Why is the Academic Pipeline Leaking, and Does that Make You a Drip?

One of the persistent problems with gaining gender equality in academia is the leaky pipeline. The leaky pipeline describes the phenomenon where women make up significant numbers of PhD candidates, but there are progressively smaller percentages of women assistant professors, then associate professors, then full professors. Fewer women full professors mean that there are fewer female deans, provosts and presidents of colleges and universities. A failure to recruit and retain female faculty on the tenure track means that there will be a gender imbalance in terms of university leadership. The leaky pipeline has also been used to describe a similar issue with the recruitment and retention of faculty of color, who are also found in decreasing levels in higher university appointments.

Mary Ann Mason calls this the “pyramid problem,” and directly relates it to female faculty having children: “There are far fewer women than men at the top of the academic hierarchy; those women are paid somewhat less than men, and they are much less likely then men to have had children.” Citing the AAUP’s 2006 gender-equity indicators report, Mason catalogs startling statistics about women in our profession. Although women make up roughly 50% of those gaining PhDs, we make up only 38 percent of faculty, 46% of assistant professors, 38% of associate professors and 23% of full professors.

These numbers are worse in the UK, according to a post from the London School of Economics, with only 20% of women making up professors. Image

So why aren’t women staying in academia? And if women don’t stay, is that a tragedy? As Emily Lakdawalla tweeted: Image

Two issues that I haven’t seen discussed as much in terms of the leaky pipeline are money and location. While academic climate, the adjunctification of the university, and institutionalized sexism, racism, and homophobia are important elements in the leaky pipeline, I’d like to talk about money and location as important factors for those choosing to leave the profession. In the coming weeks, I’m going to be featuring interviews with academics at various stages in their careers. I’ll be interested to see if my hypothesis that finances and issues of place are more prevalent reasons for career discontent that we’ve previously realized.


The AAUP recently released a report called, Losing Focus: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2013-14. Two of their major findings is that the rise of highly paid administrators and coaching staff has led to a stagnation and/or decline in wages paid to professors. To me, this is a fascinating collision between the traditional notion that being a professor is a high status job, and the fairly low salaries we are paid for our level of education and also the number of hours per week we work (outside of perhaps the salaries paid to science and social science professors at R1 institutions). The New York Times reported that the average pay for assistant professors at public colleges is $58,591. This isn’t far off from the starting salary of recent graduates with their B.A. degrees. This means, according to the Wall Street Journal, that a mid career salary for one of my former undergraduates at Minnesota State University would be around 74,000, far more than the average salary at my institution for a tenured professor. I’d speculate that although most people don’t become professors for the money, relatively low salaries can be a factor in leaving the profession, especially when faced with supporting children.


When I was on the job market I had to explain to friends and family that being an academic is like being in the military. You have to go where you are posted, if you are lucky enough to get a job. We’re expected to accept this, and the implication is that our partners and children should accept this too. If you’re not sure this is true, read the comments section of Alexandra M. Lord’s controversial essay “Location, Location, Location” where she talks about choosing to leave academia because she wanted to choose where she wanted to live. Commentators basically call her a big baby for not just sucking it up and moving. Where this becomes a MITA issue is when a relatively low paying job is in a place where it difficult for our partners to find work. I haven’t seen a lot of discussion of this, I think because talking about money remains very uncomfortable for academics, especially since most of us are not motivated by money in our career choices. What this meant for me personally, when I was on the job market, is that I didn’t apply for 1 year visiting professor positions or postdocs outside of the state where I lived, knowing that the expense of moving my family to take up a low paying position wouldn’t be worth it, even though this made me less competitive for tenure track positions. For those of us with families, we may not be willing to move for an academic career.

So money and location, when thought about together, are two very powerful reasons for a leaky pipeline, even though they don’t get as much attention as issues of university climate. They also might emerge as reasons why white women and people of color might consciously choose to pursue other professional opportunities, where they can choose their location and possibly make more money. What have been your experiences with money, place, and academic job choices?


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