Research Findings

Not by productivity alone: Understanding gender gaps in promotion to tenure in academia

February 18, 2018

Women are underrepresented in high status positions in companies and universities, in part because they are less likely to receive promotions at work than are men.

What is the reason behind this gender gap in promotion? One possibility is that women are less productive than men in their jobs, and promotion decisions are simply rewarding the most productive individuals. Another option is that men and women start off in different types of workplaces, and women’s workplaces could have different promotion processes or expectations that affect their likelihood of promotions. A third possibility is that promotion evaluations themselves contain gender inequality and bias.

In a recent study described here, I tested these three explanations for the gender gap in promotion to tenure in academia, among three disciplines. To do this, I collected and analyzed data on research productivity, school and department context (size, type of university, department prestige, etc.), and promotion outcomes from over 1,500 professors at research universities in three departments.

I find that in Sociology, Computer Science, and English departments, some productivity measures partially account for the gender gap in promotion, but large portions of the gender gap are not explained either by research productivity or by the department/school context. In other words, the results suggest that gender inequality in the promotion evaluation processes are contributing to the gender gap in promotion among professors.

Studying tenure in academia

In research universities, assistant professors hired in tenure-track positions are typically given a certain number of years to publish and demonstrate research productivity. At the end of this period, the department and university evaluate the professor and decide whether to promote the professor and grant tenure. Tenure creates job security for the professor, and is a signal that they are widely recognized in their field as a prominent researcher. If the professor is denied tenure, they usually must leave the university and find a job elsewhere.

When making the tenure decision, most departments in research universities base evaluations primarily on a candidate’s research portfolio – paying attention to research publications like books and journal articles, in addition to grants, conference presentations, and how visible or well-recognized a scholar is. Teaching comes into these decisions as well, but the bulk of the tenure decision rests on research productivity – at least in research universities.

To study the explanations of the gender gap in tenure rates, I collected and combined detailed data from several sources: Google Scholar records, professors’ CVs, department websites, archives of webpages, and existing data on department context.

With these data sources, I assembled a dataset of over 1,500 professors who were in tenure-track positions in the early 2000s, at about 100 universities. The dataset tracks professors from the beginning of their academic careers and examines whether they were promoted to receive tenure or not. The study measures publications (type, amount, citation counts) and other types of research productivity, as well as indicators of department and school context. If a professor moved away from the school at which they began their career, I followed their early career paths at their new positions.

Does productivity or department context explain the gender gap in tenure?

I find that women are less likely than men to receive tenure in Sociology, Computer Science, and English departments in the approximately 100 research universities in the sample. For example, in Sociology departments, about 85% of men received tenure, compared to about 78% of women. In Computer Science, about 86% of men and 81% of women receive tenure, as do about 86% of men and 80% of women in English departments. These statistics consider whether professors in the sample received tenure at all; the gap widens somewhat (e.g., in Sociology 58% of men received tenure compared to 49% of women) if we just consider tenure outcomes for the original department in which professors began their careers.

This gender gap in tenure is partially accounted for by research productivity, but not completely.

In other words, women do have less research productivity than men on some measures, and these differences do explain some of the gender gap in tenure (e.g., in Sociology, research productivity accounts for about 34% of the gender gap). Department context does not explain much of the gender gap in tenure for any of the departments in my study.

After accounting for these two factors – productivity and workplace context – in Sociology departments, 45% of the gender gap remains unexplained. In Computer Science, 41% is unexplained, and in English departments, close to 90% of the gap is unexplained. This means that something other than research productivity and department context is causing the gender gap in promotion to tenure.

Where do women and men end up after receiving tenure?

In addition to analyzing the gender gap in the likelihood of receiving tenure, I also examined what types of departments women and men who do receive tenure end up in. To study this, I use data on department prestige from the National Research Council, which ranks departments by prestige. This prestige scale ranges from 1 (the most prestigious) to about 100 (the least prestigious of the research universities in the sample).

I find that on average, women receive tenure in less prestigious departments than men do. Productivity measures and measures of the initial department explain some of the observed gender gap in department prestige, but not all. For example, in Sociology and Computer Science, women receive tenure in departments that are ranked about 4.5 positions lower than men on average. In English departments, women receive tenure in departments that are about 14 positions lower on the prestige scale than do men, on average.

What does this tell us about promotion and gender inequality?

Overall, this study finds that gender differences in productivity and workplace context only partially explains gender gaps in promotion to tenure and in the prestige of departments in which tenure is obtained.

What else could be causing the gender gap, if not productivity or context? In the article, I argue that several processes could be occurring to produce gender inequality in the tenure evaluation process. One explanation is overt gender bias: evaluators do not want women to receive tenure. Given past research on gender bias, I think this explanation is unlikely. Rather, more subtle processes can accumulate to produce inequalities in the tenure decision.

For example, women might be more closely scrutinized if they have children, and evaluators might unconsciously want to see additional evidence that mothers can remain productive – a scrutiny that they might not apply to fathers. Women professors might be less visible to other researchers: since tenure processes usually involve other professors’ recommendations, it is possible that there are gender differences in networks that could lead to different types of evaluators, or different ways that those writing recommendations write about women compared to men.

Women’s career decisions and preferences might play a role, too. Since the data from this study are based on observed career outcomes, I am unable to know whether professors chose to move to different types of schools because of work or family preferences – preferences that could be gendered. However, supplementary analyses examining school transitions and the likelihood of leaving academia pre-tenure suggest that there are few observable gender differences on these outcomes. This implies that women in the sample do not have dramatically different career preferences than men. Although it is possible that such preferences play a role, as far as I can tell from the available data, they do not seem to be driving the inequality we see.

Taken together, the results from this study suggests that gender inequality in the tenure evaluation process – likely operating through subtle or unconscious mechanisms – contributes to the gender gap in tenure in the three disciplines studied. Thus, if the goal is to get rid of the gender gap in tenure rates, it could be more fruitful to rethink evaluation processes than to focus on making women professors more productive.

Read More

Kate Weisshaar, “Publish and Perish? An Assessment of Gender Gaps in Promotion to Tenure in Academia,” Social Forces 2017.

Image: Janet Lindenmuth via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


  • Reply Data Science newsletter – February 21, 2018 | March 9, 2018 at 4:39 am

    […] trainees, blog posts, and training materials are more impactful.” Kate Weisshaar looked at three possible explanations for the lower number of women in tenured positions and found that even in sociology – a field heavily invested in gender equality, at least in […]

    • Reply Mariano Sana April 2, 2018 at 4:10 pm

      In sociology, where the gap is 7 percentage points (85 v 78), the author finds that up to 45% of this (i.e. up to 3 percent points) is unexplained, which is the ceiling for discrimination (the “ceiling” because there may be other unobserved factors that make for systematic differences between women and men that affect the outcome). So, we have that up to 3 in 100 female promotions in sociology may be suspect of unfair discrimination. Even if a subjective statement, I think of this as real but small. Perhaps the result of a few “bad apples”? I haven’t read the original article (this is not my area of research), but I wonder if effects at the departmental level (in the multilevel sense) were considered there.

      A note on the prestige of tenure-granting departments: this is obviously a function of where newly minted PhDs end up. As a recurrent DGS in my department, I have to say that we see a lot more mobility from male graduates than female graduates. Often the brand new female PhD *has* to stay in town (her words) because of family (e.g. husband has a great job in town). My sense is that location is so influenced by personal circumstances (even if these “personal” circumstances are influenced by social norms) that it gives me pause before faulting departments for the gender of their tenure-track pool.

      All this said, those English folks have some explaining to do!

  • Reply Pooja Sawrikar October 3, 2020 at 2:20 pm

    I agree with your conclusion Kate – the heart of the gender inequity problem in academia is at the site of decision-making itself. Thank you for your piece.

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