Academic mothers ‘work similar hours to fathers’ in US

Study challenges the idea that it is primarily parenthood that hinders women’s careers – but in Germany, the picture is very different

September 12, 2018
Source: Getty
Second shift: academic mothers put in more hours than fathers, suggesting that other factors, such as ‘subtle nepotism and sexism’ by senior male academics, hinder their rise

Female early career researchers in the US work similar hours to their male counterparts after they have children, a study has found, casting doubt on the idea that women are held back in their careers by the burden of greater childcare responsibilities.

Before having children, female researchers clocked up an average of 52.6 hours of work a week, compared with 54.4 for men. Afterwards, women worked 49.3 hours, and men 47.7, according to the analysis.

Monika Sieverding, a co-author and professor in Heidelberg University’s psychology department, said that she had expected to find at least some evidence of women working fewer hours than men after having children. “But we found out that there was no difference at all,” she told Times Higher Education.

Roughly a third of full professors in the US are female despite women making up about half of those who obtain doctoral degrees, according to the study – a “leaky pipeline” of female progression through the academy sometimes blamed on the “mothers work less” hypothesis.

The results, at least for the US, suggest that other factors – such as “subtle nepotism and sexism” by senior male academics, and greater self-confidence among male researchers – were to blame instead, Professor Sieverding said.

But the study also surveyed researchers in Germany, where the picture was very different: all researchers worked far fewer hours than their US-based colleagues, and women with children in particular.

Male academics worked 48.6 hours a week before children, and only slightly fewer, 46.8, afterwards.

Yet for women, the drop-off was substantial: before children, they worked 47.1 hours a week; afterwards, that fell to an average of 38.2.

In Germany, “you have highly qualified women [who] feel the pressure that when they have children they have to demonstrate that they are good mothers”, Professor Sieverding explained, and often, this meant staying at home for up to three years.

Research in Germany has even found that women who have taken short maternity breaks are less likely to be invited to a job interview, she said, because of the stigma of being a “bad mother”.

This could explain why German academia’s gender record is even worse than that of the US: barely more than a fifth of full professors in Germany are female, according to the study, “Can lifestyle preferences help explain the persistent gender gap in academia? The ‘mothers work less’ hypothesis supported for German but not for U.S. early career researchers”, which surveyed about 400 academics and was published in Plos One.

Many of Professor Sieverding’s colleagues have seen “high-potential female researchers” quit academia to follow their husband to a new city and raise children. “It’s very frustrating for us female professors to see that,” she said.

What was needed was a cultural shift towards equal responsibility for childcare, she said – and this required not just visible, successful female academic role models, but male ones, too, who had managed to balance a career, childcare and support for their partner’s work.

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