Paid Family Leave Act: Get Real on Gender Gaps in Academia Now

While women outnumber men in university attendance, they are less represented in faculty and continually paid less than their counterparts. Improved paid family leave policies would help make strides towards greater equity in academia.

Paid family leave policies are a first step toward gender and racial equity at the university level. (Delwyn D. DeVries / Creative Commons)

Last month marked the 29th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which supports unpaid leave. Yet in almost three decades not enough progress has been made to catch up to the widening pay, fairness and gender equity gaps in this country. In academia, historic blatant gender inequities prevail.

The Chair on Netflix entertained millions of viewers in its first season with a female department chair as the lead, but in real life, the presence of women in higher education leadership is much more rare.

Women make up only 22 percent of elite research university presidents. Yet women outnumber men in colleges.

It’s clear the ‘leaks’ in the academic pipeline for women are the years after earning a doctoral degree and during the pre-tenure years, as those often coincide with starting a family. Without supportive policies in place, women are left swimming upstream to get back in the pipeline.

The latest study from the American Association of University Professors found that female faculty make 81.2 percent of what their male counterparts make.

It would take an extra 42 days of work for white women to earn the same amount as men in a year. Consideration of an individual’s race and household status reveals shocking numbers. Some estimates are that women of color lose almost twice as much as white women over their lifetime in salary. Thirty-four percent of single mother households meet the poverty rate, compared to six percent of married households. 

Gender inequity increases more in academia with parenthood in the equation. Research shows that women and men publish at equal rates before parenthood, yet productivity decreases after parenthood for mothers but not for fathers. Female faculty are aware of the motherhood penalty as mothers who prioritize family over work are viewed negatively, whereas fathers are praised for being family men.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, the pandemic blew up the discourse on gender equity in the academy, though this conversation is not new. A research study from March 2021 found 63 percent of females with dependents had difficulty managing time, 75 percent had difficulty with work-life balance and 41 percent found remote work difficult, with half saying it was challenging to find a quiet place to work.

In my research, professors who are also mothers identified how parenthood helps them have more empathy for students, helps them learn how to manage work and family roles, create boundaries, creates a necessary diversion from work and gives them a new perspective when approaching their work.

Yet, while parenthood for faculty presents benefits, the most significant impacts for female faculty were decreased productivity in research, less time available to concentrate and more time spent on unanticipated childcare responsibilities. Most institutions responded to the crisis with delayed options for tenure.

University of California- Merced formulated Interim COVID-Related Dependent Care Modified Duties that are in place for two years and allow release from service and teaching, and flexibility in classroom instruction and course offerings.

Stanford University offers a quarter term of no teaching or service, childcare assistance and grant money for research. Similarly, the University of Michigan Provost’s Office developed initiatives that support tenure-track faculty research and scholarship that has been delayed due to COVID-19, with funding ranging from $3,000–$15,000.

Formulating policies to respond to the COVID crisis is a great step, but administrators need to set a firm foundation if there is to be lasting change. Paid family leave policies are a first step toward equity in the academy.

Paid family leave policies allow faculty members to stay competitive, have time to bond with their child or family member and show up ready to get back to teaching, service and research, instead of as someone who is sleep-deprived and exhausted.

Only one in four Americans has access to paid leave. If the goal is for higher education to be a great equalizer in society, and inequity exists due to a lack of policies, the mission is abandoned.

The January 2022 Women’s Power Gap Initiative report in academia concluded the lack of female leadership is not due to a leak in the pipeline, it’s deeper and is a form of systemic bias.

At a time when universities are expanding and affirming their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, gender equity must be part of the conversation.

Last year Brown University received $20 million in funding that they devoted to DEI initiatives, with a specific initiative to hire diverse faculty. Other universities have formal groups devoted to DEI initiatives such as the Inclusive Excellence Center at Texas Christian University.

A cultural shift is needed to mandate universities to invest in professors who are not part of the white male majority. Universities must be proactive in developing policies that promote equity. Academic institutions with no paid family leave policy risk allegations of discrimination as a lack of policy leads to unequal treatment in how faculty departments manage parental leave.

Of course most universities offer some parental leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that allows new parents to receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave.

Thirty percent of working women pause their work when they have a child. For some women this temporary pause may turn into a much longer one as they struggle with childcare costs. With the unprecedented pandemic, childcare may be impossible and with remote learning enforced in many schools, the onus falls on parents, most likely on mothers.

For faculty who are parents, longer time away from work means less time on scholarship which is directly linked to the ability to promote and gain tenure.

The United States is the only high-income country that does not offer paid leave to its workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics only one in four Americans has access to paid leave.

If the goal is for higher education to be a great equalizer in society, and inequity exists due to a lack of policies, the mission is abandoned.

Historic inequity and a lack of policies are unacceptable excuses. The deadline to address and resolve gender equity in higher education is now.

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Emeline C. Eckart, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Graduate Counseling Department at the University of Indianapolis, a licensed mental health counselor and a public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.