Female Academics: Work Alone If You Want Tenure

Female Academics Work Alone If You Want Tenure

A NEW STUDY from Harvard economist Heather Sarsons advises female academics to work alone if they are seeking tenure. Data from “Gender Differences in Recognition for Group Work” show that publishing co-authored research does not improve a woman’s chances of earning tenure and does not hurt a man’s. Teamwork, Sarsons finds, just doesn’t work for women.

When men and women publish papers as solo authors, the positive effects on their tenure chances are the same, around 8 or 9 percent. These effects remain constant for men who co-author papers, but drop down to just 2 percent for women who do the same. No matter what gender his co-authors are, a male academic who publishes collaboratively will receive the same amount of credit for the project. Female academics, on the other hand, must write exclusively with other women if they wish to receive full credit. Co-authoring with men has zero positive effects on their tenure.

The problem, or one of them, is that women are collaborative by nurture, and even possibly by nature. We’re taught to work together. In spite of the nasty, pervasive myths that present us all as conniving creatures out to undermine our fellow women, we work with one another, and well. Women collaborate, and we do it better than men.

Moreover, women prefer to work together. A 2013 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that men required incentives to choose teamwork over solo performance. Another experiment, this one out of Northeastern University, showed that women were more talkative in collaborative settings, even when they talked about the same as men in neutral environments.

Unfortunately, the skills we teach girls are the skills we undervalue as a society. This problem with academic collaboration functions in much the same way as the “bossy” phenomenon. Women grow up learning not to be demanding or confrontational, only to find themselves unprepared for the workplace as a result. Female academics, especially, find themselves at a disadvantage entering an environment entrenched in sexism and misogyny.

Likewise, those women who work best in collaborative efforts find themselves shortchanged in the professional world. Research published in Harvard Business Review shows that women who collaborate with their colleagues bear the brunt of the work, but receive little-to-no recognition for their efforts.

Women in corporate settings often wind up doing “office housework,” such as fetching coffee, bringing baked goods, and answering phones. These tasks are not in their job descriptions, and should rightfully be performed by more-junior members of the team. But when those lower-ranking employees are male, the assumption of responsibility falls on women.

Women are more likely to work in lower-paying fields — such as the non-profit sector or nursing — that value collaboration. Regardless of whether women work these pink-collar jobs because they are better suited to them, or because they don’t feel as if they have other options, the fact remains that women’s collaboration skills are undervalued — and sometimes even negatively valued — in male-dominated fields.

Lest you think that these situations are overblown, or believe that women aren’t really punished for working collaboratively, consider Sarsons’ finding that “[f]emale economists are twice as likely to be denied tenure as their male colleagues.” These are professional women, every bit as well-educated and prolific as their male counterparts, who are denied career security because they possess and use a valuable skill: the ability to partner with others and work toward a common goal.

Obviously, the answer here is, whether you’re a female academic or not, is to just work alone, right? I mean, that’s the only way you’re ever going to receive full credit, so you’ve just got to suck it up and do it. For those who work well alone and can shoulder the burden of a project, this may be the best route to success.

However, it’s likely that the work of many will suffer if they forge into the unknown territory of solo work. It’s also reasonable to think that women who are already saddled with hefty amounts of office housework simply will not have the time or energy to develop projects and conduct research alone. Just because you can work alone doesn’t mean you should, especially at the expense of your physical and mental health.

This is where gender judo might save female academics and women in other fields from career stagnation. If working cooperatively is detrimental to your career, but necessary in order to continue working, then you must make sure that it does as little damage as possible. The obvious solution, of course, is to work with women.

Yes, this might mean turning down chances to collaborate with male colleagues, but don’t think of those incidents as missed opportunities. You should be doing things that benefit your career more than someone else’s, and — let’s face it — your male co-workers are going to get most of the credit for projects you tackle together. Any time you put in on a collaborative effort with them would be better spent doing solo work.