Academia, a Promised Land?

Research reveals a wider gender pay and promotion gap in academia relative to industry among science and engineering doctorate holders.

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For women graduating with a science or engineering PhD, academia can seem like a land of milk and honey. In fact, women with doctoral degrees are more likely than peer men to spurn industry in favor of academia. It holds the prospect of meaningful work, professional flexibility, and the potential to make a difference in the field – or the world. By its very intellectualist nature, academia hints at idealism. 

But what if academia is not the promised land women believe it to be?

Indeed, what if, far from being a place free of inequities, it is an environment where gender differences are more acute?

In research published in Nature BioTechnology, we, including Atsushi Ohyama at Hitotsubashi University, examine gender differences in pay and promotions in academia and in industry.

The inspiration for our research drew, in part, from Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Slaughter, who had risen to the highest ranks in academia, reflected on her brief stint outside of it. Her realization was that most working women lacked the professional flexibility she had enjoyed for much of her career. Separately, an earlier study by Laurel Smith-Doerr revealed that women working in traditional, hierarchical firms were eight times less likely to be promoted than those working in new biotechnology firms.

These two articles got us thinking: Are gender differences in pay and promotion higher or lower in academia, relative to industry? 

The answer matters – it matters to women in the scientific workforce who want to make informed career choices, and it matters to leaders in academia and industry committed to addressing the causes and consequences of gender disparities.

Using data from the National Science Foundation’s Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT), our study provides the following five findings on career trends for science and engineering doctoral recipients from U.S. universities during 1995-2017.

Gender Gap is Greater in Academia than in Industry

The gender pay gap of doctoral degree holders over their entire career is 1.5 times greater in academia relative to industry, after controlling for an extensive set of variables related to individual qualifications, family choices and work hours. 

Taken together with higher levels of pay in industry for all scientists and when assessed in real (1995) dollars, this difference matters materially: by their mid-career point, while men industrial scientists of an average profile (assessed at mean levels of control variables) earn $86,640, women industrial scientists of an average profile earn $84,281, trailing their male colleagues by 2.7%. In contrast, by their mid-career point, women academic scientists of an average profile make only $57,822, trailing by 7.2% relative to comparable men who earn $62,303.

The Gender Pay Gap Widens Over a Career in Academia, but not in Industry

First, the good news. In early career years, there is no gender pay gap in either industry or academia. This is a reason to celebrate.

But, digging deeper into differences over career age, the pay gap widens between 7 and 24 years of work. And this trend has worsened in the last two decades. The 2006-2017 gender gap in later career stages was on average three times the gap seen across the 1995–2003-time span.

Women in industry have a different experience. Their pay raises appear to keep pace with those of men in both periods.

Women Hold Fewer High-Value Positions in Academia Compared to Industry

Career age is associated with promotion opportunities, so the next question we delved into was how often women are promoted to high-value positions. In industry, high-value positions translate to leadership roles, while in academia, they are the coveted tenured ranks.

In both sectors, women are less likely to hold high-value positions than men. And in academia, the promotion gap has steadily worsened.

Women in industry are 15% less likely to hold leadership positions than men, a figure that has held steady over the 1995-2017 period. In academia, meanwhile, the gender disparity for tenured positions almost doubled – growing from 15% in 1995-2003 to 28% in 2006-2017.

For High-Value Positions in Academia and Industry, there is No Gender Pay Gap

While the likelihood of being in a high-value position is lower for women than men, women leaders or tenured faculty can expect to find themselves paid equally to men in similar positions. That’s encouraging news. It demonstrates the significant strides made in achieving gender pay parity in three of the four types of positions.

Gender Pay Disparity Exists in Non-Tenured Positions

But, for women in academia, there is a double whammy on lifelong earning potential. Not only are women more likely to hold non-tenured positions than men, the gender pay gap is also greater for this position. During 1995-2003, a 9.5% gender pay gap in non-tenured positions manifested around 15 years of career age and widened thereafter.

In 2006-2017, a 6.7% gap emerged around seven years of career age – typically coinciding with the tenure decision. Thereafter, the gender pay gap for non-tenured positions increased to 13.3% through 21 years of career age and remained around 10 % through 30 years post-graduation. The situation is worsening rather than improving for women in non-tenured positions.

So, where is the promised land?

The above five findings pose more questions regarding the root causes of gender gaps in pay and promotion. Our hope is that this study sparks additional investigation, reflection, conversation and action.

Aspiring PhD scientists should keep this research in mind as they map their career choices and consider the possibilities and potential setbacks of each path. Given the increasing trend in the ratio of non-tenured to tenured positions, University leaders need to pay closer attention to gender gaps in promotion and pay if they wish to retain and reward women within academia. For leaders in industry, our findings point to potential changes in promotion practices.

Both academia and industry have made significant strides in closing the gender pay gap. For Anne Marie Slaughter, as for us, academia is indeed an ideal place to be, preferable to industry for its flexibility, independence and intellectualism.

But for women who may be sorted in non-tenured positions, there remains a long way to reach that promised land. 

Rajshree Agarwal

Rudolph Lamone Chair of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland