Thursday, March 29, 2012

Guest Post: Gender Roles and Infant/Toddler Care: Male and Female Professors on the Tenure Track by Brian Marsony

This week's guest blogger is Brian Marsony. Brian Morsony is an NSF postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include theoretical and computational modeling of AGN jets and gamma-ray bursts.

Gender Roles and Infant/Toddler Care: Male and Female Professors on the Tenure Track

I would like to call attention to a recently published study comparing the roles of men and women in caring for young children (Rhodes & Rhodes, 2012). The study is a survey of male and female tenure-track college professors with children under age 2 at universities with parental leave available. The full article, from the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology is available here. And a press release from the University of Virginia (lead author's home institution) is here.

The study found that even with parents who thought child care should be split equally, fathers of young children almost never did half of the infant care. This was true even for men who took parental leave and for women who did not. Women were much more likely to take leave, with 69% of women taking leave compared to just 12% of men. Women also reported enjoying infant care activities more than men, one possible reason why women preform more of these tasks.

The first author also claims in the press release that "Male professors who take paid leave tend to use a majority of their time on things other than infant care, such as advancing their publishing agendas". However, there appears to be no evidence in the published article to support this, other than an anecdotal statement.

The results and conclusions should be taken with a massive grain of salt.
There are the usual problems of sociological studies, with the data being self-reported rather than objectively measured, small sample sizes (only 11 men surveyed took leave), and the data being collected in 2001-2002, so it is already a decade out of date. The survey also ask how often the survey takers do specific tasks relative to their spouse, not how much time they each spend on different activities.

But beyond this, there is also the problem that these authors see any difference between men and women, particularly about the "stickiness of gender roles" to be due to evolutionary or biological differences between men and women, rather than due to differences in cultural or societal expectations or conditioning. The first author, for example, said in 2005 that (from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, direct quote from Rhoads in single quotes) "Rhoads agrees with Summers, noting that though women are better at math calculation, men 'by their nature' are better at math reasoning or higher math -- why most astronomers and physicists are men, he says." (from here)

The main conclusion the authors draw, which I do not agree with, is that parental leave for men is harmful to the careers of women, and should be eliminated. In other words, since fathers are more likely to neglect their children, paternity leave should be eliminated, thus forcing men to neglect their children. The authors also seem surprised that "Some assistant professors were taking leave even though their wives didn’t have jobs" (because men couldn't possibly want to be around their children or help care for them unless their wife is working?). There also seems to be a belief that the primary reason women need maternity leave is for breastfeeding (so presumably leave is not necessary when adopting an infant?). These conclusion are not supported by the data in the article. Furthermore, just because a single policy fails to immediately achieve gender equality does not mean that policy should be eliminated.

Although the data in this paper is very valuable and certainly worth looking at, read critically when looking at the interpretation of that data.


  1. Small point - this is not a sociological study and the authors are not sociologists. I agree with your sentiments, but I don't think sociology should be linked to this study.

  2. Hey Brian. Thanks for this post. I have heard many stories (directly from the men themselves, but haven't seen any actual studies) of how great paternity leave was as they got so much done (e.g. submitted a paper, proposal, etc.). I've never heard a women on maternity leave say that. One way that Rice University is dealing with this particular discrepancy, is to make the men who want to take paternity leave to sign affidavits stating that they will be the primary care giver to the new baby during those weeks. Interesting idea. I wonder if it works.

  3. For several years as department head I've required all parents taking parental leave to sign such an affidavit. Several of the men have clearly honored their commitment, even in one case bringing an infant to an on-campus meeting with a visiting committee. (The baby asleep in a sling charmed the committee.) Visible respect for parental leave by these men helps shape a climate of broader respect for work-life balance. It may not be 100% effective but I think it's much better than no affidavit or a gender-discriminatory policy.

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing that. The data raise some interesting questions, but the conclusions don't seem to actually follow from them. Indeed, I wonder how many women would prefer that, if their spouses can't do at least 50% of the childcare, then instead they do none at all and get back to work.

    In a day and age when only a small fraction of men actually take advantage of such family-friendly policies (according to many studies, even this one), it seems to me that we need ways of encouraging them instead of discouraging.