Women academics quit
Women professors are more likely to leave the profession because of the ‘chilly climate’ of their departments than are their male colleagues, says a new study of American professors active between 2011 and 2020.
The odds of these women feeling ‘pushed from their jobs’ is 44% higher than it is for their male colleagues, while the odds of these women feeling pulled towards a better position is 39% lower than for men professors, says the study, conducted by Katie Spoon, computer science professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and eight co-authors.
“Gender and retention patterns among US faculty” was published this week in Sciences Advances, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Spoon’s team also found that non-STEM women who leave the professoriate early in their careers – defined as within 10 years from degree – are about 1.5 times more likely than non-STEM men professors to cite ‘work-life balance’ as their reason for leaving. From mid-career onwards, women and men professors cite work-life balance more or less equally.
The study found that the increased risk of attrition – which was 6%, 10% and 19% greater than men each year for assistant, associate and full professor, respectively – means “even faculty cohorts hired at gender parity will become progressively less diverse, on average, as they age”.
The representation of women professors in a hypothetical faculty cohort starting at gender parity, with 50-50 men-women, would fall to 48.5% by early mid-career (15 years since completing their PhDs), 45.4% by mid-career (25 years after completing their PhDs) and 40.6% 35 years after completing their PhDs.
“A key takeaway from our study is that looking at the rates at which women and men leave their jobs is not sufficient,” says Spoon.
“Our findings suggest it would be a mistake to observe equal rates of attrition and then conclude that gender parity has been reached. Rather, administrators and senior faculty need to investigate the reasons why faculty are leaving their departments and institutions, and examine how those reasons differ by gender, race and career age,” says Spoon.
Two data sets
Spoon’s study included two different data sets. The largest, called a census, came from the Academic Analytics Research Center. The data included employment rosters for every tenure track or tenured professor from America’s 391 PhD-granting institutions in the US.
The second set, which was drawn from the census, was made up of more than 8,500 responses to a survey about faculty attrition; the largest group, 7,195, were current faculty, 433 were faculty that had left academia but had not retired and 954 were retirees.
A total of 1,489 faculty who switched universities were not included in the main analysis. Among the respondents were professors who were still on the tenure track and those who were no longer on it (that is, had left the profession).
Participants in the survey self-reported their gender, race and parental status.* Because tenure in medical schools works differently – becoming a full professor could take 15 years as opposed to 10 in the rest of the university and funding for positions is often dependent on outside sources – the study did not cover medical school faculty, explains UC-B computer science professor Aaron Clauset, one of the co-authors of the study.
One of the central questions Spoon’s team investigated was whether the attrition of women professors was the same in different types of universities.
To determine this, they “annotated each department within an academic domain with a unique institutional prestige score derived from a field-faculty hiring network” on a 1-10 continuous scale, with 10 being the most prestigious universities.
For assistant professors, the slopes on the graph for women and men leaving the profession are similar, approximately a 45 angle from 0.8 predicted probability for professors of both genders at less prestigious institutions to 0.3 predicted probability for professors at more prestigious universities.
At the associate level, non-STEM women at less prestigious universities are several times more likely to attrit as compared with STEM women at the same institutions and non-STEM and STEM men professors.
“In general, faculty from lower-prestige institutions are significantly more likely to leave academia than [are] faculty from higher-prestige institutions, a pattern that increased with career age at the least prestigious institutions: a professor at the least prestigious institution is 2.5, 3.0 and 3.3 times more likely to leave at the assistant, associate and full professor rank, respectively, than a faculty member at the most prestigious institutions. This effect is stronger for women, who are even more likely to leave lower-prestige institutions than men,” writes Spoon.
To determine why 89% of women full professors in non-STEM domains at institutions are at a higher-than-average risk of leaving the profession, Spoon and her team turned to their survey data.
The data showed that the odds of a woman professor feeling “pushed out” was 44% higher than their male colleagues. Further, Spoon writes: “These rates tend to increase with career age, such that the oldest cohort of faculty (career age 31-40 years since PhD) has a 2.9x higher odds of feeling pushed out of their position than the youngest cohort (career age 1-10).”
Equally importantly, the study shows, women do not leave positions for greener pastures.
Whether they looked at men professors early in their careers in mid-career or after 31 years of being a professor, Spoon’s team found that the odds of men STEM professors feeling pulled towards a better position remained around 30%, while the odds for non-STEM men professors of feeling pulled to a better position elsewhere moved in a narrow band near 37%.
The odds of a STEM woman professor feeling pulled by a better position was never more than 28% and fell as low as 19%. Surveying this data, Spoon writes: “Women’s odds of feeling pulled [to a better position] was 39% lower than men’s.”
Media reports often lay the blame for why women leave the workforce at greater rates than do men at the feet of work-life balance. Spoon’s study shows that women professors and their male colleagues report work-life balance as the reason for leaving at a statistically indistinguishable rate: 26% and 29% respectively.
The great divergence occurs in the category called ‘Climate’. Fully 43% of women professors identified the working climate of their department or school as the reason they left while most men professors reported leaving for professional reasons.
“In contrast to past work, we find that tenured women, who make up 61% of all women in permanent faculty positions, more strongly emphasise factors related to workplace climate. This emphasis on climate factors for driving attrition is strongest among senior women faculty regardless of whether a field is STEM or non-STEM.
“Climate can consist of departmental and institutional policies and norms [that] tend to reflect, accommodate and reinforce traditional overrepresentation of white men from more privileged backgrounds,” the authors write.
By way of example of climatic factors that may push women out of their positions, Spoon writes, “in computer science, women are more likely to be employed in subfields that are relatively less prestigious, and such systematic devaluation can influence a faculty member’s sense of belonging, leading them to consider leaving their positions”.
How to address underrepresentation
“Gender and retention patterns among US faculty” provide the data needed for a fundamental shift in what universities do to address the underrepresentation of women among faculty in nearly all academic fields.
According to Spoon: “US faculty attrition, policies intended to increase gende equity, that is, to improve retention rates for women, should focus on the reasons, not the rates, which we show vary by career age, field, and institution and in which workplace climate plays a broad role.
“For instance, efforts over the past several decades in the US around work-life balance, for example, paid parental leave, flexible hours, on-campus childcare, and dual-career solutions, may have reduced the disparate impact of work-life balance on women faculty, particularly in the early career.