HR | Atlantic - Positive Change at Work

Academic Careers & Family: How Creating Effective Work-Life Balance Policies Can Improve Attraction and Retention

Sep 20, 2012


meet the growing demand for higher education, North American post-secondary institutions are hiring new faculty members in increasing numbers. The changing demographics of doctoral recipients and the changing needs of pre-tenure faculty members are prompting universities to consider how they can attract and retain talented men and women who want a career in academia and as well as a family.  Universities recognize these concerns and most now have policies to accommodate work and life balance. Yet even with policies in place, practices in the workplace may reveal that certain policies are not effective in enabling employees to achieve work-life balance.

To accommodate the overlap of the tenure clock and biological clock, most universities have policies to enable junior faculty members to extend their tenure review.  Known as stop-the-clock policies, these policies initially allowed parents of a new child to postpone tenure review and to account for a period of decreased academic productivity.  Extensions of tenure review are now granted for a variety of family and personal reasons.  During the tenure review process, the review committee excludes the time during which the clock was stopped when assessing the quantity of work performed by the candidate.  Additionally, many universities offer the option of part-time work or job sharing to allow time for other commitments.  While policies of this type exist in most North American universities, few faculty members appear to take advantage of these work-life balance opportunities.

Surveys indicate that female scholars are significantly more likely to be without children than women of other professions. Twelve to fourteen years after having completed doctoral degrees, 62% of tenured women in the humanities and social sciences and 50% of those in the sciences do not have children in the household compared to 42% for female professionals and 30% for the general female population.[1]   Among academics that have children, only small proportions make use of work-family policies.  In surveys conducted at major universities, of female employees eligible to stop the clock, more than 40% chose not to do so.[2]   Another survey showed that one in five men and one in three women would like to reduce their hours to have more time for family and personal needs however, over a period of seven years, only 23 out of 3000 faculty members made use of existing part-time work policies.[3]  The predominant reason cited for failing to take advantage of these policies is fear of negative impacts on their career.  Academia is a challenging work environment focused on achievement and competition.  Scholars fear that stopping the clock or using other work-family policies will give the impression that they are not as committed to academic pursuits or that colleagues will perceive them as being less dedicated than others without children.[4] Unfortunately, these fears seem to be substantiated.

While using stop-the-clock policies does not affect the attainment of tenure, studies have found that use of stop-the-clock policies carries negative consequences for the salaries of men and women.  Moreover, the economic consequences were more significant and lasted longer for pre-tenure faculty who stopped the tenure clock for family reasons as opposed to those who stopped the clock for personal or other reasons.[5]  Researchers have tested potential explanations for these salary differences.  Even when controlling for variations in research outputs, faculty members who stopped the clock for family reasons still received wage penalties supporting the conclusion that the lower salaries result from evaluators’ perception that faculty members who stop the clock for family reasons are less committed to academic research rather than a true difference in productivity.[6]  Related research has found that mothers face significant disadvantages on the job market compared to women without children and men.  Mothers are significantly less likely to be seen as fit for a job and are likely to receive lower salaries than non-mothers and men.[7]

Although work-life balance policies explicitly send the message that taking time for family and personal needs is acceptable and encouraged, in academic institutions an implicit message is sometimes sent by way of practice and ideology that academic careers and parenthood are a bad combination.  The above findings indicate that stop-the-clock policies and other work-life policies may be meeting their goal of providing pre-tenure faculty members more time to produce academic work for tenure review when productivity may be lessened by family or personal needs and other goals. On the other hand, if using these policies carries career consequences, many may avoid using these policies, or suffer consequences if they do, suggesting that certain work-life balance policies are not effective in meeting the needs of faculty members.

Post-secondary institutions looking to attract and retain faculty members should consider evaluating whether work-life balance policies in place are genuinely effective by looking at the policies on paper but also how they are being used.  Low use of stop-the-clock policies by eligible faculty or part-time opportunities by those who would like to reduce their hours may suggest that other obstacles may be impeding work-life balance in the workplace.  A similar evaluation at Princeton University revealed that despite the existence of generous policies, only a minority of faculty members were taking advantage of these opportunities mostly for fear of being perceived as less committed. These observations lead the administration to conclude that it needed to eliminate the stigma of choosing to use family support policies.  To do so, Princeton made tenure extensions automatic for parents of either gender having a new child.   By making the extension automatic, the decision to take advantage of work-life balance policies is made for the employee; as the decision is removed, so is the stigma previously associated with the choice.  Other universities have followed this lead adopting similar policies.

Policies that are truly responsive to the needs of employees can create an attractive work environment and a supportive atmosphere in which employees can thrive.


 Selina Pellerin, Summer Student


[1] Mason, Mary Ann, and Marc Goulden. Do babies matter: the effect of family formation on the life long careers of women. The University of California, Barkeley, 2001. Print.; Whitehead, Tom. “One in five women stays childless because of modern lifestyle” The Telegraph 25 Jun. 2009. Aug. 3 2012 <>

[2] Bhattacharjee, Yudhjit. “Family Matters: Stopping Tenure Clock May Not Be Enough” Science 306 (2004): 2031-2033. (Bhattacharjee)

[3] Williams, Joan, Alon, Tamina, and Bornstein, Stephanie.  “Beyond the ‘Chilly Climate’: Eliminating Bias Against Women and Fathers in Academe” Thought and Action  (Fall 2006) 79-96. (Williams et al.)

[4] See Bhattacharjee and Williams et al.

[5] Manchester, Colleen Flaherty, Lisa, Leslie, and Kramer, Amit. “Stop the Clock Policies and Career Success in Academia.” American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings, 100 (2010) 2: 219-23.

[6] Manchester, Colleen Flaherty, Leslie, Lisa, and Kramer, Amit. (Forthcoming). “Is the Clock Still Ticking? An Evaluation of the Consequences of Stopping the Tenure Clock.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review. Accessed online <>.

[7] Correll, Shelley and Benard, Stephen. “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” American Journal of Sociology 112 (2007) 5, 1297-1339.

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