This is an archived article that was published on in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The controversy over Harvard President Lawrence Summers' remarks at a recent conference has brought renewed attention to an old problem. Summers got into hot water by asking if the lack of female professors, at his institution and elsewhere, could be attributed to biological differences between the sexes.

Many American universities have acknowledged unequal treatment of male and female professors, but we believe that our research on how marriage and children affect academic careers can also help explain the gender gap on college campuses.

The disparity is real enough. Only one out of every four full professors, ordinarily the highest rank in the academic hierarchy, is a woman.

Academia is a unique profession because of its long probationary period and national job market. After four to eight years in graduate school, assistant professors have about six years to publish or perish. Only after tenure and promotion from assistant to associate professor are university faculty assured of job security.

This sequence virtually mandates frequent relocation. It is uncommon for young professors to be hired in the same metropolitan area, or even the same state, where they received their doctorates.

This system worked more smoothly when most professors were men with stay-at-home wives. For female academics, whose husbands almost always have careers of their own, it is untenable. Our research shows that family commitments are the most important reason why female Ph.D.s avoid careers in academia.

Based on a nationally representative sample of more than 30,000 men and women who received their doctorates since 1981, we find that unmarried women without young children now obtain tenure-track professorships at a higher rate than do men or women with families.

The rigors of the long probationary period are too daunting for many young mothers, while its length would put them at the outer limits of fertility if they opted to delay childbirth until tenure. And, the geographic mobility required for an academic career is a challenge to married women.

Fortunately, this is one area where America's colleges and universities may be able to make progress. The tenure clock can be delayed in the case of childbirth or adoption. Flexible part-time options may facilitate duel-career couples with children. Campuses can assist couples with relocation, as well as providing child care.

These are not boondoggles, and a university's commitment to families can assist in its recruitment of top scholars.


Nicholas H. Wolfinger is assistant professor in family and consumer studies at the University of Utah. Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden of the University of California-Berkeley co-wrote the article.