Skip to Content

Male Scientists Tend to Favor Work in Work-Life Balance

A great many studies over the years have looked into how female scientists manage their work-life balance, that is, how they divvy up time for professional and familial commitments. Fewer have focused on how male scientists do the same. A new survey presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting last week in Denver and reported on by Inside Higher Ed suggests that a slight majority of male scientists prioritize their professional careers over their time [[helping?]] at home. “[T]he results illustrate options that male scientists have that many female scientists who have or want children lack,” the Insider Higher Ed article says.

Notably, the survey done by Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University, Anne E. Lincoln of Southern Methodist University and Virginia Johnston White of Rice University, queried 74 physicists and biologists at prestigious U.S. universities and found that 22% of male scientists fit into what the authors call the “neo-traditional” category, wherein men express some desire to help out with children and home duties but still offload the lion’s share to their (also often working) spouses; 30% fit into the “traditional breadwinner” category, being married to wives who do not work outside the home. So altogether slightly more than half of the respondents reported having work-life balances that favored work and expected their spouses to pick up the slack at home. 
Perhaps not surprisingly, Inside Higher Ed notes, these respondents tended to be older and more advanced in their careers. But interestingly, another trend emerged: “[M]any male scientists starting their careers (and whose wives work outside the home) do not attempt to have equal responsibility for raising children or managing homes.”

About a third of the respondents fell into the “egalitarian” category, in which male scientists split the workload at home evenly with their partners. Interestingly, the partners of these egalitarians also tended to be tenure-track scientists or professors in other academic fields. (An additional 15% reported that they decided not to have children.)
The survey’s authors also queried whether the “neo-traditional” and “traditional breadwinner” respondents were aware of how much they benefited professionally by their arrangements. Some showed a degree of humility, admitting that it made their work-lives easier to have their wives do most of the parenting and they were grateful for that opportunity. Others were decidedly less humble. As Inside Higher Ed reports: “Asked, ‘Do you think that having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?’ one physicist said, ‘No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.’ “
That such attitudes still exist in the academic workplace is not exactly surprising, but it still bristles to hear it spoken so brazenlyIn tenure decisions, men and women are similarly graded on their productivity, and this survey makes it clear that male scientists have the edge when it comes to being able to prioritize work over family. In order for the scientific profession to achieve its maximum potential, it will need diverse voices and equal representation from both men and women. What is needed, then, are policies that help both male and female scientists make time for their families, as well as take the historical gender-role inequality into account in tenure committees.