For years, people have been puzzling over why there are so few women in science, technology, engineering and math, and why the university professors who teach the subjects are predominantly men. Is it genetics? Preference? Caregiving responsibilities? An unwelcoming environment?

Turns out, according to a new study released Thursday on men in academic science, it may have a lot to do with the boss. The majority of tenured full professors at some of the most prestigious universities in the country, who have the most power to hire and fire and set the workplace expectation of long hours, are men who have either a full-time spouse at home who handles all caregiving and home duties, or a spouse with a part-time or secondary career who takes primary responsibility for the home.

And it’s not just women who are being squeezed out of academic science, the study concludes. It’s also men who want to be more active at home.

About two-thirds of all the men interviewed in depth for the study said they wanted to be more involved at home, or at least present for their spouse and children. Yet only one-third of the men described themselves in egalitarian partnerships. The majority had wives who worked full-time, some in demanding academic careers themselves. And the men said they’d made decisions to cut back or flex their work hours and make career compromises in order to share the load at home.

Fifteen percent of the men interviewed said they planned to forego having children because they saw them as incompatible with a successful career. Other studies have found that academic scientists may have flexible schedules, but they work long hours, at least 55 hours a week. More, if you count the mental labor working out a problem away from the lab.

“Academic science doesn’t just have a gender problem, but a family problem,” said Sarah Damaske, a sociology professor at Penn State and one of the report’s authors. “We came to see that men or women, if they want to have families, are likely to face significant challenges.”

The field remains dominated by men – more than 80 percent of the full professors in life sciences, more than 90 percent of the full professors in mathematics, statistics and physical sciences and more than 95 percent of full professors in engineering.

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The study, Damaske said, showed there was potential for change, in the majority of men who wanted to take on a more active role at home as fathers. But there was also resistance to change from those in power at the institutions.

“We came to realize that it really benefits your career to have someone at home, making sacrifices for your career,” Damaske said. “The majority of men we spoke to see that. But they’re not happy about it.”

And for the men who have put family first, they talked of feeling isolated from their colleagues and that they’d made career concessions others hadn’t. “I am not nearly as productive as I used to be,” one associate biology professor said. “No academic institution is particularly – that I know of – is particularly great for family … the people that do best in academica, sadly, often are those who don’t’ have [the responsibility] of child care.”

Men who were move involved at home reported greater levels of stress at work. At the same time, they reported being much more satisfied with their home lives.

Damaske said age didn’t play a role in their findings. Some men in egalitarian partnerships were well into their 60s. And some graduate students in their 20s had traditional marriages or planned not to have children in order to dedicate their lives to their careers.

“We did find that men in traditional marriages were more likely to be full professors and in positions of power,” she said, “and to reach those positions of power at a younger age than men in other marital arrangements.”

Elaine Howard Ecklund, another report author and a sociology professor at Rice University, said that they undertook the study because most research on work-family conflicts study women, or differences between men and women. “Yet, academic science remains dominated by men,” she said, “so we need to know if they deal with the same issues balancing work and family life as do women.”

And from the comments in the study, it’s clear that a majority of academic scientists in powerful positions do not. Academic science is portrayed as an all-consuming field:

  • “Well, I would think that if we had more hours in the day that weren’t taken up, we might have had kids.” – a 64-year-old physics professor, married, no kids.
  • “Women are burdened with childrearing. So, that really sets your career path.” – faculty member married to a physician in a neotraditional marriage.
  • “I never in my life made a tax return. I never in my life washed a pair of socks or cleaned a pair of shoes,” said one 67-year-old physics professor in a traditional marriage. When asked if having children is difficult to manage with being a scientist, he responded: “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.”

Men in traditional marriages rising to power faster, becoming boss and setting the tone for workplace expectations is a phenomenon seen in other fields. In a series of studies of more than 700 married men, researchers at Harvard, New York University and the University of Utah found that men in traditional marriages tended to hold positions of power in business and other organizations.

That study found these bosses tended to think that workplaces with more women didn’t operate well, and more frequently denied female employees opportunities for promotion, considering them less qualified than men even when their resumes were identical. The researchers dubbed these men “resistors” to change.

The study on academic male scientists also calls to mind the story of Carol Greider. When she got the news that she’d won the Nobel Prize in medicine a few years ago, she was folding laundry. A subsequent 2010 study found that partnered women scientists tended to do 54 percent of the cooking, cleaning and laundry in their households, while partnered male scientists carried just 28 percent of the load.

The study, now online, is slated for print in November in the journal Work and Occupations. It was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, Rice University and the Population Research Institute of Penn State.