Friday, September 22, 2017

Jenna Stearns

For this post, I interviewed Professor Jenna Stearns, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis. She is a labor economist; and her research is centered on understanding what she calls “family-friendly” policies in the workplace.  She is particularly interested in how they change the decisions women make about their employment, their family structure, and their health.

In “Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies?,”  Professor Stearns and two co-authors, Heather Antecol and Kelly Bedard, look at an example of a family-friendly policy that I myself, as an academic, have taken advantage of: stopping the tenure clock after childbirth or adoption. So, I was naturally drawn to this research. Most of you probably don’t know how this detail of the tenure system works in the academic world. This is a policy that allows assistant professors to extend the time until they come up for tenure, typically by a year. Initially, colleges and universities created these policies only for women, to “level the playing field.” That is, to try to help make up for the time women spend away from work after childbirth. But now it is most common for these policies to be gender-neutral, so that both new mothers and new fathers can take advantage of them, usually a maximum of twice before tenure time.

In this paper, the authors study the effects of these policies only at the top 50 Economics departments in the United States. They have data on over 1300 assistant professors hired in these departments between 1980 and 2005. They can’t tell exactly who took advantage of this program, but this is where the power of statistical analysis comes in. By separating out the various characteristics of the professors and the universities, they can estimate the effects the policy has had, and on whom.

The news is disheartening for women, but could be worse. They find that males at an institution with a gender-neutral clock stopping policy have about a 17% higher probability of getting tenure than they would have had before their institution adopted a clock stopping policy. On the other hand, women are about 19% LESS likely to get tenure after their institution adopts the policy. However, while tenure rates do fall for women at these top 50 institutions, the evidence shows that these women do go on to get tenure at other, sometimes, lower ranked institutions. What seems to be happening is that at the most prestigious institutions, the clock stopping policy allows men time to produce additional publications in the top 5 journals in Economics. On the other hand, women are not able to increase their publications in these journals. At these institutions, publishing in these journals is key to earning tenure. 

I think this research is important because it adds something new to the evidence on why women are not able to make it to the top of their professions. However, Professor Stearns is careful to point out that these results may be somewhat specific to Economics as a discipline. In Economics, especially at the most prestigious institutions, publishing in the top 5 journals is important for earning tenure, and it can take a long time to get these papers published. Hence, the one-year extension of the tenure clock early on in their career is very valuable for assistant professors in these departments, if it helps them get their research into these outlets. The gender-neutral clock stopping policy may not prove to be detrimental to women in other fields. 

I asked Professor Stearns how she thinks these policies should be designed differently, now that we know they are not working the way they were intended. The thing is, one of the reasons tenure clock stopping policies have changed from female-only to gender-neutral is because of the stigma associated with taking time off at childbirth: women feared that they were being perceived as less committed to their careers under the female-only version. But Professor Stearns believes that this work shows that the policies need to take into account that it is women who generally bear most of the burden of childcare; and that any policy should be designed to help encourage men to prioritize childcare -- during the tenure clock stopping, and in general. She suggests that the benefit can perhaps be available for both males and females, but be more generous for females. 

I wondered whether this work has implications outside the world of academia. Professor Stearns mentioned law firms, where young lawyers come up for partner, in a similar way that assistant professors come up for tenure. They have one shot at it, early on, so policies like this could be similarly effective (or not?!) in the law profession. I am very curious about the potential implications for enacting family-friendly policies likes this more widely in the business world, and maybe even in other professions. 

I asked Professor Stearns about some of her other research. She is currently working on a project that looks at the effects of different types of maternity leaves. So this work is specifically about policies designed only for women who take time off after childbirth. While some of these provide mothers with an income stream, others instead ensure that their jobs will be waiting for them. Her preliminary findings are that the latter types of policies work better to keep women in their jobs in the long run. 

Let’s talk! I would love to know what you think about this example of unintended consequences. Please submit comments and questions.