U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A New Glass Ceiling For Women In Academia?

Berit Brogaard at NEW APPS made me aware of this January 2011 AAUP study in relation to women in academia—particularly those working in larger institutions and/or research-oriented schools. Here are the relevant passages from Brogaard’s entry:

1. Women do more service work than men in academia. One of the effects of this additional service work appears to be that women are stuck in associate professor positions several years longer than their male colleagues.

2. A 2006 report of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, Standing Still: The Associate Professor Survey, showed that women professors in the association were less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts, and it took women from one to three and a half years longer than men to advance to full professorships, with women at doctoral universities lagging farthest behind.

If this is truly a problem (and I think it is) across academic disciplines, how do we change the situation? Here’s what the AAUP report suggested (bolds mine):

What policies might help alleviate the stress associate professors, and particularly women associate professors, experience? We recommend two policy changes that would require university investment and three that would require shifting the culture of work.

First, at many universities, economic hard times have led to fewer full-time faculty appointments and greater reliance on non-tenure-track instructors, who may also be less involved in faculty governance and leadership. For universities to thrive, they must replace lost tenure-line faculty members, increase tenure-line faculties along with student enrollment, and ensure that all faculty members are involved in and compensated for governance activities. Secondly, we urge that greater resources be focused on mentoring to support promotions to full professorships, particularly for women faculty. We believe that workshops that emphasize the “pathways” to full professorship may be particularly instructive.

Cultural changes also matter. Deans and department chairs or heads need to examine teaching, advising, mentoring, and service responsibilities to ensure that all faculty members pull their weight and are rewarded accordingly. Department chairs should review service, teaching, and mentoring expectations with their department members and ensure that women do not disproportionately carry their departments’ service burdens.

We also believe that cultural changes are needed to stress the value of the work of the professoriate more broadly. Too many faculty members and administrators devalue the importance of “institutional housekeeping,” even though it is crucial for the institution’s ongoing health. Universities need to recognize, reward, and publicize their faculty’s service, mentoring, and teaching accomplishments, in addition to their research accomplishments, and ensure that promotions recognize the wide range of contributions faculty make.

We could of course improve this analysis with an interrogation of gender roles. But, in superficial way, I’m 100 percent on board. I’m sure there are plenty “non-woman” faculty members who would be open to assessments based on less-than-“standard” (a loaded term, I know) research work. No one should be prevented from obtaining a full professor rank because she/he desires to be, or emphasizes being, a positive facilitator and manager of her/his department, or participate fully in shared governance programs. The problem, of course, is how many faculty members in any one department can follow this route before the overall scholarship of the department breaks down? – TL

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m skeptical MLA knows what’s going on in the STEM departments. The AAUP report does reference a study showing tenure criteria in those departments can be vague, but I’d like to know if the promotion rates are similar. MLA membership is hardly representative of academia as a whole. So I wonder if this is a problem in universities as a whole, or only in humanities and social science departments.

    The AAUP report does indicate that female professors in the STEM fields do more mentoring than their male counterparts, but surely that can be attributed, at least in part, to the belief that such mentoring is necessary to increase the numbers of women in STEM fields. Perhaps what promotes women’s success in STEM fields in one area hinders it in another.

  2. Varad: The somewhat eclectic STEM/MLA pairing derives from Brogaard’s blog post, but the AAUP report helps bring concerns among diverse fields together. To begin, I have personally known—at the graduate school level—many female faculty at the assistant and associate level who participated in way more mentoring activities than their male counterparts. Of course one should never extrapolate from mere personal experience to generalities. That said, here at my SLAC I also have observed more women than men faculty engaging in more service work (esp. junior faculty and student mentoring)—at a school that encourages extracurricular, non-scholarly activity to its overall academic detriment! So women seem to me to be engaging in more service work at all kinds and sizes of institutions, as well as across fields. – TL

  3. I think the commentor on Brogaard’s post may be on to something re: unclear criteria leaving room for unrecognized bias. However, I am more puzzled by the idea that the slower promotion rate is an “effect” of service work. I would like to know what case can be made for a causal relationship between the two. Also, does the study take into account things like family leave, or other personal/extra-academic choices that may affect the time-to-promotion disparity? Even if the culture of the academy were “gender blind,” the culture in/from which female academics work, the culture in which we all live, certainly is not. For instance, what is the promotion rate for female academics who are the sole/primary wage-earner v. the rate for those who are partnered with another/primary wage-earner. If women have to contend with certain extra-academic expectations that put pressure on them to subordinate their career to some other priority, that might affect outcomes. But the expectation of service work is not extra-academic. It is part of the job, as far as I can tell. Maybe women feel more pressure to agree to service than men do, in order to “prove” their professional dedication? This could be a nifty self-perpetuating gender/power thing — women take on more than their fair share of service to prove they are team players who put their academic identity first, but promotion goes to those (mostly men?) who subordinate service to their own scholarship.

  4. Most university committees actively seek out women to participate, in order to avoid any hint of gender bias. Since there tend to be fewer women than men, this means women do more committee work than men, by default. So, paradoxically, women’s careers take a hit because the university culture seeks to correct gender bias in one realm, service. The rates of promotion could be equalized if universities actually counted service as something tangible on the road to tenure and promotion, but all that ever seems to count in publishing.

  5. @Andrew: Good point regarding the unintended consequences of upping inclusion in one area.

    @LD: I think the assumed causal link is decreased time and energy for scholarship, though one (meaning a sociologist) would need to establish that trade-off empirically across institutions (and fields, as Varad emphasized). …And of course we’re not even discussing childbearing (and perhaps rearing) yet. – TL

  6. Tim,

    Child/family issues are part of what I was referring to when I mentioned family leave, etc. My guess is that even among couples with fairly progressive/liberal views on gender equality — and I think most academics, as Menand argues, are progressive/liberal — women do a disproportionate share of childcare / household management. This can’t help but affect scholarly productivity, time to promotion, etc., etc.


    There are a couple of striking things about you post:

    1) That’s a pretty reductive/cynical explanation for why uni committees seek women’s participation. That doesn’t mean it’s a wrong explanation. But it doesn’t leave much room for other reasons why universities might be glad to see more women involved in such roles.

    2) “Since there tend to be fewer women than men…”

    You mention this fact as if it were a condition that contributes to a problem, rather than a problem in its own right. So, while one solution to the inequity in promotion time might be to reward service hours, maybe another solution would be to do something to counter this tendency of academe to skew male? That’ll be an easy fix, I’m sure.

  7. LD:

    In response to your point 1–my being reductionist. My wording was off. University protocol typically ensures that at least one woman is on important committees like search committees. It’s not the reason why the other committee members want women there, it’s a systematic response to under-representation.

    In response to your point 2–no, it’s a problem in it’s own right, worse in most fields than in history, which is approaching gender equity in ways, to take the worst case example, philosophy is not. But hiring and promotion then become two separate if related issues. Once hired, women don’t rise up the ranks as quickly or easily. So if more women were hired, this would make the service component lighter. But the service component should count more towards tenure and promotion in any case, not only for the gender equity issues, but that’s another story.

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