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Workplace Climate Pushing Female Professors Out

Originally published by Kathryn Palmer for Inside Higher Education

Women are likelier than men to leave the professoriate at all stages of their careers—and workplace climate, not work-life balance, is the biggest reason they leave, a new study finds.

“The dominant incongruences for women arise from workplace climate, including dysfunctional leadership, feelings of not belonging to the department or university, harassment and discrimination,” concluded the study published this month in Science Advances. “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.”

Women make up 44 percent of tenure-track faculty members and 36 percent of full professors, according to the American Association of University Women. While a combination of factors contributes to that underrepresentation, the new research illustrates how institutional culture plays a role.

To reach their conclusions, researchers used an employment census of 245,270 tenure-track and tenured professors active in their roles between 2011 and 2020, across 111 academic fields at 391 Ph.D.-granting institutions. The research team also analyzed 10,071 responses to a survey about faculty attrition it received from former and current tenure-track professors.

“We wanted to do a systematic study across career age, institution, and field, investigating whether women and men leave academia at different rates, and for different reasons,” Katie Spoon, the paper’s lead author and a Ph.D. student in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s computer science department, said in an email. “It’s really hard to identify faculty who have left academia, so a lot of studies have had to look at a very specific population—the literature is very deep, but narrow, focused mostly on assistant professors, STEM fields, and higher-prestige institutions. As a result, there are a lot of different conclusions, depending on what population was looked at.”

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