In most academic fields in the US, women remain underrepresented. This happens despite their rising share of doctoral degrees. Women are getting PhDs but are then not staying in academia. This is explained by the “leaky pipeline” effect, in which women leave faculty jobs at higher rates than men. The biggest cause behind this event is a toxic workplace environment, including harassment, a new study found.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder performed a systematic investigation of faculty retention across the entire US university system, using an employment census. They found women are leaving academia at a higher rate than men at every career stage, especially after they receive tenure, mainly because of the work environment.
Prior studies examining gender-based attrition in academia often had narrow focuses. Most studies concentrated solely on the retention of assistant professors, primarily within STEM disciplines or at prestigious institutions, mainly due to the challenges associated with identifying and contacting faculty who departed from academia.
“Our survey results show that the reasons that faculty leave remain gendered, implying that faculty attrition can be gendered even if the overall rate of attrition is not. In particular, women are more likely to feel pushed out of their jobs and less likely to feel pulled toward better jobs than men,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science
A toxic environment
The findings help to partly explain why women remain underrepresented among faculty in almost all academic fields in the US. For example, only 28% of professors in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are women in the US, despite the fact that women received 40% of STEM PhDs for the past 10 to 15 years.
In their study, the researchers looked at a census of employment records of over 245,000 tenure-track and tenured professors from 391 universities and institutions, covering the 2011-2020 period. They came from STEM fields and disciplines like social sciences, business and humanities. Respondents reported their gender and race.
The tenure track represents the academic journey of a professor towards promotion. Typically, faculty members start as assistant professors, lacking the security of tenure. Upon promotion, they get the status of tenured associate professors. Ultimately, they may ascend to the rank of full professors, securing an indefinite appointment.
The findings showed that across all career stages, women are departing from academia at a greater rate than men. While being assistant professors, women have a 6% higher departure rate from their positions compared to men. This disparity is even greater among full professors, with women in this category 19% more likely to leave academia.
“We were surprised to see the gender gap actually grow after faculty received tenure, given how important the title is,” Katie Spoon, the paper’s first author and a PhD student in Colorado Boulder, said in a news release. “This result suggests that perhaps the field has neglected thinking about tenured women and their experiences.”
The researchers also surveyed 10,000 current and former faculty members to find factors that explain their decision to leave a faculty job. While men are more likely to be pulled toward more attractive jobs, women are pushed by many factors, the main one being a harsh workplace environment, including harassment and discrimination.
This suggests that policies around work-life balance implemented by universities, such as flexible hours, are not enough to address the problem, the researchers said. Different kind of interventions will then be needed to mitigate the gendered impact of workplace factors, such as dysfunctional department leadership and competition.