Why are women underrepresented in academic science, especially at the higher levels of prestige and power? Two recent publications suggest that the reason lies not in  lack of scientific ability or interest, or even in gender discrimination, but in the way academic careers intersect with motherhood.

Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, a new book by Mary Ann Mason of the University of California (UC), Berkeley, Nicholas H. Wolfinger of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and Marc Goulden, also of UC Berkeley, examines the professorial path from graduate school through retirement. It finds academe, especially at research universities and in the crucial early career stages, strikingly inimical to mothers. In contrast, a study by Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz explores a different science-based occupation that, according to the title, is "The Most Egalitarian of All Professions: Pharmacy and the Evolution of a Family-Friendly Occupation." 

Unlike the science professoriate, Goldin and Katz show, in recent decades the well-paid pharmacy field has moved from a sparse representation of women to a rapidly growing female majority. In contrast to female science professors, who on average trail their male colleagues in income, hiring, and promotion, female pharmacists enjoy essentially equal professional opportunities and pay.

Differing paths

The two professions share superficial similarities. Both demand a doctoral degree that requires extensive study of science and math, and mastery of exacting methods and techniques. But the differences are more significant than the similarities. In the United States, the Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.) involves a personalized program of postbaccalaureate classroom study and original research that has no predetermined duration. The Doctor of Pharmacy degree (Pharm.D.), in contrast, is a fixed-term professional degree with no research component. Applicants to Pharm.D. programs need at least 2 years of prerequisite college courses including biology, microbiology, general and organic chemistry, physics, and calculus—but not necessarily a bachelor's degree. They then spend 4 years completing a highly structured curriculum emphasizing pathophysiology, pharmacology, pharmacokinetics, and professional practice.  

Even more different than the programs themselves is what happens when they're over. After an average of 7 years in graduate school, new science Ph.D.s generally must spend several more years as postdocs, paid about $40,000, before they can seek an assistant professorship in an overcrowded, highly competitive job market. The minority of Ph.D. scientists who land tenure-track positions next spend up to seven high-pressure years working to acquire the publications and grants needed to win professional security (and avoid mandatory firing after 7 years of service).

In contrast, soon after new Pharm.D.s pass required licensing exams, they generally go to work for more than $100,000 a year, with offers often coming before graduation. Many pharmacists find jobs in or near their home communities. Those aiming to work in oncology, pain management, poison control, nuclear medicine, regulatory affairs, or another specialized area often serve a 1- or 2-year residency or fellowship, earning about  $40,000 annually, before launching their professional careers. Advanced career opportunities also await those who do further graduate work.

The eighth highest paid occupation among American men, pharmacy ranks third on the list of careers most lucrative for women, after physicians and nurse anesthetists, Goldin and Katz state. Furthermore, "For the past three decades more than 60 percent of new hires … have been women, [generally] hired by large corporations, the government, and hospitals," they write. With a 2010 median salary of $111,570, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), pharmacists' incomes are gaining on those of such professionals as doctors, lawyers, and veterinarians, the authors add. Given the growing demand for health care and the increasing importance and complexity of pharmaceuticals in treatment, BLS predicts continuing good job prospects for pharmacists. 

Women pharmacists earn 92% of what men do, Goldin and Katz note, with women's higher likelihood of working part-time accounting for the difference. "Pharmacy today has little or no hourly wage penalty for part-time work," they write. Because of the profession's "extensive work flexibility and low pecuniary penalty to short hours, female pharmacists … take little time off during their careers even when they have children. Pharmacy has become the 'most egalitarian' of all U.S. professions."

The motherhood penalty

At nearly every stage of an academic career, on the other hand, professors who are mothers find themselves disadvantaged compared to their male and childless female colleagues, including faculty fathers. Scientists are penalized most of all. "There are far fewer women than men at the top of the academic ladder, and these women are much less likely to be married or have children than are the men at the top," Mason and co-authors write. Conversely, "only one in three women who takes a tenure-track university job before having a child ever becomes a mother."

Yet, the basic issue in science is not gender per se, the book persuasively argues—a conclusion that other researchers have also reached. "Our findings suggest that traditionally conceived gender discrimination no longer seems to account for the lower rate at which women get tenure-track jobs—indeed, if it ever did." Instead, because of the childrearing responsibilities that women overwhelmingly bear, "having young children dramatically reduces the likelihood of tenure for women in the sciences," and of getting hired in the first place and winning the federal funding crucial to advancing a career. Tenure-track mothers of young children are "21 percent less likely" than comparable fathers, "26 percent less likely" than childless married women, and "19 percent less likely" than childless single women to have support from grants or contracts, the book states. 

It's now a cliché that graduate school, postdoc appointments, and the struggle for tenure fall within women's prime reproductive years. Less recognized are the many ways that academe's rigidity and science's fierce competitiveness conflict with the responsibilities most mothers bear. The shortage of jobs and grant funding rewards people able to spend every waking minute at the bench or computer, squeezing out every last publication and grant proposal—impossible for most mothers. Because of universities' geographic dispersion, taking a new job or postdoc often requires a family-disrupting long-distance move, which evidence shows constitutes a major obstacle to advancement for many women.

Even applying for jobs often requires multiday sojourns in faraway towns, difficult for mothers who are nursing or need childcare. Conferences, which are so important to building reputations and contacts, raise similar issues. Family-friendly university policies like stopping the tenure clock often don't help because faculty fear that taking advantage makes them appear unserious.

Roots of difference

The fundamental difference between the professions comes down to the role of the individual professional. Intense competition for jobs and funding forces would-be faculty scientists to strive to "achieve scientific breakthroughs and prove oneself" uniquely valuable to the research enterprise. Faculty scientists must fund and run labs that are the equivalent of small businesses, while pharmacists are overwhelmingly employees and generally "good substitutes for each other," Goldin and Katz note. Employers therefore reap "no great gains [from] having a pharmacist work 60 hours a week as opposed to having two pharmacists each work 30 hours a week." Extra hours on the job, however, can mean more papers and grants for a would-be professor.

Today's "family-friendly, female-friendly pharmacy profession" resulted not from employer benevolence but from economic incentives created by a major transformation of the industry. In the 1960s, when nearly half of pharmacists owned their own businesses (and put in correspondingly long hours)—and only 14% worked for chains—the profession was 92% male. Since then, the retail pharmacy industry has consolidated into large drugstore, supermarket, and "big-box" chains, and hospital pharmacies have grown in size and complexity.  Today, only 14% of pharmacists work as owners or employees of independent pharmacies, and fewer than 5% are self-employed. Women now constitute 55% of the profession and two-thirds of pharmacy students.

Obviously, then, a highly responsible, exacting, science-based occupation can attract large numbers of lifetime female professionals if it offers good earnings and hours that accommodate family needs. Some months back, Science Careers editor Jim Austin suggested that scientists seeking career opportunities might wish to consider healthcare fields.  Pharmacy offers a variety of possibilities, including some that take advantage of additional training and research skills.

As economist Paula Stephan, among numerous others, has convincingly shown, "economics shapes science" and overproduction of Ph.D.s and postdocs suits universities' economic interests. Not surprisingly, the resulting excess of faculty applicants feeds the competition for funding and recognition that early-career scientists must engage in. It also removes any real incentive for universities and their science departments to make genuine structural reforms, as opposed to palliative policy shifts, to accommodate mothers. Employers usually undertake systemic changes when forced to offer better jobs to attract the workers they need.  As long as academic scientists—in stark contrast to pharmacists—remain a proverbial "drug on the market," the professoriate appears likely to remain among the least family-friendly of professions.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300157