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Mommy Tracked: How the tenure process discriminates against female professors | The Nation

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Mommy Tracked: How the tenure process discriminates against female professors

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Second in a three-part series.

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Kay Steiger

Monday, March 12

In 1985, Marcia Falk applied for tenure in the Department of English at the University of Judaism in Bel-Air, California. She was a published poet and feminist critic. Although the university didn't have a policy of closed-door tenure review, she learned that the committee conducting her review insisted on anonymity, and when her tenure was denied, Falk had no opportunity to appeal the decision. She believed that she was discriminated against because she was a woman teaching courses on feminism at a conservative university, and filed a lawsuit in 1988. She and the university settled out of court in 1991.

Lucinda Miller accepted a position at Texas Tech School of Pharmacy in 1997 as professor and vice chair of the department under the condition that she could apply for tenure immediately. She and another female colleague with a similar contract applied for tenure the following year, but were denied while a male colleague was accepted. Miller had more published journal articles than the male colleague. Miller and her female colleague filed a lawsuit in 2000, and they still await a court date.

These two women are represented by the American Association of University Women's legal fund, and their stories appeared in a 2004 report, Tenure Denied. "On paper, making a comparison to a similarly situated male colleague seems straightforward--it is a matter of counting publications, classes taught, and service activities. In practice, however, these comparisons are rarely straightforward," the report said.

But Catherine Hill, director of research at AAUW and one of the people who worked on the report, told Campus Progress that the secrecy of the tenure process is simply unfair, and often biased against women. "You don't know what you're being judged on," Hill said. The standards by which a candidate is judged are often unclear, varying from university to university, department to department, and sometimes even from candidate to candidate. But in medical schools, where tenure standards are clear and well-defined, Hill said women are doing notably better. Nationwide, about 30 percent of medical school faculty members are women.

Balancing family and work is one reason why achieving tenure is so difficult for women. The average age of someone applying for tenure is 33, and the review process takes about five years from the day he or she is hired at the institution. This coincides directly with when many women are considering starting families. "Fulfilling responsibilities is a 60- to 70-hour-a-week job. That's the kind of commitment universities are looking for. I would hope we would change the culture," said Ann Higgenbotham, chair of AAUP's Committee on Women in the Academic Profession. While work-life balance can be a challenge for men, too, women must handle the biological demands of pregnancy and are much more likely to become the primary caregiver for their children and the primary domestic laborer in their homes, even when both partners work full-time.

Institutions like Brown University, Stanford University, and the University of Southern California are beginning to implement "stop the tenure clock" policies that give both men and women additional time in the tenure process, according to The Daily Free Press, a campus newspaper for Boston University.

But as Sonia Goltz discovered when she was up for tenure at the University of Notre Dame's College of Business, those tenure clock rules aren't always applied fairly. She filed a lawsuit "alleging that because she was not given time off following childbirth, she was held to a higher standard (because she had less time to prepare her tenure dossier)," according to the AAUW report.

Often, tenure committees consider some academic journals, for example, women's studies journals, to be "second tier," and therefore less prestigious, meaning they do not count as highly in the process.

The AAUW report describes Margaretta Lovell's struggle at University of California-Berkeley. Lovell protested that female faculty members are often asked to do a greater proportion of administrative and service work than their male co-workers. Before women achieve tenure, they often don't want to complain or speak up about such tasks to avoid "rocking the boat," which, the report says, makes advocacy even harder.

Despite these battles, Hill applauds the achievements of women in academia in the last few decades, "In the seventies and eighties we saw a surge of women in non-traditional fields. There's a lot to celebrate. Now they need to translate those achievements into economic security."

Another factor in tenure awards is something called collegiality, a highly subjective measure of how well a potential tenured professor gets along with his or her colleagues and participates in the department. The AAUW report said, "The collegiality criterion lets in through the back door what Title VII shuts out at the front door, namely, a legally valid rationale for denying tenure to colleagues with unpopular feminist beliefs or those whose gender makes their colleagues uncomfortable."

The standard is deliberately vague. "Who is really a good colleague? Women can be criticized for being too feminine and not serious [enough]. A woman can also be criticized for being too aggressive," Hill said.

What's more, when a professional academic is denied tenure, he or she usually has to leave the institution within a year. Denial of tenure can be a huge career setback.

In advising younger women considering careers in academia, many female professors said they wouldn't have made it without the help of a mentor, male or female, that guided and believed in them throughout their careers.

And if women want to take the next step, they should look at ways to change these institutions so that true gender parity can be achieved. "We have experts in all of these areas and we should be providing models for the rest of society. Universities should be in the forefront, not lagging behind." Higginbotham said.

Kay Steiger is the editorial assistant at The American Prospect. She graduated from the University of Minnesota last year.

See part one of the series: Why the new female president at Harvard is an exception to the rule.

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