Feb. 6, 2007

Motherhood and the math factor: Sociologist Shelley Correll exposes biases that affect women in business and academia

From the late-1960s through the 1980s, women were steadily closing the gender wage gap. Then came the 1990s and that momentum flattened. Today there are still few women at the top of Fortune 500 companies and with some exceptions, few in major leadership roles.

Progress for women in the workplace has been slow going. And for women with children, career prospects are, in a word, dismal. Shelley Correll's research is all about gender inequality and social psychology. A Cornell associate professor of sociology, she examines how small events in the workplace -- a woman comes up with an idea in a meeting, and a man is credited for it or her suggestion is dismissed -- accumulate.

"You add these instances up over a lifetime, and they influence a woman's career path," said Correll. "An important part of my research is examining how these microlevel social psychological processes produce macrolevel patterns of gender inequality in paid work."

One of her most recent projects is on what she calls "the motherhood penalty" -- how "stereotypic beliefs associated with motherhood bias affect workplace evaluations, pay and hiring decisions of women who are mothers." For those who doubt such overt bias exists, Correll has data from her research laboratory as well as from employers (using job applications that ) to prove it. The results are indisputable. While no employer would dare come right out and say, "Mothers need not apply," Correll finds evidence that mothers are clearly at a disadvantage in the hiring process.

In her studies, when two equally qualified candidates -- one childless, one a mother -- applied for a job, the mother was 100 percent less likely to be hired.

"Again and again we found that mothers were viewed as less committed and even rated as less competent," said Correll. "They were also offered $11,000 a year less pay, on average, than an equally qualified childless candidate."

Her research on the motherhood penalty has garnered wide media attention on CNN, ABC World News Tonight, The Nation magazine and The Boston Globe and will appear in the American Journal of Sociology in March.

In another area of research, Correll explores how gender stereotypes about mathematics impact the extent to which men and women see themselves as mathematically competent, which then affects their persistence in pursuing careers in science, math and engineering and contributes to the dearth of women in these fields. This work has been published in the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review, the two premier journals in the field.

Correll also applies her research skills to challenges right here at Cornell, where she serves as co-director of the newly established Advancing Cornell's Commitment to Excellence and Leadership (ACCEL) center to increase the number of women on the faculty in science and engineering at Cornell. Correll was a co-principal investigator on the $3.3 million NSF Advance grant that established the ACCEL center.

She is involved in a number of projects on campus, including a longitudinal study of Cornell's assistant professors. With the assistance of Susan Cabrera, doctoral student in management and organizations at the Johnson School, all first- and second-year assistant professors on campus are being interviewed about their social networks and who they turn to for help in getting their work done, seeking grants, designing their courses and their tenure-related efforts. The interviews are currently being conducted and will be followed up in a few years, Correll said.

Another ACCEL project will be a follow-up to a Work-Life Survey of all Cornell faculty that began in fall 2005.

Correll said Cornell's progress to date in achieving gender equality has been uneven. "We have some good examples to follow, and we also have many departments where there is definite room for improvement. A lot of things are coming together on campus at this point, however, that should go a long way toward closing the gender gap on campus."

Correll cited, for example, the recent formation of the University Diversity Council (see http://www.cornell.edu/diversity/), the large turnover of faculty over the next decade that will lead to new hiring opportunities for women and the foundation of the ACCEL center.

"There are reasons to be optimistic," she said.

For more about ACCEL, see http://advance.cornell.edu/.