How the Tenure Track Discriminates Against Women

October 27, 2000

Thirty years ago, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild predicted that the proportion of tenured female faculty members would rise at a snail's pace, despite a sharp increase in the number of women earning advanced academic degrees.

She was right. In 1995, according to the most recent federal statistics available, women held only 26 percent of tenured academic posts. Studies also show that women are less likely to receive tenure than men: while the rate at which men earn tenure has climbed sharply since 1975, the rate for women has not.

What's going on here? The problem lies in the way we define the ideal worker in academe: as someone who can move anywhere from Massachusetts to New Mexico, and can work like a fiend until tenure is granted -- or denied -- at around age 35.

In the old days, these job requirements did not bar advancement of the men and women who took academic jobs. Men were not affected because male academics had wives without careers who cared for the children and moved from place to place as their husband's job required. Female academics back then were not hurt either, because, by in large, they were single and childless.

Then came the fly in the ointment: working wives. Suddenly the system did not work. For years women have been graduating from many Ph.D. programs in roughly equal numbers to men, but so many drop out before they get tenure, or are denied it, that the percentage of tenured women rises very slowly. Why?

Let's first consider why women drop out. Take a woman who toils through eight years of post-graduate education and gets a coveted tenure-track position at age 30. Then she hears her biological clock ticking louder than her tenure clock: she has a baby. She's under pressure to publish her first book. She comes home at 5 p.m., plays with the baby, and sits down again at her computer after the baby goes to bed at 7:30. But then she is asked onto committees, to run a speaker series, to join a prestigious reading group.

She does it all: she's a superstar. Gradually she finds herself committed to professional activities three to four nights a week. Now the baby is two, and she's beginning to think about having another. Meanwhile, the department has hired a young man who works every waking minute: his wife is at home with the kids. She knows she can't compete with that, so she makes the rational choice. She quits the tenure track.

If this example tells us why women are more likely to quit before tenure, it also helps explain their lower tenure rates. Suppose she had stayed, and refused to run the speaker series. Or turned down committee assignments. Or decided to take on both, and made up for time away from her family by rushing home at 3 p.m. to spend "quality time" with the kids. Suppose she got pregnant again, and found herself confined to bed. Her colleagues were glad to pitch in, but once the baby is born they feel she "never really bounced back." She is hurried, always in a rush -- not as collegial as she used to be. Perhaps that's enough to be denied tenure. Even if it's not, perhaps she finds she simply doesn't have enough time to write. Or suppose she grows demoralized by the perception that she's "not living up to her promise." There are so many ways in which work and family conflicts can end up fueling a denial of tenure.

Mothers in academe are disadvantaged by the way we define the ideal worker as someone who can move at will and needs no time off for childbearing or child-rearing. That definition disadvantages women in three basic ways, the most straightforward of which is that most women need time off for childbirth.

Most also need time off for child-rearing, because American women still do the bulk of the child care. We judge a mother -- and she judges herself -- by whether she is there for her children. That's why, according to Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who is conducting research on how Americans use their time, 92 percent of mothers ages 25 to 45 work less than 50 hours a week -- the key years of career (and child) development.

Last but not least, the ideal academic is someone who can make the right moves at the right time, quite literally. This describes many men but few women. One poll found that 71 percent of women thought they should relocate if their husband received a very good job in a different city; another found that half of women, and two-thirds of men, put the husband's career first.

Designing our work ideals around men's bodies, and their life patterns -- their relative immunity from child care, their felt entitlement to move their families to take a better job -- discriminates against mothers. And, because 90 percent of women become mothers during their working lives, discrimination against mothers reflects discrimination against women as a group.

Ideals of sex equality are not the only ideals at stake in the current conflict between work and family. Most of us believe that children need and deserve time with their parents. Although compared with other professionals, academics are less tied to their desks and have tremendous time flexibility, often they find that the overall workload is so heavy that their flexibility seems less than one might think. From graduate students to full professors, academics not married to homemakers often feel caught between a work world that expects 12-hour days and the strong cultural expectation that raising children takes time. Our jobs are sized too big to give our children the time we feel they need.

We can either change jobs or change home demands. Let's discuss home demands first.

Renegotiating with your partner. Women typically fare worse than men in the conflict between work and family. American mothers typically handle two-thirds of the child care and the housework. If this describes you, start by making a list of everything you do, and everything your partner does. Then talk turkey about how to create a fairer household. This is crucial if you want to stop a slow slide towards "choosing" to quit because "it just isn't working." Temporary conflict is better for the soul -- and the marriage -- than permanent, overburdened fury. It's also better for the children. Ellen Galinsky's 1999 book, Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents found that what bothered the kids of dual-career families most was the high level of stress.

Renegotiating home demands is important, but the real problems are structural: Our work system does not fit with our family system. Reshaping work is a major project. I will mention two tools:

Job sharing. Our jobs are sized too big; one solution is to split them. Job sharing splits one job between two people, leaving each of them free to allocate the various components in whatever way they wish, so long as the whole job gets done. The key challenge of job sharing is to find someone you know and trust enough to share a position with -- remember, you will be judged by the quality of their performance as well as your own. Academics are in a particularly good position to set up job shares because they know fellow graduate students in their own fields -- they may even be married to one. We need to develop Internet sites, and hiring protocols, that make job sharing easier. And graduate students need to develop the friendships that could ease their work and family load later on in life.

Part-time tenure track. Why not let people stay on the tenure track, but work half time when they need to, letting them return to full time when they can? Given the princely level of academic salaries (sarcasm intended), such a part-time position would be used sparingly by most employees, but would be helpful in families which, say, had two toddlers or faced a serious childhood (or parental) illness. How would it work? A part-timer would teach half of the normal teaching load, take on half as many committee assignments, and be expected to produce scholarship at half the rate. In return, he or she would be paid half the salary, get a benefits package worth half as much, and proceed toward tenure at half the rate. My colleague Robert W. Drago, a professor of labor studies at Pennsylvania State University's main campus, and I are proposing in a forthcoming issue of Change magazine that academe create a "half-time tenure track."

At a more sweeping level, we need to open up two new conversations. One is about sex discrimination -- not about sexist comments by a few clueless men, but about whether the current design of the tenure track discriminates against women.

The second is about how to reshape jobs around our ideals of parenting. Cutting back may be unthinkable, but it's not impossible. A generation ago, most academic jobs didn't require a 60-hour week. The Great American Speed-Up has affected academics along with other professionals: Americans now work harder than the world's most famous workaholics, the Japanese. We need to reverse this trend. A good first step would be to go back and find out how many hours academics worked 30 years ago. How did departments limp along in the era of the 9-to-5 dad? The students got taught, the exams graded, the books written.

We may not want to replicate what existed then, but many academic families know one thing for sure: They don't want to continue the "whirling dervish" life now common among pressured dual-career families. Something has to give. We need better choices than the two we have now: to abandon our ideals of parental involvement with children, or to perpetuate the eerie absence of mothers in tenured positions.

There has to be a better way.

Joan Williams, a professor law at American University and director of its Gender, Work & Family Project, is author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It (Oxford University Press, 1999).