productivity, sexism, or a less sexy explanation.

I apparently attended the same session at the ASA conference as Scott Jaschik yesterday, one on Gender and Work in the Academy. He must have been the guy with press badge who couldn’t wait to fact-check his notes during the Q&A.

The first presenter, Kate Weisshaar from Stanford University, started the session off with a bang with her presentation looking at the glass ceiling in academia, asking whether it was productivity that explained women’s under-representation among the ranks of the tenured (or attrition to lower-ranked programs or out of academia all together). A summary of her findings – and a bit of detail about the session and the session organizer’s response to her presentation – appeared in Inside Higher Ed today.

Of course I understand that the sexy approach to this topic, and one that turns heads and gets website clicks, is to pose the question as a simple one: Is it productivity or sexism that holds women back? But the fact is, it’s not that simple (Sorry, Émile). 

(I want pause to note that Weisshaar was impressive. She had a creative research design and showed tremendous attention to detail. One of the reasons that her talk inspired Jaschik and others was because she presented her findings clearly and persuasively and demonstrated a real facility with the relevant literature and methods.)

I was left with a nagging sense that Weisshaar had a particular view – whether related to her program or her status as a student or just being embedded in a particular group of mentors/peers in her department – that caused her to overlook an important additional factor. When I asked her about the potential importance of other mechanisms (e.g., women not going up for tenure or opting to move to a lower-status school for various reasons), she quickly brushed such explanations aside. While she hadn’t interviewed anyone or gotten access to actual tenure attempts or decisions, she was fairly confident that a trajectory that had someone moving from an elite school as an assistant professor to a less-elite school as an associate (or, even as an assistant) professor, or dropping out of academia, a few years later must signal not getting tenure.

The thing is, Mary Ann Mason – who did interview people – found other explanations could also contribute to such a trajectory. For example, a lower percentage of women who begin in tenure-track positions go up for tenure than men and women are more likely to succumb to the forces of the two-body problem by moving in their early career (when they might decide that family formation is a priority) to reunite with their partners than men are. Some might think that this isn’t an issue for Weisshaar’s argument because it’s only unproductive women, perhaps those who have gotten a signal from their department, who decide to make decisions like these. But it’s not! It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was talking about the confidence gap and how a woman is likely to feel like she needs to be even more productive than a man in any position (like, perhaps, an assistant professor going up for tenure) to infer or demonstrate similar levels of ability. Sociological research on double-standards suggests the same. It’s not only that outsiders (the sexist folks in the IHE dichotomy) have double-standards for women, women themselves tend to as well. My own work on impostorism suggests this too. Folks who feel like frauds expend a lot of emotional energy in day to day situations where they fear being discovered as incompetent and sometimes opt to enter situations where they experience fewer feelings of fraudulence. For all kinds of reasons, not everyone who starts as an assistant professor gets to that tenure decision.

All this isn’t to diminish the importance of Weisshaar’s work. Her results could also show – even if it’s not only departments and institutions that are making these decisions, but women faculty as well – that similar levels of productivity are viewed differently depending on whether it comes from a man or a woman. That’s still very important to realize. However, I want to argue that the (IHE) question – “productivity or sexism” – is missing a vitally important piece of the puzzle. It’s one that doesn’t lend itself as well to a soundbite and that is more difficult to address, but one that I would argue is very real. Women, for myriad reasons, are more likely to exit those tenure-track jobs pre-tenure than men and we need to begin to think about what we can do to address this leak in the pipeline. Weisshaar’s work is a step toward enhancing such conversations, letting us set aside the productivity question to move on to other things, but I can’t help but think that there is more to the story. In the academic world I live in, women leave even good jobs pre-tenure for all kinds of reasons. As inconceivable as that might be to some graduate students who would give anything to get such a position, we absolutely must account for these “choices” while doing research in this area.

12 thoughts on “productivity, sexism, or a less sexy explanation.”

  1. So if I’m following, you are saying that women in relationships with the two body problem are more likely to give up a good TT job to follow the spouse than are men, that making a “downward” move is not necessarily due to not expecting to get tenure at a top place. So the universe in this specific discussion would be not all men and all women academics, but the much smaller subset of men and women who are married to academic spouses who make the original constrained choice to take good TT jobs in different cities. In this subset, you are saying, the situation is more often resolved by the woman leaving a TT job than by the man leaving the TT job. That assertion fits my stereotypes so I’ll assume it is true. Although this is such a specialized population I wonder if there is actually any quality sample of this or whether we all all working anecdotally. (There could be data without my knowing it, because I’m not reading the papers, just the blog post.)

    You are speculating that the explanation for this difference (assuming it exists) is the confidence gap. I’m not discounting that as an explanation, but it seems to me there are other factors at play along this mechanism path.

    Since men and women have equal intelligence, you reasonably imply that the stipulated gender difference in how the TT situation is resolved ought on average not be due to average differences in the underlying metric of sheer academic performance or quality. Ah, but wait. That assumes that the marriage pairings of academic spouses are random with respect to the underlying academic quality of the two spouses, or that the assortative mating process selects for equality between spouses in academic ability and standing. But is this assumption plausible? Probably not. First, women tend to marry men who are older and (thus) more advanced in their careers than themselves. (Or, flipping it around, men tend to marry women who are younger than themselves.) Even the two-year average age gap in first marriages is enough to imply that, on average, the couple with the two-body problem will find that the man has the more secure position, i.e. that he has achieved tenure already. But second marriages will add to this even more. How many academic men’s second marriages are to grad students or other much-younger women? How many academic women’s second marriages are to grad students or other much-younger men?

    Second, in a gender-structured society, it is certainly my impression that men are less likely than women to choose to marry a person they believe is their own intellectual superior. At least in women’s folk culture, it is widely understood that men feel threatened by women who out-perform them in valued areas. (Many a mother, at least in days gone by, cautioned her daughters not to beat their suitors at tennis nor argue them down in a verbal dispute.) Moreover, there is a lot of tension among men and women around pairings that do involve a manifestly higher-performing woman and a lower-performing man.

    Thus, even though we stipulate that women and men are on average equally smart and capable, we can produce a model that says that most of the marriages between academic men and academic women involve relationships in which the individual man has the upper hand in the couple’s family economy. There are social forces reducing the number of relationships in which the woman in an academic pairing has the career upper hand. But the men in this reduced set of such pairings do (I suspect, and know of some anecdotal cases) tend to be the movers.

    Anyway, good post. Especially important to unpack the “merit versus sexism” dichotomy to think about mechanism.


  2. Thanks for the comment, olderwoman. I apologize that I wasn’t clear. My typical lack of facility with the blogging medium was exacerbated by trying to get this off between ASA commitments.

    My main point was that you can’t measure job at time one and lack of tenure or tenure in a lower-ranked place at time two as strong evidence of a negative tenure decision (as Weisshaar does). I offered up a number of reasons that women might leave a position without a negative tenure decision. That’s not to say she’s not capturing negative tenure decisions, but that there are other forces plaguing women that also contribute to her findings.

    With regard to your specific comment, I’m actually not saying that confidence (or lack thereof) is the cause of solving the two body problem that way. Mason doesn’t either. She tends to concentrate on gendered ideas about family formation and gender expectations that allow women to make such decisions without threatening their gender identity. I’d say that she was focusing this on partners who were equally matched, or where men were more desirable (which, as you note, happens for a number of reasons), and wouldn’t expect this among the women with less sought-after partners, but I haven’t checked the source. Not that she’d deny such situations exist, but that the other situations are more common.


  3. I didn’t get to see this presentation — though I heard from young scholars that they were depressed by it! I look forward to reading Kate’s paper and seeing her analysis in detail.

    It is important to consider how and when we assess gender differences in career outcomes in academia. At my university, the administration presented figures to the Regents showing no gender or race gap in tenure decisions, i.e. no gaps among those who went through the tenure process. The Women’s Faculty Cabinet pointed out and pushed for new calculations on whether there were differences, by race and by gender, in the decision to go through the tenure process. One of the key mechanisms, in many institutions, is whether people feel supported by their departments in moving to that stage and, indeed, very early on. If not, the alternative “choices” start to be more appealing, especially if they sense they are being informally “counseled out.”


    1. Yes, Erin! Such situations were actually my original thought (I feel like this was brought up in your WFRN presentation/session in NYC a couple years ago) and the question I posed in Kate’s session was whether she thought not accounting for those exits was an issue, because they could still be related to perceptions of productivity/competence that she was interested in so might not be. Like I said, Kate and her project and presentation were impressive, so I’m sure the paper will be as well. I only hope it continues to conversation and doesn’t cause those interested in interventions to focus too much on the tenure decisions over trying to address early exits as well.


  4. Was the raw percentages reported? When trying to think about the different mechanisms that could explain the disparity in the outcome, I think it would be useful to know if it is 92% tenured for men and 88% for women, or if it is 60% for men and 40% for women. If my math is correct, both are consistent with women being denied tenure 50% more often.


    1. Not that I remember, Neal. If memory serves, Kate opted to simplify things by relying on figures rather than tables for the presentation and I don’t remember her elaborating, but I might have been too distraught and distracted by the findings to hear/remember correctly.


  5. Thanks for the post, Jessica. I read the IHE story but wasn’t at the panel so I appreciate your inquiry into alternative pathways. I do think it’s still a “depressing” finding, regardless of mechanism. So if women are more likely to be convinced to abandon the tenure pipeline (for whatever reason), that too is an important driver of inequality. It just doesn’t support the top-line claim that women are less likely to *achieve* tenure, which is how IHE reported it.

    BTW, I know sociologists are supposed to hate Lean In because of its emphasis on elite women and on behavior more than structure. But this argument actually parallels that in Lean In which is essentially that women are convinced in all sorts of ways not to pursue high(er)-status positions.


    1. It is definitely still depressing! It’s important to consider the myriad mechanisms, though, because each points to a unique intervention and if we’re seriously about addressing inequality, it will take a multi-pronged approach.


  6. Good point that interventions shouldn’t “focus too much on the tenure decisions over trying to address early exits as well.” And those early exits may reflect early signals from colleagues that one isn’t up to the task, or doing interesting work, or even making fast enough progress.

    I had wondered whether the timing of “productivity” (publications) matters. As someone attuned to life course transitions and to family caregiving, I get frustrated when evaluations of junior colleagues scrutinize publication “trajectories” too much. Sometimes this means there’s pressure to publish early and/or every year. (Of course, that’s the ideal but it can add extra pressure on people who are making good progress on their research.) I would not be surprised if women and also male and female faculty of color are more likely to have a slower first couple of years — even though they may end up with similar publication records. Those early challenges might be due to these professors having more skeptical or harsh students or higher service loads, both in terms of # of commitments and # of hours devoted to those commitments. Those things could exacerbate one’s own anxiety about being an imposter as well as prompt some colleagues to come to negative conclusions that they don’t revise later on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an interesting idea. You’ll know more when you see Kate’s paper, but it seems like this is something she could consider with her data (and perhaps already has). She has information on all the publications, so could incorporate some measure of timing/rate/spread/etc.


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