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wage gap in science

Female Scientists’ Careers Held Back by Motherhood

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone paying attention to the wage disparities between men and women across virtually every industry, but the wage and opportunity gap — especially after motherhood — is alive and kicking in academia as well. Specifically, female academics with young children find it more difficult to access research funding and generate attention for their results than their male counterparts.

Cornelia Lawson, Aldo Geuna and Ugo Finardi analyzed the careers of 262 male and female scientists at the University of Turin over a ten-year period. What they found was staggering, though not entirely unexpected: women receive less funding than their male peers and citation rates, an important marker of how research is perceived by the scientific community, also drop for women with young children.

The study looked at teaching and family commitments alongside public funding and the impact of research (as measured by the quality of journal publications and volume of citations). The researchers, from the Universities of Bath, Turin and the National Research Council of Italy, found hit on two issues of particular significance and interest.

One is that public funding of research is controlled by elite networks, such as professional scientific bodies, with those in leading management roles receiving twice the funding of other academics. This creates a system that is potentially weighted towards scientists who are unconsciously favored by those at the top of the elite networks. These elite networks exist across academic disciplines all over the world and retain enormous influence over the allocation of research funding.

“The strong influence of management positions in professional societies on research funding is concerning,” says Aldo Geuna, of the University of Turin faculty. “Other networks should be given the same opportunity for funding and greater scrutiny of selection processes and diversity on selection processes is crucial.”

The second observation, regarding the discrepancy between citation rates between female scientists with children and their male counterparts, is described by Dr Cornelia Lawson, from the University of Bath’s School of Management:

“It may be that the challenge of travel to international conferences and meetings to promote research findings alongside childcare responsibility is at the heart of the motherhood penalty, leaving quality research overlooked. It highlights the need for support systems for women with childcare responsibilities.

“Conversely,” she continues, “fatherhood is correlated with higher citation rates for male scientists in the study, driven perhaps by the desire to provide for their new offspring, or reflecting a strategic decision to have a family when they feel their career is safely established.”

So, whether the productivity drop is one precipitated by unconscious bias against women with young children, or whether there are structural issues that are preventing new mothers in science from being able to pursue their career goals with the same momentum as their male counterparts, the important first step is recognizing that an obstacle exists.

Hopefully, this study adds one more data point to the growing body of literature on how biases in professional settings and societal norms regarding parenting can impact women’s productivity. It would be a damn shame to discourage all the incredible female scientists making such important contributions to their fields just because they procreated. Over to you, science patriarchy.

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