gender, specialization, and academic earnings


Erin Leahey, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, has a paper in the latest issue of ASR looking at the effects of gender on academics’ salaries (among sociologists and linguists). Past research shows that women academics tend to have lower salaries than their male counterparts. Leahey finds that gender’s effect on salary is mediated by a number of other productivity-related variables. Women are less likely to specialize in a research area, lack of specialization lowers productivity, lack of productivity decreases visibility in the field, and the lack of visibility leads to lower salaries. Thus, Leahey’s analysis demonstrates that, rather than having a direct effect on salary (via negative stereotypes or biases), gender influences salary inequality through the sort of work that scholars do.

Besides the interesting indirect effect of gender, the study indicates that specialization is a good long-term strategy for scholars of either sex. The explanation is pretty straightforward. Specialized researchers get to know their subfield more extensively, they become more connected with other scholars working in their niche, they build upon past research incrementally, and they produce a higher quantity of published papers. The same could not be said for generalists. Scholars who rarely return to the same topic may spread themselves too thin, they dilute their social network, and they’re constantly learning new literatures, which makes it more costly to publish new papers. The increased productivity caused by specialization leads to higher visibility in the field. By visibility she means prominence (measured by citation counts and books reviewed in prestigious journals). Visibility seems to tap some aspect of a scholar’s reputation. As your visibility increases, your salary gets bigger (presumably because you’re getting outside offers and merit bumps in salary).

The findings present a somewhat cynical view of academia if you’re suspicious of the normal science mode of incremental research. Our current institutional setting doesn’t reward intellectual wanderers. The message to junior scholars is pretty clear – find your niche and mine it for all its worth.

Written by brayden king

August 17, 2007 at 3:23 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, research

6 Responses

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  1. Brayden,

    Does this mean that the academic market parallels the “free market?”

    That is to say, rewards in the academic market stem from good entreprenuerial skills (or finding a niche and being conversant with research techniques) and higher marginal productivity (or number of published papers).


    Brian Pitt

    August 17, 2007 at 7:59 pm

  2. I have no problem conceiving of the academic market as a real market. Just like other markets, there are all sorts of inefficiencies. What’s interesting to me about the academic market is what kinds of things get rewarded and how consistently people misinterpret the signals of the market. The market is ultra-fragmented in that almost anyone can survive in it. You just have to find your own little corner and be willing to not get the highest salary in the world, and hey, you’ve got tenure for life!



    August 17, 2007 at 8:05 pm

  3. I haven’t had a chance yet to read my copy–how does Leahey deal with the shifting sands of research area/niche/sub-specialty? It seems that the recent proliferation of ASA sections, boxes to check when submitting an article, and other professional signaling that point to “area” may weaken, or at least complicate, her analysis of trends.



    August 17, 2007 at 9:27 pm

  4. Her analysis wasn’t longitudinal. She has data on a recent cross-section of faculty working at Research I universities, and so there’s no way to test temporal changes in increasing specialization. But she does note at the outset that the field is becoming increasingly specialized and diversified.



    August 17, 2007 at 10:22 pm

  5. So, wait, my ADD *won’t* get me fame and fortune? Dammit. :)



    August 21, 2007 at 3:45 am

  6. […] The Way We Never Were. But specialization is just as important here both anecdotally and empirically. It’s just messed up that, even in the industry that seems most welcoming to those with broad […]


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