Friday, July 14, 2006

Gender Disparities Among Higher Education Faculty Demand Attention
By Julie Saad

Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard University president who resigned earlier this year, gained notoriety for his controversial remarks on women in science. It was also publicized that the number of women faculty offered tenure had declined every year since Summers assumed the presidency in 2001. While the situation at Harvard received significant media attention, gender disparities among faculty are not unique to that institution. In fact, the trend is national.
Since 1974, the American Association of University Professors has collected data to measure trends in gender equity among full-time faculty members at public and private institutions of higher education. Historically, women have been underrepresented among the highest academic ranks and tenured positions, and have faced a significant salary gap. Despite minor improvements, inequities persist.

Today, female faculty members at all types of U.S. institutions continue to experience disparities with respect to academic rank, tenure, and salary. While women account for 38 percent of full-time faculty overall, they are disproportionately represented at lower ranks and least represented among full professors. The gap between men and women faculty becomes no less evident with respect to tenure. At all types of institutions, women (on average) are 10 to 15 percent less likely than their male counterparts to be in tenure-eligible positions. Consistently since the late 1970s, 47 percent of women on the full-time faculty have had tenure, compared to 70 percent of men. Further, among full-time faculty from all ranks and types of U.S. institutions combined, women earn 80 percent of what men earn. This earnings gap is largest at the highest academic rank (full professor) and smallest at the rank of instructor.

Why should we be concerned? Education has long been viewed as a valuable investment in society. Higher education in particular exists as the arena where research is conducted to shape and influence public policy. Most of this research is executed and analyzed by the dominant professors in the field. Considering the disparities mentioned above, women are less likely to be involved in this process, and as a result, their unique voices and perspectives are often underutilized or left out completely. Of all places, our colleges and universities – which typically promote diversity and provide a forum for open exchange of ideas – should not be sources of inequity. Further, the current higher education climate is not attractive for women to even want to be involved in it. Would you voluntarily subject yourself to a field of work in which you knew you would be paid less than your colleagues and over the course of 30 years, still have a significantly lower chance of achieving one of higher education’s most coveted ranks?

Because of these disparities, women faculty members are disadvantaged and face significant barriers to advancement. Some universities have recognized this situation and experimented with ways to correct it. Special women’s task forces, diversification committees, flexible tenure policies, mentorship programs between faculty in lower and senior ranks, well-defined grievance policies, and services aimed at supporting faculty members with children (i.e., on-site daycare, affordable housing, etc.) have been proposed at various institutions. While such mechanisms are beneficial, gender disparities among faculty have persisted even after implementation of these initiatives.

It is not enough for institutions to implement policies designed to alter this phenomenon. Additionally, they must create a culture that supports utilization of new policies and those already in place. This means formalizing policies to make the entitlements and addressing the climate issues that often discourage female faculty from taking advantage of policies designed to benefit them. It means ensuring support from those individuals at the highest levels of university leadership. It means creating a centralized system in which policies are uniform across entire campuses rather than individual colleges or departments. Though progress has been made, we still haven’t begun to witness the dissolution of gender disparities and barriers to advancement that female faculty members currently face.
Saad is a graduate student at American University, where she is working on her Master of Public Administration and Graduate Certificate in Women, Policy, and Political Leadership.