Do Babies Matter in the Historical Profession? Contextualizing the Historians’ Career Paths Survey

In 2010, the AHA’s Committee on Women Historians conducted a survey on academic career paths in history, contacting all associate and full professors in the 2010–11 Directory of History Departments. 2,241 historians responded. This is the first in a series of blog posts reporting the results of the survey.

As with any survey, the responses we received generated additional questions about gender and balancing work and family in an academic career. The committee hopes that these blog posts will generate discussion that will help us learn more about gendered issues affecting historians. Debbie Doyle, Coordinator, Committees & Meetings.

Laura Rominger Porter received her Ph.D. in American history from the University of Notre Dame in May 2013. She is currently living in Paris, France and revising a book manuscript on sin and politics in the nineteenth-century South.

The recent AHA survey on associate and full professors made waves for its finding that marriage appears to be a professional boon to men but a hindrance to women. (You can read the initial report and follow-up analysis in Perspectives here and here, and other coverage here and here.) Not only were male tenured faculty more likely to be married than their female counterparts (85.8 versus 67 percent); married or previously married women took on average nearly two years longer than married men to advance from associate to full professor (single women narrowed this gap to under one year). Yet the survey was not designed to show how history compares to other disciplines with respect to gendered patterns of family formation and to how family status correlates to gendered rates of professional advancement.



According to a much broader investigation into such questions by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden in Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (Rutgers Univ. Press, 2013), these gender differentials are neither random nor unique to history departments. Across the academic disciplines, over two-thirds of male tenured professors are married with children, a family status true for less than half of their female counterparts (70 versus 44 percent). Perhaps single women are more attracted to the academic tenure track than their married peers; however, this would not account for the phenomenon of early-career floundering by otherwise ambitious women scholars. Whereas the AHA survey did not track those who opted out of the profession before clinching a tenure-track job or those who stalled out in the second tier of nontenured teaching positions, Do Babies Matter highlights a striking rate of nonretention of female PhDs due to marriage and children.


Specifically, the book elaborates on the so-called “two-body” problem of two-career relationships, in which women are more likely to make professional sacrifices  to live with their spouses or raise children. Among the women surveyed by the AHA, over half (54.7 percent) of those in committed relationships were attached to fellow holders of PhDs, whereas this was true for less than one third (30.9 percent) of their male counterparts. Women were more likely to take leave or leave a position due to a spouse or partner’s job: 8.7% of women reported taking leave or leaving a position for that reason, as opposed to 3.5% of men. If women married to fellow PhDs make disproportionate career sacrifices, it may help to explain why women’s success is more likely to come at greater personal expense. According to Mason et al., women professors are more likely to be divorced, unmarried, and have fewer children than their male counterparts. Likewise, the AHA survey found that over twice as many female  as male senior faculty members were divorced or separated (11.8 versus 5.6 percent), with an even larger gap between the rates of men and women professors who had never married (4.9 versus 13.5 percent).


The answer to “Do babies matter?” however, may be slightly different for historians than the aggregate. According to the AHA survey, women full professors did have fewer children than their male counterparts, but on average, women with children actually achieved this rank marginally faster than women without children. These two data points are not irreconcilable: mothers who ultimately succeed on the tenure track may possess personal resources (extended family or spousal support) that mothers weeded out at the early career stage do not. Indeed, Mason et al. claim that single, childless women were more likely than others to secure jobs in the first place, so mothers who make it onto the tenure track may be exceptional. As the AHA found, in contrast to the comparable timing in professional advancement among most men, women either advanced to full professor significantly faster or significantly slower than average. The precise circumstances in which individual women negotiate their family lives may hold the key to such variations.


The AHA survey does seem to concur that marriage tends to place special burdens on women of which academia can be unforgiving. The survey found that married men achieved tenure faster than their single counterparts (5.9 versus 6.4 years), whereas married women were outpaced by single women (7.8 versus 6.7 years). The two demographic categories with the closest rates of promotion were in fact single men and single women; by controlling for what amounts to a “marriage penalty” for women and a “marriage advantage” for men, the gender factor in professional advancement becomes almost negligible. So perhaps babies dont matter as much as much as previously thought—or at least, for those already on the tenure track. Marriage, on the other hand, seems to warrant further examination by those who care that women enjoy the same freedom as men to have careers and families at the same time.

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  1. Janet

    I have the one-body problem. This one body has one PhD in history and can’t get one job. Forget the marriage penalty. What about the PhD penalty? Had I not made that mistake, I might have kids now. I might have more than $200 in my checking account as I approach 40. I might not be the reason my parents hang their heads in shame every single time one of their friends asks about me. Given that the majority of history PhDs don’t get full-time jobs, I really don’t want to read AHA stories about the elite, maybe 25%, who do and [insert tiny violin here] have to worry about how to balance that job with family life. Oh you poor, lucky soul who has to figure out how to work and have kids. Your life is so hard. Save it. You’ve got bigger problems to deal with, AHA. It’s time to start tracking which colleges rely heavily on history adjuncts and to publicly shame them, while also forcing history departments to disclose the employment information of all of their PhDs if they want to remain members of the AHA. When that happens, then we can talk babies and marriage and balance.

  2. Dixie

    The sort of difficulty Janet bemoans is indeed endemic. But that does not preclude other problems. Moreover, Porter’s discussion is patently relevant to those historians who do not have jobs as well as those who do. Indeed, two-body (and baby, especially without family support systems about which Porter speculates) complications make it only that much more difficult for a woman historian with a spouse/family to get and hold a job, especially a decent one. The market is certainly hard on all of us right now, and it is worth exploring the circumstances and prejudices that hamper one category of historian as much as those that hamper another. I’m sure we’re all on the same side in wanting young historians have as much support as we can muster.