Kay Steiger

Friday, February 16

First in a three-part series

Harvard University named Drew Gilpin Faust its new president on February 11. Faust, a historian and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is now the fourth female Ivy League president. In recent years, she had been considered for the presidencies of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago, and was widely acknowledged as a scholar and administrator with the credentials to lead a major research university.

Yet her appointment has been widely portrayed in the media as a capitulation to feminists and members of the Harvard liberal arts faculty, many of whom loudly rebelled against former President Lawrence Summers in 2005 after he publicly suggested that the dearth of female faculty in the sciences may be related to genetic differences between women and men. A widely-reprinted Associated Press story on Faust’s appointment noted, “Her selection is noteworthy given the uproar over Summers’s comments.” In a staff editorial, The Harvard Crimson worried, “We hope…that Faust does not arrive at the door of Massachusetts Hall with an unshakeable label as the ‘anti-Summers’: the woman, the historian, the life-long academic, the gentle administrator.”

Though Faust’s promotion is certainly a watershed moment for women in academia, her success comes amid continued underrepresentation of women on university faculties, particularly in the hard sciences. It’s been 35 years since Congress passed Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding, including at private institutions. But although women now make up 56 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate population and are predicted to earn more than 60 percent of the university’s master’s degrees and nearly half of doctoral degrees by 2010, only 20 percent of full professors at Harvard are female, according to a study by the American Association of University Professors on gender indicators in higher education. In 2004, which was during Summers’ presidency, only four of the 32 faculty members offered tenure were female.

The numbers at Harvard are indicative of those at many research institutions. On average, women hold only 24 percent of full professorships in the United States.

“I don’t know if [Faust] can change a whole institutional culture” said Ann Higgenbottom, chair of the Committee on Women in the Academic Profession and a professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. Pay disparities may be a particularly intractable problem. The AAUP survey reports that women academics earn 2 to 9 percent less than their male colleagues who hold the exact same rank.

The study points to the process of hiring tenure-track employees. Instead of a formal and open application process, hiring committees often call their colleagues at other institutions and ask for lists of candidates. These lists are often unbalanced, and often all male. The study says, “One department chair reported that when his colleagues made such calls, they got only a list of men. When they called back, and asked specifically whether or not there were any women candidates to consider, the response was often, ‘Oh yes, I just didn’t think of [fill in a woman’s name].'”

Women academics lag farthest behind at the most prestigious research institutions. But since women are receiving advanced degrees in such high numbers, what’s stopping them from filling in the ranks of professorships? The answer is complicated.

Academic jobs–once tenure has been granted–come with almost lifetime job security. Many professors at prestigious institutions achieved tenure well before the percentage of women earning advancing degrees in their subjects approached parity. Since new positions only open up when the university determines a need for faculty to consider a new area of study or when someone retires, promotion can seem to move at a glacial pace in some departments.

The tenure process is a frequently cited culprit contributing to gender disparity, since for many professors it coincides with the years in which people are marrying, buying homes, and starting families. “Family friendly policies are critical. They’re crucial for both men and women. That’s the contemporary world. Any employment sector would be crazy not to be providing supports,” Frances Hoffmann, dean of the faculty at Connecticut College, told Campus Progress.

Academics tend to marry or partner with other academics, and finding a location with two opportunities for couples is sometimes nearly impossible. Catherine Hill, director of research for the American Association of University Women, said she left university life for the nonprofit sector when she and her husband couldn’t find academic positions in the same place. “Men who follow women to their jobs are pretty non-existent. [Universities] haven’t found ways to deal with both members of the couple.”

And in the sciences there are special challenges for women–especially those with primary childcare responsibilities–seeking research funding. “The system is inherently biased against women. There is no reason why a scientist, male or female, has to work 80-hour weeks, or why they should be evaluated on productivity instead of on the value of their science” said Phoebe Leboy, president-elect of the Association for Women in Science.

Although the number of challenges a woman in academia may face can be daunting, universities are looking at ways to make their institutions more welcoming to women. Some are instituting stop-the-tenure clock policies that allow both men and women to take time for families. And groups like the AAUW are advocating for clearer tenure standards to combat the secretive process that often relies on informal all-male networks.

Taken together, such policies could make academia a more welcoming professional home for future generations of women.

Kay Steiger is the editorial assistant at The American Prospect.