News Release

Unequal parenthood impacts may explain academia's publication gender gap

The unequal impact of parenthood in academia

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Parenthood leads to greater reductions in short-term research productivity for mothers across three disciplines than for fathers, largely explaining the publication gender gap between women and men in academia, according to an analysis of survey data from 3,064 tenure track faculty at PhD-granting universities in the U.S. and Canada. The findings suggest that policies designed to boost workplace flexibility for parents, including easily accessible lactation rooms and affordable childcare, may help to ease the impact of parenthood on mothers in academia, giving them more time for research. While a large body of previous research across academic fields has shown that men tend to publish more papers than women, the reasons for this have remained uncertain. Researchers have found it challenging to study the impact of parenthood on research productivity, with studies investigating this topic often limited by lack of information on career age, productivity over time, the timing of parenthood, and shifting social norms. To better understand the relationship between parenthood and academic productivity, Allison Morgan and colleagues analyzed a survey conducted between 2017 and 2018 with 3,064 tenure track faculty at 450 computer science, history, and business departments - disciplines that encompass a wide range of gender representation. They combined the survey data with data on 100,972 publications authored by these faculty members, as well as data on their institutions' parental leave policies. Morgan et al. found that while women without children produced, on average, 87.6% to 95.6% of the total number of papers men without children produced, mothers produced 73.6% to 82.9% of the papers fathers produced. This larger gap indicates that the mothers and fathers surveyed experienced unequal research output impacts due to parenting. The bulk of this penalty for mothers occurred in the years immediately after they became parents, although fathers in the field of history also had short-term reductions in productivity.

In an Editorial, Tiffany Reese and colleagues suggest a series of policy changes and institutional investments to help close the gender gap in academia. Such changes are particularly important in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has added the loss of childcare and other support systems to the long-standing obstacles women in academia already face. "More than ever, now is the time to challenge long-standing institutional traditions and policies that propagate gender inequity," Reese et al. write. "Solving such widespread problems will not be easy, but with persistent effort and multipronged approaches institutions can restructure academic science so that it supports and retains the best and brightest minds."


For reporters interested in trends, a January Science Advances paper exploring various factors that could contribute to gender bias and lesser representation of women in science reported the peer review process itself is unlikely to be the primary cause of publishing inequalities.

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