Intriguing hypotheses, social trends and even disappointments can be found in archival data sets. For many years I have been tracking the annual data on higher education published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The most recent data show that the percentage of full professors at all U.S. colleges who are female is still low--only 22 percent. The higher percentage of female faculty among untenured and associate professors has not been advancing rapidly into the ranks of full professors, and the higher percentages at lower ranks do not necessarily mean that equity is "in the pipeline."
The slow progress of women into the highest academic positions could be due to many reasons, but one major roadblock is the few choices available in academe for managing the multiple demands of work and family. Both women and men want to be loving partners and nurturing parents while advancing their careers, and both benefit from the rewards of multiple roles. But the way universities award promotion and tenure works against anyone with caregiving responsibilities--child or elder care or care for disabled family members--tasks that men have only slowly begun to share.
Given these data, it should not be surprising that I made the integration of work, family and children a main initiative for my presidential year. (See Public Policy, Work and Families: The Report of the APA Presidential Initiative on Work and Families.)
An outdated, flawed system
Let's do some quick (and easy) math to figure out how the current system can maintain the status quo. Like law and accounting, academia is an "early up-and-out" system. In order to become tenured in academia (or become a partner in an accounting or law firm), young "talent" usually has exactly six years to produce their best work for a one-time judging. Anyone who does not make the cut at this early career stage has lost the only chance to catch the golden ring of tenure and has instead the consolation prize--one year to find another job--which is almost always a big "step down" because rejected professionals must explain why they were denied tenure (or partnership).
Any young person with the talent, skills, interest and dedication to become a professor can expect to spend five to six years in graduate school. The four-year "ideal" graduate program will not allow graduate students enough time to get the research publications that are necessary for the coveted postdocs, which usually last another two to three years. Postdocs are then followed by six years as an assistant professor. By now, our assistant professor is at least 36 years old, and that's assuming that everything has fallen into place, with early-career planning, courses taken in the approved order, sufficient financial stability to stay in graduate school without time off to save additional money, etc.
But what if the assistant professor is female, and she knows that fertility rates decline with increasing age and biological clocks run in the same time zone as graduate school, postdocs and tenure clocks? Of course, maternity and paternity leave exist at universities, but there are negative psychological and career consequences for women who take maternity leave, and especially for men who take paternity leave. Academic policies in support of families look better on paper than they do in reality. There are very few high-quality part-time doctoral programs, postdocs or tenure-track assistant professor positions or part-time tenured academic positions, even though such positions would provide benefits to universities, scientists and students.
Joining together for flexibility
Every time I talk about part-time tenure track positions, the idea is most often met with resistance because the idea of part-time tenure is immediately equated with inferior candidates. I am repeatedly told that "it won't work here." I urge senior faculty and administrators to become activists and persistent advocates for more flexible time spans to achieve tenure for those who need it and to negotiate on behalf of their early-career colleagues for more flexible working arrangements.
All we need to do is change some very hardened minds that are opposed to any change in the existing early up-and-out tenure system. We faced the same negative attitudes when Title IX was introduced decades ago as a way of bringing gender equity to college sports. We now do a better job of encouraging women to play sports than we do with women in tenured full professor faculty positions. There is much we can do to make work and life more compatible, for that will provide benefits for all of us.