Gender-Neutral Family-Friendly Policies: The Unintended Consequences for Women

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.
One of the main flaws in the logic behind the gender-neutral tenure extension policy is that women and men experience the same distractions from their writing and research after the birth of a child. Wolfers cites Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the University of Michigan’s business school, as saying, “Giving birth is not a gender-neutral event.” Wolfers goes on to observe that “women receive parental benefits only after bearing the burden of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and often, a larger share of parenting responsibilities. Yet fathers usually receive the same benefits without bearing anything close to the same burden.” In fact, the study authors found that men who took tenure extension used the extra year to publish their research, resulting in higher tenure rates. No parallel rise in publication rates was seen for female economists. One of the study authors, J. Stearns, cautions that not all gender-neutral family policies are harmful. She notes that standard parental leave policies for both parents have reduced the stigma for women. Let’s note that it took female economists to uncover the harmful impact of this tenure extension policy on women—and there are not many female economists. What other unintended consequences could be negatively accruing for women from well-intentioned family-focused policies? What else might we be discovering if we had more female economists asking these questions? Do you have experiences or thoughts about the possible unfair impact of employment policies where you work? Let me know.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of anekarinebraga.]]>