Frontiers

Plugging the Pipeline

Graduate student Arielle Kuperberg explores the impact of motherhood on graduate education for women.
December 2008

As if graduate school wasn’t hard enough, more and more women are juggling post-baccalaureate study with taking care of kids. That’s the finding of Ph.D. candidate Arielle Kuperberg in “Motherhood and Graduate Education: 1970-2000.” Her study was published in the Population Research and Policy Review.

Kuperberg, a doctoral student in sociology and demography, compiles and crunches data on family-life transitions, including cohabitation, marriage, divorce and childbearing. She also looks at shifting gender roles in the American family.

“No, I’m not a mom,” she confides, “although I was asked that constantly while I was working on this paper.” The study came out of an academic conference she attended as an undergrad. A panelist talked about high dropout rates for women at every level of academia and blamed faculty maternity-leave policies that were not family friendly. “At the time, I was gearing up to apply to graduate school,” Kuperberg recalls, “so naturally it occurred to me, What about before women get to the faculty level?” As she started to look into fertility data on graduate students, she discovered that no one had ever carried out a rigorous investigation of the topic.

The 1970s were a time of change in gender roles in America. More women entered the work force and fewer got married. Those who married did so and had children later in life. The years between 1970 and 2000 saw a sharp increase in the proportion of women going into grad schools, from 10.5 percent of doctoral recipients in 1970 to 45 percent in 2000. As women remained in school longer, it became more common for them to marry and have children while still enrolled. Trying to balance education and family has led to higher drop-out rates for female grad students, which is just the earliest phase in the “leaky pipeline” of academic career trajectories, where women with children are 24 percent less likely obtain tenure than men in the sciences and 20 percent less likely in the humanities.

“My most important finding is that, as the percentage of female graduate students has increased while fertility rates have remained stable or increased, the number of students who are pregnant or have young children while in graduate school has increased drastically over the past 40 years.” - Arielle Kuperberg

Kuperberg notes that the increasing presence of women in graduate school over the last 40 years has led to a shift in the gender power balance. Early “pioneers” needed to show they could “make it” in a career that paid little notice to family and that demanded they not draw attention to gender matters like pregnancy and childcare, which might jeopardize success. Many of these postponed or gave up becoming mothers. As more women entered the pipeline of graduate schools, they were less willing to sacrifice family and used their increasing power within the institution to change the male-dominated culture in order to balance career and family.

“My most important finding is that, as the percentage of female graduate students has increased while fertility rates have remained stable or increased, the number of students who are pregnant or have young children while in graduate school has increased drastically over the past 40 years,” says Kuperberg. “The second important point is that over time, at least in terms of their fertility behavior, women in graduate school are becoming more and more like other female college grads that are not enrolled in school.” Many of these college graduates enter the workforce (while their classmates enter grad school) and are likely covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, which grants up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Kuperberg’s web search of the nation’s top-20 graduate programs revealed that only 13 had a maternity-leave policy—one-third gave six weeks leave, another third gave eight weeks and the last third gave 12 or more. Most of these programs were established in the last four years.

“Graduate schools will need to establish or improve maternity leave and childcare options for their students in order to retain their female students who wish to become mothers, and to remain competitive with the corporate world,” Kuperberg advises. “Maternity leave and childcare options give recourse to graduate-student mothers who otherwise would have to negotiate the terms of any leave on their own. Having a more family-friendly institution will help to retain female students and will make a work-life balance easier for them.”