Women Faculty “Pass” as Nonparents to Protect their Careers

Recent Research Highlights how Ideas about Academic Excellence Produce Inequitable Outcomes and Harm Innovation

Scientists and engineers take pride in the objectivity and rationality of their work. A 2022 book, however, raises some compelling questions and challenges the assertion that science’s reliance on merit is unbiased and unproblematic. In a shocking example of how present norms create unnecessary challenges, the book uncovers a culture of work devotion so dominant in academia that women faculty hide the fact that they are mothers from their coworkers. This is despite evidence that mothers (and other caregivers) who take family leave and strive for life-work balance are more productive on average than nonparents. Indeed, time away from work that is spent with family enhances STEM innovation. Overwork, however, does the opposite.

Misconceiving Merit: An In-Depth Investigation of Science and Inequity

In Misconceiving Merit: Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering, authors Mary Blair-Loy and Erin A. Cech take a systems-level approach to consider how basic assumptions built into the culture of science may create and perpetuate inequities regarding whose work is rewarded and acknowledged. Blair-Loy and Cech argue that inequities are perpetuated through the culture of science, rather than by biases particular individuals have. As explained in a recent book review, “The professional culture of science… is comprised of hegemonic beliefs about what constitutes good science and the kinds of people who do good science.

A book cover with the title "Misconceiving Merit: Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering" by Mary Blair-Loy and Erin Cech

Once socialized into the culture of science, scientists-in-training are expected to align themselves with it. In doing so, they gain the respect of fellow scientists. Those who reject science’s hegemonic beliefs risk being cast as impotent failures” (Bird, 2023). Put simply: scientists and engineers feel pressure to conform to dominant, traditional ideas about  “good science”, and they risk professional condemnation if they fail to do so. The result? Faculty from diverse backgrounds—particularly female and nonbinary faculty and faculty members of color—see their work undervalued and underacknowledged in the academy.

Blair-Loy and Cech ‘s inferences are built upon strong evidence. They draw on a substantial quantitative and qualitative study of more than 500 STEM professors at a top research university to illuminate these findings. Many STEM professors at CSU will recognize the culture Blair-Loy and Cech uncovered as one very similar to our own. Indeed, evidence from CSU’s recruitment and retention data mirror the patterns identified by Blair-Loy and Cech. At CSU, women faculty members of color leave their positions at rates much higher than their peers in the same departments. CSU also hires proportionally fewer women faculty members of color across STEM and non-STEM fields when compared with other groups.

For individuals skeptical of Misconceiving Merit’s claims or the research by Blair-Loy and Cech, we recommend starting with the book’s fifth chapter. In Chapter 5, Blair-Loy and Cech detail how professors continue to defend the falsehood that widely-accepted metrics of scientific merit are objective even “when presented with peer-reviewed statistics that robustly document unequal treatment of underrepresented academic scientists.” The data are clear—traditional notions of merit are a boon to some and a bane to others in ways that have very little to do with the quality of their work.

Rethinking the Role of “Merit” in Higher Education

Of course, changing the notions of “merit” and “good science” is complicated. Blair-Loy and Cech note that there isn’t an easy, magic solution for addressing the inequities promoted by dominant notions of science. They outline four broad suggestions, including thinking more critically about our notions of merit and excellence in the academy. They also suggest that individuals aware of the shortcomings of traditional idea of “merit” might advocate for more inclusive and innovative approaches to “good science” in their spheres of influence. They especially note that more senior faculty have a crucial role to play in mentoring others to be aware of biases and misconceptions related to merit. Finally, they champion policies like parental leave that can help faculty better achieve the life-work balance essential to sustainable academic work and innovative scholarship. As Blair-Loy and Cech state: “Faculty tenure is designed to protect academic freedom; we encourage academic scientists to use that freedom to question some of the precepts of their scientific culture.”


Author Information: This blog post was written by Sue James with assistance from Meara Faw. Sue is the Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and a Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Meara is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and 2023-2024 Provost Leadership Fellow.