The motherhood penalty

Posted in: Gender equality, Research, Women

In the lower levels of academia, the proportion of women and men is fairly well balanced. There are, however, far fewer women progressing to professorial and academic leadership roles. In this piece, Prize Fellow Cornelia Lawson discusses recent research which might help to explain why this is.


While numbers of female researchers and lecturers are growing, there are still barriers to women reaching the highest levels of academia. According to hefce, of new professorial positions created between 2012-13 and 2016 in the UK, only about two out of five have been filled by women.

One of the reasons for this might be reflected in our research, which shows evidence of a “motherhood penalty” for female scientists.

Working with the University of Turin and the National Research Council of Italy, we analysed the careers of 262 male and female scientists at the University of Turin over a ten-year period. The study examined teaching and family commitments alongside public funding and the impact of research achieved through the quality of journal publications and volume of citations.

Our research showed that women receive less funding than their male peers and that citation rates, where research is quoted in other academic work, drop for women with young children. We also found that public funding of research is controlled by elite networks, such as professional scientific bodies. Those in leading management roles in these networks receive twice the funding of other academics, through favouritism or unconscious bias in the selection process.

So why is it that female scientists with young children are not matching the citation levels of their male counterparts? It may be more likely that women academics are trying to balance work and childcare responsibilities. It therefore may be more difficult for them to travel to international conferences and meetings to promote their research findings, the result being that their research is overlooked. Work by colleagues at the University of Kent also showed that conferences are a place where new and better collaborations are formed, an opportunity that young mothers may not be able to take up.

Conversely, fatherhood is correlated with higher citation rates for male scientists in the study. This could perhaps be explained by a stronger focus on career, driven by the desire to provide for their new offspring, or it might reflect a strategic decision to have a family when they feel their career is safely established.

Although this study focused on scientist academics in Italy, we believe that similar results may be found in other academic disciplines and in other countries including the UK, China and the United States, where the allocation of research funding has also been found to be linked to membership in elite networks.

Some progress has been made. For example the European Research Council and the Research Councils UK (RCUK) have initiated training to address unconscious bias in funding allocation, including gender biases. In the UK many universities have signed up to the Athena SWAN charter, which seeks to advance gender equality in academia.

There is, however, more work to do.  The productivity puzzle is an important challenge for universities that are striving to further scientific and technical knowledge. For universities who want to make the most of their talent, there needs to be greater scrutiny of selection processes and diversity in the allocation of funding, and better support systems for women academics with childcare responsibilities.


This research was conducted by Dr Cornelia Lawson of the University of Bath, Professor Aldo Geuna of the University of Turin and Ugo Finardi of the National Research Council of Italy.

The research was presented at the Royal Economic Society’s Annual Conference on 28 March 2018, and the full paper can be viewed here.


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Posted in: Gender equality, Research, Women


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  • I wish I hadn't taken shared parental leave as a father at Bath Unversity. For a start I was paid less than mothers taking time off. But what has been eye opening is that I was overlooked for promotion and have been pigeonholed. Today this is still mainly a problem for women, tomorrow it is a problem for anyone with childcare commitments.