Imagine this: You’re an early thirty-something PhD graduate, newly married, on the cusp of realizing your personal and professional aspirations. You’re envisioning a career in academia, maybe a couple of kids. That persistent tick-tock sound you’ve been hearing since you started grad school? That’s probably your (or your spouse’s) biological clock. But there’s a new ticking sound, more earnest, like a stopwatch, growing louder as you contemplate a post-doc position: the tenure clock has started its countdown. Which clamour do you tend to first, or can you juggle them both?

The question, not surprisingly, appears to be a more difficult one for women, according to a report released last fall by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) that looked at career trajectories and the statistical profile of women in university research. The report, called Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension, was commissioned by Industry Canada following the announcement of the first Canada Excellence Research Chairs in 2008: a competition that found not one woman among its 19 winners, likely a reflection of the fact that women remain under-represented at the highest levels of professorship including in full professor and senior administration positions. In fact, according to the report, the higher the rank, the lower the percentage of women in comparison to men.

Taking into account all the disciplines, women outnumber men as undergraduate and master’s students and stick around through the doctoral years in nearly the same number as men. But when it comes to full professorship, just 21.7 per cent are women. That’s despite decades of positive change in academia; in terms of student enrolment, gender parity was reached in 1989 and the numbers of top tier female researchers has increased significantly over the past 30 years. So what happens to create this fall-off of women PhDs between graduation and tenure?

There are a lot of things at play, says Alison Konrad, a specialist in organizational behaviour from Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business and a member of the expert panel that authored the report, but those two clocks ticking in stereo is likely a big factor, especially since the gender gap appears to be largest among younger women. “Those are the childbearing years and we can’t ignore that,” she says. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, a higher proportion of men in academia (45 per cent) than women (33 per cent) are married with children, which likely indicates that when faced with the prospect of starting a family and continuing in university research, more women step off the tenure track.

For Karine Auclair, associate professor of chemistry at McGill University and mother of two girls, six and two years old, it’s no mystery why there are fewer women professors. “The social pressures are more on women. We have to have the kids and we can’t have them too old and it’s expected that the woman will compromise her career, not the man. Nobody says it this way, but it’s expected.”

Balancing career and family is the preoccupation of any working parent, but not every profession is bound by the carved-in-stone path of progression that shapes the vocation of university researcher. “The path towards becoming a full professor is long,” the report explains, “and there exists a clear, ordered set of levels of accomplishment that academics must achieve in order to progress through their careers.”

And although many life events can put pressure on work-life balance — (Auclair, for example, recalls a time before having children when she was facing a life-threatening heart condition and a high-risk surgery to correct it: “You’re scared for your life. The whole time I was waiting for surgery it was very difficult for me to think and remember things.”) — the confluence of child-bearing years and the typical age at which most people start post-doctoral work, combined with the sheer ceaseless, years-long demands of parenthood and a legacy of cultural expectations, means that the brunt of the career-family conundrum lands on young women. As the report says, “the implications for women who wish to have children during their academic journey are clear.”

It starts with maternity leave. Although the granting agencies and universities now all have accommodation for parental leave built in, the nature of a research job makes it very difficult to step away. “The fields march on, the publications march on,” explains Lorna Marsden, former President of York University and chair of the report’s expert panel. “In some fields the pace is so fast. You’re often competing with other teams working on the same problem and you want to get there first.”

“When you’re an academic professor, you don’t really have a maternity leave,” says Auclair, who worked a few hours every day when she was on leave just to keep up with things like reading the literature, completing grant applications and submitting papers. Particularly in the sciences where research can be highly specialized, it doesn’t make sense to simply hire someone in the interim to cover a maternity leave, as is commonly done in other professions. “There’s only a few people in the world who do things similar to me, let alone being the same,” says Auclair. “You can’t hire that level of specialist temporarily.”

After a couple of maternity leaves, one typically ends up with a couple of kids, and any parent can attest to the significant number of hours required in any given week to keep little ones fed, bathed, rested, entertained, and otherwise nurtured and happy, and in many cases women still put in the majority of those hours. That leaves fewer hours for a research career. “You end up comparing yourself with your male colleagues and you realize they’re producing a lot more, travelling a lot more,” says Auclair, “then you start feeling badly and you start thinking ‘maybe I shouldn’t be here.’ ”

Elizabeth Edwards, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Toronto and the mother of three children, the youngest of whom is now 19, credits her outlook to great mentorship. Her late mother was a professor of urban planning at McGill University in the 1970s and 1980s when there was a major pay restructuring after a salary survey revealed that female faculty earned significantly less than men. “She was one of those pioneers who really believed in equal rights and equal pay. She was a great role model.” Edwards drew on this example in her own career. “I never thought I couldn’t do it,” she says of the prospect of being a mom and having a research career. But like Auclair, she didn’t take anything for granted. “When I was pre-tenure, I said to myself ‘if I don’t get tenure, so be it. I am working as hard as I am able. If this is not good enough, I don’t want this job.’ ”

Edwards applies the same brand of level-headed advice to the tricky problem of balancing work-related travel with demands at home. “There are certain things you have to do to get visibility, but you can be very strategic,” she says. “You don’t have to go to every conference. Pick one or two good conferences and go to the same ones every year so people get to know you and they can write your tenure letters.”

She points out that the requirement for researchers to attend conferences can be a blessing to an overwhelmed working mom who can take three days of “think time” away from her family. In that same vein, she emphasizes that a career in university research is as flexible as it is demanding. “Working in a company, you wouldn’t necessarily have flex time, or the ability to go to conferences, or even the whole notion of tenure where there’s absolutely no way you can lose your job. There’s no other job on the planet like it.”

Even looked at in that light, there remain obstacles for women in university research over and above the challenge of juggling responsibilities. “You have to have everything on your side to make it,” says Auclair, who credits the chemistry department at McGill for providing encouragement in her early career, particularly at a time when her confidence was in short supply. “I always felt ‘OK, this is what I want to do for a career so I’m going to try it and if it doesn’t work out then I’ll do something else.’ If I had been in a less supportive environment, things might have turned out differently. I was so close to thinking I was not able to do it that it would not have taken much for me to abandon it.”

According to Konrad, those feelings are not uncommon. “Lack of self-confidence, of being able to step out on your own into your own research program, and a lack of encouragement to do so” has been documented among women in university research, and could be another explanation for why women don’t continue on to become full professors, she says. This speaks to the “chilly climate” women still face in academia, the subject of one of the chapters of the report, which examined women’s perceptions on things like a sense of fit with their school, opportunities afforded them for collaboration and a feeling of having been treated fairly. “Ten out of ten times women rated these things lower than men,” says Konrad. “Being undervalued, not being included, being given less resources; this can be very de-motivating,” she says. If that kind of gender bias creeps into assessment committees and recommendation letters for tenure, it can have a real impact on the career progression of women. In one study cited, when ratings of women’s productivity were evaluated, it was found that with an equivalent set of achievements, women were often given lower scores. Another finding in the report was that letters of recommendation for women often used gendered words like “affectionate,” “kind” and“helpful” whereas men were described as “assertive,” “confident” and “intellectual.” “That’s more of a fit to our stereotype of who is an effective researcher,” says Konrad. Clearly, there is a cultural shift required, and one way to change people’s way of thinking is to have more women on assessment committees, and more women in research overall.

So what of the problem of too few women in the highest ranks of professorship? Some of the solution lies in tweaking the system to make it easier for women to progress. Examples from other countries that were put forward in the report include travel grants to cover the expense of bringing children along to conferences, or funding to pay for childcare while the parent attends. “If you’re a university president and you want to attract and keep the best minds in your institution, it’s up to you to say ‘how are we going to do that?’, ”says Marsden. “Not to say to the parents ‘well, you chose to have children, too bad.’ You’ve invested in these people, we the taxpayers have subsidized their education and then at a certain stage we say ‘you go out of production now.’ We’ve put them through incredible hurdles, why not help them succeed in the most productive phase of their lives?”

Konrad would like to see the system of progression modified so that individuals can be promoted even if they work part time for a period. “For the real lives of women and more and more men there are times when it would be good to work half time but still keep going in your career and keep your forward momentum and keep in touch with what’s going on in the field, as opposed to the only option of taking a complete leave of absence,” she says. “And for men to take that opportunity as equally as women, that’s my ideal: That you could still be on the tenure track and be promoted for the quality of the work you do, even if there are a few years when you have to do less quantity.”