Math + science + motherhood = a tough combination
Even though 45 percent of undergraduate
mathematics degrees now go to women, women
make up less than 12 percent of full professors in
such math-intensive fields as physics, engineering
and computer science. Why are women bailing on
these academic careers?
One main reason is that motherhood pulls them
away, according to Wendy M. Williams, PhD, and
Stephen Ceci, PhD, professors in Cornell University’s
department of human development (and the married
parents of three daughters).
In a paper published in March in American
Scientist, Williams and Ceci analyzed data on
women’s abilities and career preferences, as
well as hiring, promotion and evaluations at U.S.
They found that — despite what conventional
wisdom might suggest — women rarely suffer
from overt discrimination in hiring, promotion
and funding. In fact, the opposite might be true:
Only 20 percent of applicants for tenure-track math
professorships are women, but 32 percent of those
offered positions are.
Instead, Williams and Ceci say, what keeps women
out of the top ranks of academe is the rigid timeline
of the tenure system, in which they must work long
hours and scramble to attain tenure during their peak
childbearing years. The attrition is especially critical
in math-intensive fields, they say, in which women
are in shorter supply to begin with, so that further
opting out leaves the academy with very small
numbers of female professors in these fields.
“Motherhood, and the policies that make it
incompatible with a tenure-track research career,
take a toll on women that is detrimental to their
professional lives,” Williams and Ceci write.
To solve the problem, they say, universities should
adopt policies that allow women — and men — to
take a more flexible approach to their careers. Those
policies might include offering part-time tenure-track
positions, job-sharing arrangements and “stopping
the tenure clock” for a set number of years while
professors are raising young families.
“The world has changed,” says Williams. “It’s time
to start solving the problems of today, not 30 years
Former APA President Diane Halpern, PhD, who
Universities should adopt more flexible career paths for
women and men, psychologists suggest.
studies sex differences in cognition and education,
says that this message is on target.
Motherhood is not the only factor that affects
women’s underrepresentation in math and science,
she says — for example, women who are talented
in math tend to choose more “people-centered”
fields like medicine, a fact that Williams and
Ceci also discuss. But allowing for more flexible
academic career paths could go a long way toward
encouraging more women to follow research careers,
“The tenure system is very deeply entrenched,”
Halpern says. “And unfortunately the tenure clock
and the biological clock run in the same time zone.”