is born, in some cases she may need a re-entry training grant. She may need a post doc [assistant] while she’s out on maternity leave, who can run her lab.

Probably the most important one is more flexibility in the tenure schedule.  That’s a very rigid, lockstep, graded process. You’re hired. You have 5 or 6 years to prove yourself - to publish, get grants and so on, and then you get evaluated for tenure and it’s 'in' or 'out'. A woman could be offered half-time tenure track until she feels ready to segue to full time. So if it takes 5 years before you get tenure working full time. Maybe she goes ten years at half time, and then gets evaluated for tenure.

Wendy Williams: If women fail or are only marginally successful in their academic work because of the demands of having children, they then are in a sense removed from the elite of the academy and are put in less optimal jobs where they do a lot of teaching and a lot of service. They don’t earn as much money and they don’t have job security. And so you pay a price as a woman for a choice you made in your late 20's and early 30's and you pay a price forever. You can never get back in the game. And the question has to be whether that is an essential component of life in the academy or whether that can be questioned and changed.

Q: You’re in an unusual position as a couple doing this research. How has that impacted the way you see what you’re researching?

Wendy Williams: I think in my case because I didn’t start studying women in science until my youngest child was five years old, that I had already made all the egregious errors that we read about. I had already  committed all the sins and made all the mistakes, so it was the other way around. It was making the mistakes and suffering with it, with my own children, that informed my choice of research topic and how I look at the research.  Instead of reading about great answers and solutions and research informing my personal life. So I’m sort of a day late and dollar short, but unfortunately for me that’s the way it happened.

What research questions are left for you and others to follow up on?

Stephen Ceci: There’s actually a shortage of women in senior leadership positions across the board.

And, in fact, there was a very interesting story in the New York Times, a European analysis of women in medicine. And they were saying that in these European countries, it’s as high as like 60 percent of women getting their MDs, however country after country, they were reporting that women MDs were much more likely than male MDs to work part time. Because they had children. They get pregnant during their residencies. And in Germany they were saying that this is creating a real problem, especially in rural areas, because you may only have one physician that you can reach, and if she’s only working half-time while her kids are young, then they need to hire more physicians, essentially. So there are people all over the place that are looking at those sorts of issues. How does having children in law, medicine, business impact your ability to reach the upper echelons in your field?

Wendy Williams: I think there are two areas of research that are important right now. One is the institutional angle. So by that I mean that people can track the initiation of new policies and watch what happens over time and see if it has an effect in the intended direction, if it’s successful.

The other area of research is psychological. Just because Steve and I did not find outright bias against women in their work products, their grant proposals, their manuscripts or against them in interviewing and hiring, this does not mean there are no differences in the way women and men are treated or conceptualized by their advisors in graduate school or by their senior colleagues once they’re hired. I’m interested in exploring more subtle aspects of how the educational environment differs for graduate students depending on gender, and how early career years differ, and what we can do to make optimal choices that benefit both women and men while accepting that both women and men are different.