Where are the senior women scholars? Universities have been concerned about the underrepresentation of women at senior tenured levels for more than twenty years, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. I wrote about several studies seeking to explain this dearth of senior women scholars in a previous article. In response to the underrepresentation of women, many of these institutions implemented gender-neutral family-friendly policies in the 1990s. Justin Wolfers, an economist writing for the New York Times, reports new research on the careers of economists in the United States that shows surprising, unintended consequences of these policies for female economists. Wolfers reports that in fact, some gender-neutral policies have advanced the careers of male economists at the expense of women’s careers, which is probably also true in other disciplines. The specific gender-neutral policy under investigation here is the tenure extension policy, which grants one extra year to the seven-year tenure process to both women and men for each child. The intention of this policy is to create some family-friendly flexibility in the early years of an academic career, when the pressure to achieve tenure (publish or perish) in order to keep an academic job collides with the years when young women and men are ready to start families. Wolfers reports that new research by three economists—Heather Antecol, Kelly Bedard, and Jenna Stearns—shows a significant differential impact of the tenure extension policy on the careers of women and men. These researchers compiled data on all untenured economists hired over the past twenty years at fifty leading economics departments. They then compared promotion rates at institutions with tenure extension policies to those without them. This is what they found:
- Tenure extension policies resulted in a 19-point rise in the probability that a male economist would earn tenure at his first job.
- In contrast, women’s chances of gaining tenure at their first jobs fell by 22 percent.
- Before the implementation of tenure extension, a little less than 30 percent of both women and men at these same institutions gained tenure at their first jobs. Consequently, the new policy significantly decreased the number of women receiving tenure.