The quiet desperation of academic women

This study came as no surprise to me!
It resonates with my experience as a faculty member; although none of my male colleagues, Chair, or Dean is intentionally sexist, there are broader institution and cultural patterns that make some barriers to women’s accomplishments seem like common sense. The discussion of how women bear a disproportionate burden (as do faculty of color and queer faculty, in my view) of the service work at research universities,  the  perennial problem of work-family balance  (because women, even professional women, still do 70% of housework and childrearing labor), and the significance of micropractices and inequities that most people would not automatically recognize as sexist are important lessons for faculty, administrators, and students. (At UT, there is no maternity leave–like the woman whose story appears below, women must “schedule” their pregnancies to coincide with research leaves–during which one is still required to do research–or semester breaks.) Read on!

June 12

‘Quiet Desperation’ of Academic Women

Interviews with 80 female faculty members at a research university – the largest qualitative study of its kind – have found that many women in careers are deeply frustrated by a system that they believe undervalues their work and denies them opportunities for a balanced life. While the study found some overt discrimination in the form of harassment or explicitly sexist remarks, many of the concerns involved more subtle “deeply entrenched inequities.”

While the study was conducted, with support from the National Science Foundation, at the University of California at Irvine, the report’s authors and most of those who were interviewed for the research state that they don’t believe the problems discussed are unique to Irvine. The women interviewed who had worked elsewhere or discussed such issues with colleagues elsewhere portrayed their concerns as entirely typical of what goes on at research universities. And the authors – also at Irvine – stress that they don’t view the campus as exceptional.

While some issues in the report mirror concerns raised in other venues (such as the difficulty for women in particular of balancing work and family responsibilities), others receive more attention here than elsewhere. For example, service responsibilities are seen as a significant source of both sexism (women receive more of the assignments) and career roadblocks (the service work doesn’t count for tenure).

Those interviewed in the report even go so far as to criticize the NSF program that sponsored the research because it also urged Irvine to create “equity” positions in which faculty members – typically women – helped to review searches to be sure that diverse pools and perspectives were being sought. “To paraphrase one participant who wished anonymity: ‘They’ll not get the next promotion, or the next raise. And it also made them lightening rods for all the frustration on campus that women are getting special treatment. So it was a perfect example of service that helps the institution but really hurts the individual.'”
The article, “Gender Equity in Academia: Bad News From the Trenches, and Some Possible Solutions,” appears in the new issue of Perspectives on Politics (abstract available here <; ). The authors are Kristen Monroe, a professor of political science and philosophy at Irvine and director of its Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality, along with three graduate students in political science at Irvine: Saba Ozyurt, Ted Wrigley and Amy Alexander.

The analysis opens with a review of the national statistics in which women’s gains in the graduate student population are gradually diminished as academics advance to first jobs, to tenure, and to senior positions. Most of the analysis focuses on summaries of the in-depth interviews conducts with the women at Irvine, who came from a range of disciplines and seniority levels. Here are some of the highlights:

Unintended bias and outdated attitudes: Many of the women in the study described a steady stream of comments, some of them ostensibly offering support, that suggested that the older men who made them didn’t really understand how to interact with women in a professional manner. These men generally had no clue that their attitudes were either patronizing, sexist or both, the report says. One woman is quoted as describing a job interview in a top department in which an African American scholar took her aside and said, “This is a great place for people like you and me, if you know what I mean, honey.” The report quoted the woman as noting the irony that “he simply did not realize that it might be as inappropriate to call a 26-year-old woman ‘honey’ as it would be to jovially slap a black man on the back and call him ‘boy.’ ”

Devaluing positions once women hold them: At Irvine, as at most research universities, the last decade has seen a significant change in the number of women serving as committee chairs, department chairs, deans and administrators in a variety of capacities. And the women interviewed for the study praised this development, crediting women in various senior positions for being mentors or going to bat for their younger counterparts. But the women – across disciplines – described a pattern in which once a woman was named to a more senior position, others treated it as more service-oriented and less substantive. The paper dubs this trend “gender devaluation,” saying: “When a man is department chair, the position confers status, respect and power. When a woman becomes department chair, the power and status seems diminished.”

Service and gender: Those interviewed reported some protection for junior faculty women, but said that among the senior faculty ranks, women were picked disproportionately for service assignments, especially those that are time-consuming. Then those same women are criticized for not doing more research, and the theoretical credit awarded service is never to be found.

Family vs. career: As in similar reports, women reported intense pressure – well beyond that faced by their male colleagues – with regard to having children, raising them, and also caring for aging parents. Many women reported strong reluctance to take advantage of policy options that might be helpful, fearful of how they would appear to male colleagues, and women reported regret and some dismay over choices they made to avoid confronting colleagues with their needs for more flexibility. One woman interviewed described having a child this way: “I was determined that I would drop that baby on Friday, teach on Monday, and nobody would ever know. That’s what I had to do. That was just how I felt like life had to be. Indeed, my first child was born ten days after I submitted my final grades. I did have the summer off. I went back to teach in the fall, but by that September my first book was due at the publisher, and it all got done. That’s what one had to do. That’s what I felt. I was a competitive bitch, and that was what I felt I had to do in order to make as statement about who I was.” (She added that she took a different attitude with her second child’s arrival four years later.)

Activism vs. making it work: Generally, the women interviewed described the offices and services designed to help them as places that were focused on legal and technical issues, and given that many of their frustrations weren’t legal, they didn’t rely on these services. In addition, the women interviewed – citing in part a desire not to have their careers hurt – tended to focus on figuring out informal ways to deal with problems, rather than seeking policy changes. Women are “extremely adept at detecting the academy’s cues,” the study says. “Many feared backlash and retribution if they agitated openly for change.”

While these women themselves focused on individual solutions, the overall theme of the report – in considering how to improve the situation of women at research universities – is a call for much more flexibility. Career paths are needed, the report says, that do not presume that the quality of work is based on hours in the lab or office, or time to tenure, or time finishing various projects. In addition, the report calls on universities to assign tasks in a more gender-neutral way, so that service activities aren’t presumed female, and to credit work performed equally – even if women are more likely than men to do that work.

Asked for a reaction to the study, Irvine released a statement criticizing it. “Professor Monroe’s article draws attention to the persistence and toll of sex discrimination on women faculty. Unfortunately, the article cannot to be said to offer original insight into the promise and challenge of gender equity in higher education. The formulation of the problem overlooks research in a host of related issues, such as gender schemas, work-life balance, and leadership development among others,” the statement said.

The Irvine statement went on to cite progress for women on a number of fronts, noting that women on the campus hold such positions as vice chancellor of research and deans of the graduate division and of undergraduate education. Women account for 43 percent of assistant professors, 37 percent of associate professors, and 22 percent of full professors. Those figures are going up in science and technology fields too, Irvine noted, and women now are 37 percent of assistant professors, 31 percent of associate professors and 18 percent of full professors in those disciplines.

The statement added that “Professor Monroe does not appear to be informed about campus and university engagement with gender equity or for that matter family-friendly accommodation policies and procedures.”

In an interview (prior to when Irvine released its statement), Monroe said that she would be interested to see how the university responded and that she hoped it would be positive. She noted – as the reported noted – that many of the concerns expressed in the study didn’t have to do with official policies or programs, but with more subtle questions.

In her career she was helped by good advice she received early on from mentors. She was urged to agree to serve on one universitywide committee and one departmental committee and never more. She was also urged to work from home in the mornings, so she couldn’t be drafted into other meetings, and would always have focused time for research. Monroe said that as a political scientist, she had that option in a way that a lab scientist would not. While Monroe said she was able to have a family while succeeding in academe (in part because of choices her husband made), she said that talking to women about their choices was in many cases “heartbreaking.”
– Scott Jaschik