Monday, March 11, 2013

Academia and Family Structure

Today's guest blogger is Annika Peter. Annika studies dark matter and gravitational dynamics and is currently finishing up a postdoctoral position at UC Irvine. She is moving to a faculty position in the Departments of Physics and Astronomy at The Ohio State University.

A number of studies indicate that, at the faculty level, a large proportion of women physicists and astronomers are partnered with other academic scientists (especially other physicists!). The exact numbers are hard to come by---a lot of the time, all physical scientists are lumped together in studies, even though there are hints that there are major differences across fields (with Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research finding that physicists have the most “endogamous” marriage habits). I have found only one survey specific to physicists, and it is not especially recent (1998 to be specific). Moreover, I have not yet been able to find cohort studies that examine family structures at a variety of career stages, or studies of the reasons why both men and women leave the academic track. I am also interested to see if there is greater or lesser selection pressure on dual academic couples. In my experience, a high percentage of women in physics and astronomy are coupled with other academic scientists at just about all career stages, but I would like to see some cold, hard numbers on this.

Nevertheless, if you lump all physical science faculty together, one finds large differences in the partnering and child-rearing patterns of men and women. A study referenced in this article shows that women scientists are more than three times more likely than their male counterparts to be married to someone who also holds a science PhD. Women science professors are far more likely than their male counterparts to be single or have no children. When women science professors are partnered, they are far more likely than men to have a “two-body problem”. The subject of the two-body problem is near and dear to my heart (as it is to many women scientists and the men or women they are partnered with), and I will be devoting some future blog space to this subject.

Women scientists still do far more housework than men, even in dual-academic-career households, as noted by Schiebinger & Gilmartin. The difference in time devoted to household work is significant, especially compared with their additional finding that men and women in dual career couples have statistically almost indistinguishable distributions of hours worked (median of about 55 hours, the width of the distribution is 11 hours). Thus, women scientists have a significantly higher work+housework time commitment than men scientists. In addition, the authors of the study find that the average scientist spends 19 hours per week on housework. There are a lot of illuminating figures in that paper, and I recommend you check it out. Note that this study only considers work related to inanimate objects; child-related tasks are not included.