While staff retention may already be a well-documented issue in the higher education workforce, female professors have a far higher risk of turnover and are less likely to be promoted than men at every stage of their careers, according to a study on ScienceAdvances. Women with tenure, hired at less-prestigious institutions and working in non-STEM domains primarily drove the trend.
While past studies have also concluded that women faculty experience lower retention rates, this study’s authors believe their evidence paints a more poignant picture that women are more likely to leave due to workplace climate. They believe higher education’s current workplace climate possesses “dysfunctional leadership” and lends itself toward harassment and discrimination.
“Such incongruences highlight the way departmental and institutional policies and norms tend to reflect, accommodate and reinforce the traditional overrepresentation of white men from more privileged backgrounds, thereby driving gendered attrition over a career and inducing a substantial, asymmetric loss of overall talent and scholarship,” they wrote.
As associate and full-time professors, women were 7 and 12% less likely to be promoted than men each year, respectively. Additionally, men’s rates for promotions to associate and full professor peak one and two years earlier than women’s, respectively.
The study analyzed over 240,000 tenure-track or tenured faculty active in their roles between 2011–2020 across 100+ academic fields, nearly 400 PhD granting institutions and every academic domain.
The granularity of the data allowed the researchers to uncover that even among men and women working at the same institution, at the same stage of their career and from the same PhD cohort, women were still calling it quits at a higher rate.
Implications of the study
Lower retention among women creates less diverse faculty cohorts, a pattern dubbed the “leaky pipeline” effect. Because women were more likely to leave their positions at every stage of their careers compared to men, men’s faculty representation progressively increased.
For example, a hypothetical cohort of new faculty equal parts men and women would fall to 48% women after 15 years, 45% after 25 years and 41% after 35 years. Ultimately, men are most likely to make up almost 60% of a faculty cohort in the later stages of professorship.
This helps explain why older female professors attributed their higher likelihood of quitting to the workplace environment rather than work-life balance, which is mainly attributable to younger women faculty at the foot of motherhood. Other cohorts of women reported a lack of belonging.
Why—and which—female faculty leave
The study identified that the attrition rates among men and women were highly susceptible to differences in the kinds of institutions they worked for, at what stage of their career and what academic field they worked in.
For example, there were no STEM domains in which women at the beginning of their careers were more likely to leave than men at the same stage. However, female professors in every non-STEM domain are likelier to leave than men.
One of the reasons women at the beginning of their careers in STEM fields experience similar attrition rates is because there is more attention on helping younger childbearing women achieve work-life balance, such as by providing paid parental leave, flexible hours, on-campus childcare and dual-career solutions.
However, incentives for the young faculty aforementioned are usually only available for higher-prestige, highly-resourced institutions.
And as faculty begin to age, this is where tenured women faculty find themselves more likely to leave their institution. While men and women faculty both feel an increased pressure to leave their institution the more they age, men have a higher chance of pursuing another attractive job title and face less pressure than women to leave in the first place. Specifically, women’s odds of feeling pushed out were 44% higher than men’s and women’s odds of feeling pulled into something more attractive were 39% lower than men’s.
This helps illuminate why tenured women faculty, who make up 61% of all women in permanent faculty positions, are among the three demographics of women most likely to experience lower retention rates; they are more likely to feel the pressure to leave and lack the incentive to stay.