Female faculty take longer for tenure

Often it’s for reasons like pregnancy and caregiving.

by Tyler Gieseke


One of associate professor Joanna O’Connell’s colleagues pushed her tenure decision date past the typical six years so she could care for her parents who were ill with kidney cancer.

Another delayed the process because he was ill himself.

Although faculty members at the University of Minnesota might “stop the tenure clock” for different reasons, the majority that choose to do so are women — and those numbers are growing.

The percentage of women still on the tenure clock at seven years increased from about 19 percent for female faculty members starting between 1999 and 2001 to about 23 percent for women starting between 2002 and 2004, according to a presentation to the Board of Regents last year. 

Success rates in achieving tenure in the standard six years are higher for men at the University. But this is because more women decide to extend the evaluation period for reasons like pregnancy, adoption and caregiving, Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs Arlene Carney said.

In addition, fewer women have the higher rank of associate professor than men, Carney said, although the numbers are growing. Currently, about 60 percent of associate professors — the rank just under full professor — are men and 40 percent are women.

“There’s still a lot of inertia in the system,” O’Connell said.

Newly hired, tenure-track faculty members at the University are typically allotted six years to develop a portfolio of research, teaching and service that demonstrates they deserve tenure. During the final year, the portfolio is evaluated at the departmental, collegiate and University-wide levels.

“It’s a very intense experience,” O’Connell said. “You spend a year biting your fingernails.”

If faculty members are awarded tenure, they’re guaranteed the ability to teach and research freely until retirement. If tenure isn’t awarded, they’re given a year to continue at the University while searching for another job.

Nearly 60 percent of faculty hired between 2002 and 2004 successfully received tenure in six years — this number includes those who stayed at the University and those who left prior to the decision year.

For this hiring group, about 64 percent of men and 53 percent of women received tenure in six years.

The discrepancy is due to the increasing number of women delaying their decision year, an action often called “stopping the clock” among faculty, Carney said.

Faculty members can apply for a longer period before the tenure decision for reasons like childcare and illness, but it isn’t guaranteed.

But faculty members have a general apprehension toward stopping the clock, Carney said.

“Some people are afraid that it makes them look like they’re not as serious about their work,” she said.

Carney said she tries to convince faculty there aren’t penalties or judgments attached to stopping the tenure clock. If faculty members need an extra year to be successful, they should take it, she said.

O’Connell said delaying the decision year is misunderstood, but it’s becoming more routine.

“The University does not want attrition,” she said.

O’Connell said she remembered a faculty member once claimed a tenure candidate had received an extra year after stopping the clock, but the department chair immediately read the section of policy stating that it wasn’t an unfair advantage.

American Indian studies assistant professor Clint Carroll said his “gut feeling” is that there’s a stigma against delaying the tenure decision, but he said there shouldn’t be.

Family commitments put an added strain on a faculty member trying to do research and publish articles, he said.

“When you throw [kids] into the equation, things get more difficult,” Clint said.