The 5th Way to Level the Playing Field in Science

Search committees could eliminate the "baby penalty" if they stopped rejecting female adjuncts as failed scientists


May 07, 2014

In a recent commentary on "How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science," Mary Ann Mason argued that the "baby penalty" for female scientists could be wiped out with four simple reforms: better and more child-care options, effective dual-career policies, childbirth accommodations, and compliance with Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds.

But there is a fifth way that would have far more impact than any of those four, and requires nothing more than an attitude change on the part of professors themselves: Do not penalize female Ph.D.’s for taking adjunct positions as they raise young children.

As someone who stepped off the tenure track years ago and into an adjunct position to care for her children, I can state with the confidence of experience that such a move is a career killer—even if you continue to publish quality work, as I did.

When I asked for advice about getting back onto the tenure track, one senior female professor put it this way: "You’ll never get another tenure-track position because you wasted the first one. Your vita doesn’t show the normal progression from assistant to associate to full professor. Instead, you went from assistant to adjunct. That will be interpreted to mean that you failed or that you weren’t serious about your career."

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Another colleague who is also a department head told me: "There is no point in your applying for a tenure-track position because you would not be competitive." This was a particularly interesting comment, given that my H-Index and research productivity were equivalent to those of all the associate professors in his department at the time, and even some of his full professors.

To put it more colorfully, being an adjunct is like having a scarlet A sewn onto your shirt: It is a mark that keeps you forever on the periphery of the academic world. And that is a serious waste of female talent.

Given a Sophie’s choice between family and career, most women choose family. But that should not mean they must be forever out of the fast lane. A five-year timeout to care for young children should not constitute the kiss of death to an academic’s career.

The traditional academic workplace is based on the assumption of a career trajectory that is unbroken and steadily accelerating. But for most women, their preferred career trajectory is one that starts out like that (when there are no children), levels out or declines (when children are young), and then resumes acceleration (when children reach school age). The only viable way to follow such a course when you are a female scientist is to either: (1) reach tenure before having children (the holy grail), or (2) to take an adjunct position until your family demands subside.

The trouble starts when children reach school age and academic mothers try to re-enter the tenure track. At that point, many women discover that their career trajectory is frozen at the adjunct level for the rest of their lives. Once off the tenure-track ladder, they are never allowed back on.

Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University, has argued that a large part of the gender-salary gap is directly attributable to the lack of flexibility in the workplace. Women are severely penalized in terms of earnings and advancement for taking time off to have children, she writes, and even short breaks come at a huge cost.

That’s especially true in academe. I served on faculty search committees when I was on the tenure track, and I know the drill: Someone whose work experience is limited to contingent positions—or worse, who leaves a tenure-track position to become an adjunct for family reasons—is not considered a credible candidate.

The common objection is that people who step off the tenure track for a few years to raise children must necessarily have fallen behind in scientific developments in their fields. That may or may not be the case. In the digital age, it’s easier than ever to keep up with scholarly articles. Recently published journal articles often constitute required reading material in courses now, as opposed to the slightly out-of-date textbooks that we all used in the past. A perusal of the candidates’ syllabi is usually enough to discover whether they have kept up in their fields.

Of course, no safeguards are in place to ensure that tenured professors have remained abreast of current research developments. Unlike other professions, tenured professors need not log required hours of continuing education in order to maintain a teaching license. If keeping up is such a major concern, then what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander: Tenured faculty should be required to show that they, too, have kept up in their fields.

More to the point, if an adjunct showed great promise in graduate school and a respectable publication record prior to stepping out of the tenure stream, there is no reason to believe he or she would be unable to resume doing so again. That is what the tenure push is for—to test the mettle of budding scientists.

Let me point out that I was happy holding an adjunct position when universities were flexible in their interpretation of what that term meant. When I had a grant, I conducted research. When I didn’t have a grant, I taught. I was essentially a peer who was willing to work without tenure. But then came the economic downturns of 2000 and 2008, and attitudes toward adjuncts changed dramatically in the sciences. As teaching and research budgets tightened, the term "adjunct" became synonymous with "inferior academic whose duties should be restricted to ancillary teaching staff."

As more and more steps were taken to restrict my opportunities to engage in and supervise basic scientific research, I chose to retire early, even though I was earning a considerable salary as an adjunct. In my own view, my early retirement was a loss to my students, my university, and my discipline.

But what is even more important for my tenure-stream colleagues to appreciate is this: I am proud of what I accomplished as a scientist. I did not, and do not, consider myself to be inferior to colleagues who chose to climb the tenure ladder. I do not consider my career as an adjunct something to be ashamed of. I consider it the best way available to me at the time to solve the problem of how to be a scientist, a teacher, and a mother all at the same time.

The knee-jerk dismissal of adjuncts as inferior academics is rooted in a common fallacy—namely, confusing success and scientific merit with climbing the ladder. Yet climbing that ladder usually demands draconian sacrifices that young female scientists are loathe to make. This does not make them poor scientists. It makes them unemployable scientists in a rigid academic hierarchy. Add to that the fact that, today, scientific merit is easy to assess independent of promotion history, while promotion is often more political than based on scientific accomplishment.

More broadly, the solution, according to Claudia Goldin, is for the workplace to embrace flexibility. Outdated notions of traditional career trajectories should be discarded, and emphasis should instead be placed on results regardless of where or when the work was done. The academy would do well to take her recommendations seriously.

Denise Cummins is a cognitive scientist and a retired adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. She is the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think (2012, Cambridge University Press), and a blogger for Psychology Today. More about her can be found at