Progress on gender equality ‘set back by lost generation’

Study finds that post-war baby boom probably led to scores of women being lost to American science 

November 22, 2021
A newborn infant baby girl in a blanket swaddle wraps her tiny hand and fingers around her father and mother's fingers as she sleeps peacefully.
Source: iStock

Progress in achieving gender equality in science over the past 60 years was likely to have been set back by a generation of female scientists being lost to the post-war baby boom, a study suggests.

Two US-based researchers analysed biographical data for about 83,000 US researchers working in science in 1956, at the height of the period when there was a higher birth rate in the West after the Second World War.

By linking the biographical data with publications and patents, they found evidence that having children was associated with female scientists being more productive later in their careers compared with men in general and women without children.

While other scientists’ productivity peaked in their mid-30s, mothers become more productive after the age of 35 and tended to hold this higher work rate into their 40s and 50s, the working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research says.

Meanwhile, the authors also found that “children explain nearly the entire gender difference in tenure rates for academic scientists” from the period, with only 27 per cent of mothers gaining tenure, compared with 48 per cent of fathers and 46 per cent of other women.

By matching pre-baby boom departmental directories with the 1956 data, they found “that women were half as likely to survive in science compared with men”.

“Comparing participation across cohorts, we estimate that almost 180 female scientists – the missing mothers of the baby boom – were lost to American science,” the paper says.

“By eliminating a generation of female role models, this loss affects science to this day,” it adds.

Co-author Petra Moser, professor of economics at New York University, said as well as the loss of female role models, the findings also meant that “there were also fewer men growing up with mothers who were scientists, so there’s been a delayed cultural acceptance of mothers who are scientists”.

She said that the study had other major implications for gender equality in science today, even though the 1950s data effectively represented an “upper bound” for the effect of having children given the gender equality norms of the time.

“During the pandemic mothers have reduced their work hours two to four times as much compared with fathers,” she said. 

“We don’t know how these changes will affect science in the coming decades. But once we know, it’ll be too late. Our study can help to give us an idea of the potential long-run effects of the pandemic.”

Professor Moser added that the paper had also shone a light on the drawbacks of the tenure system, because mothers’ delayed productivity meant they effectively had to be “superstars” to be on a level playing field with other scientists.

“The current tenure system prizes early productivity. That’s a real killer for mothers, who suffer a productivity shock through pregnancy, birth and the fact that, in most families, mothers still do the lion’s share of the work of caring for young children,” she said.

Professor Moser worked on the study with Scott Kim, a PhD student in applied economics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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