This article is published in the March 2006 issue.

Geographic Shackles and the Academic Careers of Women


Last spring, three of my women friends compared life stories at our 20th college reunion. They had all chosen the academic path in mathematics and computer science. While seemingly successful, it turned out that each felt unsatisfied to some degree.

The first had left her tenured position because she hated the atmosphere; a tenured position at another university requires a move, so she has settled for being an independent researcher and consultant. The second had an exhausting commute; she was pessimistically contemplating her options in finding work closer to home. The third was happy in her job at a prestigious department, but she had yet to get tenure; and, as the tenure-track rat race took precedence over her biological clock, she was still childless in her early forties.

Such stories are unfortunately not atypical. The situations of women in academia, particularly in the sciences, have attracted much attention recently; the metaphor of the shrinking (or leaking) pipeline is used to illustrate the problem. While various factors have been put forth in trying to explain the shrinking pipeline, this article discusses one that has received somewhat less attention: the overall greater lack of mobility by women. I refer to this lack of mobility asgeographic shackles.

While family and career roles for each gender are viewed more flexibly in North America today than in previous generations, unfortunately, however, it still seems to be more common that men are able to initiate a family move when their career calls for it than women are. Geographic shackles are related to thetwo-body problem where both partners have careers, necessitating dual job searches.

But the two problems are distinct. The geographic shackles are not necessarily caused by a partner with a career. In my informal surveys, I found women who have no partner, and some without any immediate family, who still find that geographic ties prevent them from “casting a broad net” when job searching. For example, women who are single parents or have primary custody of children may feel tied to a location, as would women who have taken on caregiver responsibilities for their elderly parents. In general, the support networks that women tend to build around them, including extended family members, friends, doctors, and babysitters, can also act as deterrents to moving. Whereas the two-body problem makes it more difficult to find a new location satisfying the demands of both careers, geographic shackles can also make it more difficult to decide to look for a new location in the first place.

Geographic shackles can provide a unifying explanation for many of the known disparities in academic career success between the genders, such as the shrinking pipeline, the prevalence of childlessness among the academic elite women, the prevalence of women at lower-paying and less prestigious institutions, and so on. The aim of this article is to raise awareness of this little-recognized issue, to encourage appropriate studies, and to start working towards solutions.

Obstacles to a Successful Career

The trajectory of a successful academic career is common to men and women. They find a position as an assistant professor after they graduate; they may have to change jobs if their position does not work out for some reason; they take on visiting assignments that increase their visibility; finally, they may be lured away for a prestigious position as endowed chair or center director elsewhere.

Academics with strong geographic constraints face obstacles at every step along this trajectory:

  • During a job search, their choice of open positions is greatly limited, increasing the chance that they will settle for lower status or lower-paying jobs, or that they may leave academia altogether. (The latter is particularly likely in computing, given the lure of industry.)
  • It can be difficult to gracefully recover from tenure denial or other termination of a pre-tenured position; how many other research universities in a given locale and in a given year will have an open tenured position in a given specialty?
  • They cannot always move when a given job provides a bad fit, so they find themselves stuck in less-productive or dead-end positions.
  • They find it much more difficult (or impossible) to accept high-profile visiting assignments that might further boost their careers.
  • They cannot grab opportunities for prestigious positions as chairs or center directors when those open up elsewhere.
  • They cannot use outside job offers to gain negotiating leverage with their current institution in matters of promotions or pay raises; this tactic works only if the threatened job change is believable.

Tenure denial is a particularly disruptive event. Because the tenure review process is inevitably a combination of objective and subjective factors, it can unfortunately be susceptible to gender bias [Valian]. The hoped-for outcome is that a deserving computer scientist, if denied tenure at one school, will find another tenured position elsewhere. When geographic shackles are involved, however, recovery from tenure denial is more difficult, if not impossible.

While any one obstacle listed above may not bring down the career of a researcher with geographic constraints, their accumulation over time may result in a career trajectory that is less likely to place her in a leadership position in her field, and more likely to lead to a dead-end or low-prestige position or to leaving academia altogether.


There is nothing in the preceding list of scenarios that is, by definition, unique to women. I raise the issue, however, to put forward the conjecture that perhaps the broader set of geographic shackles—beyond dual-career issues and into issues of child custody, parental care, etc.—can help to explain some of the pipeline and gender diversity issues that have eluded explanation thus far.

The broad impact of geographic constraints on research careers is not well understood. Statistical evidence is hard to come by because geographic shackles have been little recognized, and studied even less. However, there is some evidence that this problem is real. Consider, for example, this item from the 2003 CRA report, Recruitment and Retention of Faculty in Computer Science and Engineering: “When seeking faculty positions out of graduate school, the report found that women tend to apply to fewer schools than men: 6 vs. 25.” The report also found that women listed geography as one of four main factors in choosing where to apply. In contrast, geography did not make the major list of factors for new male Ph.D.s in job searching.

The potential cumulative effect of the shackles on the population of academic women deserves more research attention and study. It has been shown that even small gender-related differences in the case of individual women translate into significant statistical differences at the level of the whole population [Valian]. For example, one experiment described by Valian set up a model that built in a tiny bias in favor of promoting men; after a while, 65 percent of top-level employees were male.

On an anecdotal level, it is not difficult to think of academics whose career trajectory was hindered by their geographic constraints. Without more information, however, it is difficult to understand the different geographic influences in enough detail to know how to address them. Though I expect that the shackles will always be with us to some degree, I believe that steps can be taken to loosen their hold.

For example, flexible sabbatical policies might help. At some schools, taking a “local” sabbatical is frowned upon or given a low priority, impacting those who are geographically constrained. Salary policies are also an issue. Some schools encourage job-shopping as a way of getting raises, which disadvantages those who are known to be geographically restricted.

Finally, we must recognize that for everyone today, career decisions that entail moving involve serious family considerations, but that this may be especially true for a woman. Therefore, her champions need to work with the whole family to arrive at a positive decision, rather than expecting her to shoulder the work of convincing the rest.

I admit: it would work on me. Were a top west coast university to offer me a job today, I would answer that I am not leaving New England; my family is happy here. But if someone were to co-opt my husband and children so they suddenly developed a passion for California, then New England would lose its grip on me.


[1] Virginia Valian, Why so Slow? The Advancement of Women. MIT Press, 1998.

[2] John Stankovic and William Aspray, Recruitment and Retention of Faculty in Computer Science and Engineering, Computing Research Association, 2003.

Dina Q Goldin, Ph.D. (dina.goldin [at] is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Connecticut.

Geographic Shackles and the Academic Careers of Women