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  • Problems in the Pipeline:Gender, Marriage, and Fertility in the Ivory Tower
  • Nicholas H. Wolfinger (bio), Mary Ann Mason (bio), and Marc Goulden (bio)


Women have traditionally fared worse than men in the workplace. In few places has this been more apparent than higher education (Jacobs, 1996). In 2003, women received 47% of PhDs awarded (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2005a) but comprised only 35% of tenured or tenure-track faculty (NCES, 2005b). The gender gap widens incrementally higher up on the academic career ladder: among full-time faculty members, 48% of women are tenured compared to 68% of men (Bellas, 2001). Perhaps more striking, just 26% of full professors are women (American Association of University Professors, 2001). In light of these imbalances, concerns regarding Title IX, which prohibits sex-based exclusion from educational programs receiving federal funds, have prompted congressional calls for inquiry (Wyden, 2003). [End Page 388]

This article explores the effects of gender and family formation—namely, marriage and children—on academic employment subsequent to receiving a PhD. Our results show that family and children account for the lower rate at which women obtain tenure-track jobs. Single women without young children fare better than their male counterparts on the market for assistant professorships. However, family formation cannot account for women's difficulties at later career stages—namely, tenure and promotion to full professor. These results provide new insight into why so few women enter the tenure track and ultimately become full professors.

Although women scientists and engineers at major research universities have been the subject of numerous studies (e.g., Ginther, 2001; Long, 2001; The National Academies, 2006; Xie & Shauman, 2003; Zuckerman, Bruer, & Cole, 1991), comparably little attention has been paid to women in the humanities and social sciences. Yet the latter groups comprise the majority of female doctoral recipients in recent years (Sanderson, Dugoni, Hoffer, & Selfa, 1999). In addition, few scholars have examined women at smaller, non-Research I universities. We study the relationship between gender, family formation, and successful academic careers using longitudinal data from the 1981-1995 Surveys of Doctorate Recipients. These data, nationally representative of PhD recipients during the survey years, provide a more comprehensive depiction of women in academia than has been offered by most previous studies.

We treat professional progress as a pipeline. Far more people obtain doctorates than tenure-track jobs. Not all assistant professors get tenure, and fewer still are promoted to full professor. Women "leak" out of this pipeline at far greater rates than men. Although the pipeline metaphor has been applied to gender inequities in academia (e.g., Kulis, Sicotte, & Collins, 2002; Long, 2001), no studies have focused specifically on professional transitions between PhD receipt and subsequent progress within the professoriate. We document attrition in women's academic careers at three distinct stages in the professional pipeline: (1) tenure-track employment; (2) promotion from assistant professor to tenured associate professor; (3) promotion from associate to full professor.

Gender, Marriage, and Family in the Academy

Most explanations for the paucity of women in the professoriate have emphasized discrimination (American Council on Education, 2005; Carr, Szalacha, Barnett, Caswell, & Inui, 2003; Ginther, 2001; Ginther & Hayes, 2001; Hopkins, 1999; The National Academies, 2006; Valian, 1998; West, 1994). In contrast, we hypothesize that the absence of female professors can be attributed to the inflexible nature of the American workplace, [End Page 389] configured around a male career model established in the nineteenth century, that forces women to choose between work and family (Crittenden, 2002; Hochschild, 1997; Hochschild & Machung, 1989; Mason, 2002; Williams, 2000). Thus, women with spouses and children are forced to work less or entirely forsake demanding professions like academia.

Gary Becker (1991) postulates a direct conflict between the resources needed to perform both professional and home duties. Women have less time to devote to their careers when their domestic responsibilities include spouses and children. It has often been shown that women do much more household labor than men (e.g., Hochschild & Machung, 1989; Press & Townsley, 1998; Shelton & John, 1996). It is also well established that work-family conflict has become commonplace in contemporary America (see Glass & Estes, 1997, for a review). Recent research confirms that this conflict...


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