Even With Tenure, Women Are More Likely to Leave Higher Ed
Across the academy, women are more likely to leave their faculty positions than men. Attrition is highest for women who have tenure or work in fields outside of science, technology, engineering, and math, according to a new study.
And even when men and women leave at the same rate, their reasons for doing so are gendered: Early-career women are more likely to leave due to issues with work-life balance, while women later in their career are more likely to leave because of a hostile work environment. Men tend to cite professional reasons, such as a lack of resources or support.
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Across academe, women are more likely to leave their faculty positions than men, and attrition is highest for women who have tenure or work in fields outside of science, technology, engineering, and math, according to a new study.
And even when men and women leave at the same rate, their reasons for doing so are gendered: Early-career women are more likely to leave due to issues with work-life balance, while women later in their careers are more likely to leave because of a hostile work environment. Men tend to cite professional reasons, such as a lack of resources or support.
Many institutions have poured extensive time and resources into recruiting a more diverse faculty, but recruitment is only part of the equation. When groups leave the field at different rates, academe becomes a “leaky pipeline,” the study said.
“It’s one thing to bring people in — and sometimes it’s very difficult to bring in certain groups. It’s another thing to keep them,” said Anita Raj, a professor of public health at Tulane University and executive director of the Newcomb Institute, which conducts gender-equity research. Raj was not involved in the study.
Prior research on gender disparities in higher-ed attrition has focused on particular slices of academe: all of the professors at a single institution, or all of the assistant professors at a handful of elite institutions, for example. Therefore it’s been difficult to form broad conclusions or compare studies, researchers said.
“The literature is very deep, but narrow,” said Katie Spoon, a computer-science Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
This new study, co-authored by Spoon and published on Friday in the journal Science Advances, took a wider angle. The researchers examined a census of employment records collected by the Academic Analytics Research Center from 2011 to 2020. It included data for every tenure-track and tenured professor at doctoral universities in the United States — over 245,000 professors in total.
Women were more likely to leave their faculty roles than men at every career stage, and the gap grew wider at the top of the ladder. At the assistant-professor level, women were 6 percent more likely to leave than men. Among full professors, that figure was 19 percent.
Tenured faculty leaving at the highest rate is surprising, Raj said. But she speculated that women with tenure might be able to transition into other careers more easily than their less-experienced colleagues if the environment drives them out.
Women at less prestigious institutions were also more likely to quit.
Gendered Reasons for Leaving
The researchers also surveyed thousands of former and current faculty about why they left or what would compel them to leave, respectively. Even in fields or positions where women and men left at the same rate, they cited different reasons for doing so.
Women most often cited issues with workplace climate as their reasons for leaving, such as harassment, dysfunctional department leadership, and feelings of not belonging. Men most often recounted professional reasons for leaving, such as difficulty obtaining funding or poor administrative support.
Previously, research has shown that one of the biggest drivers of inequity between women and men on the faculty is responsibilities at home. Additionally, Raj has observed gender gaps in sponsorship from more senior academics and in service work such as mentoring students.
While the new study only looked at data through 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic might have made things worse. It caused a “gender retrogression” because many women left the work force to handle child care and remote schooling, Raj said. “Anecdotally, I would say things have gotten better” in recent decades, “but I think that what Covid taught us is that there is a very major fragility in that,” she added.
An often-overlooked inequity is that of sponsorship, where more-senior faculty members elevate the careers of newer professors. This looks different from mentorship, Raj said, and can include actual sponsorship for membership into national academies, nominations for awards, and introductions to donors. Since men have much more sponsorship opportunities than women, “there’s unequal opportunity to have someone notice you and recognize you in most ways and lift you up,” she said.
The findings of this study indicate that even if recruitment or retention appears to be the same among genders, there could be disparities lurking beneath the surface that need to be addressed. “I think that it would be a mistake to observe equal rates in any of those cases, and then say we have nothing left to do, gender equity has been reached,” Spoon said.
So, what should institutions do to retain their women faculty? As a start, Raj would like to see increased access to child care for all faculty.
But it will also take closer examination of each individual faculty’s unique experiences and challenges. “There’s not a silver bullet,” Spoon said, but administrators should listen to their faculty members about the reasons they leave and adapt accordingly.