Women academics quit due to workplace climate – Study

Women professors are more likely to leave the profession because of the ‘chilly climate’ of their departments than are their male colleagues, says a new study of American professors active between 2011 and 2020.

The odds of these women feeling ‘pushed from their jobs’ is 44% higher than it is for their male colleagues, while the odds of these women feeling pulled towards a better position is 39% lower than for men professors, says the study, conducted by Katie Spoon, computer science professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and eight co-authors.

“Gender and retention patterns among US faculty” was published this week in Sciences Advances, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Spoon’s team also found that non-STEM women who leave the professoriate early in their careers – defined as within 10 years from degree – are about 1.5 times more likely than non-STEM men professors to cite ‘work-life balance’ as their reason for leaving. From mid-career onwards, women and men professors cite work-life balance more or less equally.

The study found that the increased risk of attrition – which was 6%, 10% and 19% greater than men each year for assistant, associate and full professor, respectively – means “even faculty cohorts hired at gender parity will become progressively less diverse, on average, as they age”.

The representation of women professors in a hypothetical faculty cohort starting at gender parity, with 50-50 men-women, would fall to 48.5% by early mid-career (15 years since completing their PhDs), 45.4% by mid-career (25 years after completing their PhDs) and 40.6% 35 years after completing their PhDs.

“A key takeaway from our study is that looking at the rates at which women and men leave their jobs is not sufficient,” says Spoon.

“Our findings suggest it would be a mistake to observe equal rates of attrition and then conclude that gender parity has been reached. Rather, administrators and senior faculty need to investigate the reasons why faculty are leaving their departments and institutions, and examine how those reasons differ by gender, race and career age,” says Spoon.

Two data sets

Spoon’s study included two different data sets. The largest, called a census, came from the Academic Analytics Research Center. The data included employment rosters for every tenure track or tenured professor from America’s 391 PhD-granting institutions in the US.

The second set, which was drawn from the census, was made up of more than 8,500 responses to a survey about faculty attrition; the largest group, 7,195, were current faculty, 433 were faculty that had left academia but had not retired and 954 were retirees.

A total of 1,489 faculty who switched universities were not included in the main analysis. Among the respondents were professors who were still on the tenure track and those who were no longer on it (that is, had left the profession).

Participants in the survey self-reported their gender, race and parental status.* Because tenure in medical schools works differently – becoming a full professor could take 15 years as opposed to 10 in the rest of the university and funding for positions is often dependent on outside sources – the study did not cover medical school faculty, explains UC-B computer science professor Aaron Clauset, one of the co-authors of the study.

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