Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Gender-neutral gender bias

Here at Santa Clara University, we are (in my view) justifiably proud of our generous parental leave and tenure-clock policies for faculty. A full academic term of paid leave and a one-year extension of the tenure clock are automatic for new parents. The policy is gender-neutral. In addition, birth mothers qualify for paid pregnancy disability leave of up to 12 weeks.

Sigh. This recent post by Justin Wolfers has drawn attention to an interesting research paper revealing an unintended but not entirely unanticipated consequence of gender-neutral parental tenure clock extension policies: They help men and hurt women. Using data from top-50 economics departments, Antecol et al show that after an institution implemented a gender-neutral tenure clock extension policy, the average rate of achieving tenure increased by about 20 percentage points for males and decreased by a similar amount for females. Why? Quite likely, to put it starkly, many dads took advantage of their extra year to push out some more articles, while many moms devoted their extra year to what it was intended for: childrearing.

When women (and some of us men) advocated for more family-friendly policies, we knew this outcome was possible, but the size of the effect the authors find is well beyond what I would have expected: a widening of the gender gap in tenure rates of about 40 percentage points. That's huge, and hugely discouraging.

Of course, this is just one study, looking only at economists... maybe things are not so bad elsewhere. But to me the message is pretty clear, and accords with common sense. When women's advancement in the professions is hindered by societal gender roles, gender-neutral policies in the workplace may not reduce inequities, and may in fact increase them.

So... what to do? There appear to be four options.
(1) Strong gender-neutral policies (our status quo), which may well have paradoxically gender-biased implications.
(2) Gender-conscious policies: parental leave for women but not men. Politically touchy, and too bad for the handful of progressive dads.
(3) Gender-neutral policies with strict rules and enforcement. Surveillance cameras can ensure that dads on parental leave are playing with junior rather than running regressions. Non-starter.
(4) Narrowly targeted gender-neutral policies: e.g., subsidized child care. Universities would do well to identify, assess, and support such initiatives.

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