Leaks in the Pipeline: Gender Equity in the Academy

Since 1982, women in the United States have earned close to ten million more college degrees than men. Graduating with close to 60 percent of all associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in the United States each year, women appear to have conquered the obstacles that once loomed over their educational pursuits.
Yet despite these promising statistics, gender inequality within the field of academia continues to run rampant, this time in the form of gender imbalance among faculty. According to a 2012 study conducted by the American Association for University Professors (AAUP), only 27 percent of tenured professors in universities are female. With women comprising more than 50 percent of college graduates working toward graduate degrees and a potential career in academia, the fact that so few go on to become tenured professors and full members of faculty has prompted many questions. Further investigations of leaks in this “academic pipeline” have shown that women still face significant obstacles when seeking positions as tenured professors, demonstrating the need for a re-focused examination of the work environment and culture surrounding female academics and professors.
Examining a Leaky Pipeline
Although many universities across the country have identified increasing gender equality as one of their top priorities, changing the faculty makeup and creating an environment more conducive to female professors and students has often proved to be a stagnant process. A 2011 report by John Curtis, AAUP Director of Research and Public Policy, reveals that successful measures to establish gender parity in undergraduate and graduate school populations have not taken root in university faculties: women make up only 42 percent of full-time faculty members, and only a fraction of them serve in leadership positions. According to Gibor Basri, UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion, this may be attributed to the fact that “university faculties change very slowly,” especially considering that the road to tenure is a long process.  In an interview with the HPR, he stated that the analysis of data measuring levels of diversity within the UC Berkeley student body and faculty revealed that it might take “close to 30 years to turn the faculty over” and replace a highly unequal cohort of professors with a balanced one.
The prospect of motherhood, too, serves as a potential barrier to climbing the career ladder within academia. “You’re at your peak of fertility when you’re trying to get the top position,” Donna Potts, an English professor at the University of Washington and chair of the Committee on Women for the AAUP, told the HPR. Mary Corcoran, political science and women’s studies professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Policy concurred, telling the HPR, “It’s a matter of the career clock versus the biological clock. If you can’t put in the hours because of pregnancy or childcare, you can’t get to the top.” The societal expectation for women to act as primary caretakers further restricts a female academic’s ability to advance in her career. From battling guilt over choosing to pursue a career instead of focusing on raising a family to hiding a pregnancy out of fear that it might influence their application for a tenured position, female academics find themselves forced to overcome a system that allows limited flexibility with regards to motherhood.
In light of the obstacles standing in the way of increasing gender balance, several schools have taken it upon themselves to uncover solutions that will bring about change in a timely manner. From 2010 to 2012, HBS conducted a school-wide study to determine the reasons behind the underrepresented female population within its faculty, and find ways to make HBS school setting less hostile toward its female students. The study’s findings showed that of the tenured faculty, only 19 professors are female, compared to 76 male professors. Interviews with students and faculty revealed that the male-dominated HBS environment helped reinforce stereotypes that detracted from respect paid to the existing female faculty members. Potts explained in an interview with the HPR, “There are these expectations that women have to follow along in a man’s footsteps, making it harder to attain tenure.” In this way, stereotypical ideas about how women should act may limit how women are able to act; in the case of the HBS study, having male professors primarily serve as leaders in an atmosphere charged with stereotypical thinking could be responsible for a deficiency in tenured female professors.
MIT’s Gender Equity Project, established in the spring of 2000, focused its efforts on monitoring gender disparities in the allotment of salaries, research resources, and laboratory space. In more recent years, other schools, too, have followed along similar paths by working to change school policies and increase awareness about the issue of gender equity. Basri told the HPR that the University of California schools have worked hard “to remind people of an unconscious bias against women in academia.” UC school administrators have asked each academic department to set specific goals about increasing diversity, with various “equity advisers” to monitor their progress. The desire to track new developments in the effort to support female faculty members and encourage women to stay in academia has spread to other universities. In January, University of Kansas announced that its professors had developed an assessment tool to measure perceptions of diversity on campus, something that they hope to share with other universities seeking to address issues of equity within their student body and faculty.
Patching up the Pipeline
University-wide policies aside, increasing the number of female role models that women in the academic pipeline can look up to as mentors can help make some of the obstacles easier to navigate. Last month, HBS Dean Nitin Nohria announced an initiative to increase the number of women featured as protagonists in the business cases produced by HBS and utilized by MBA programs around the world. In doing so, the school hopes to combat stereotypes claiming that only men may serve as leaders and encourage more women to pursue leadership positions. This change in curriculum echoes one of the main implementable solutions put forth by Kristen Monroe, a professor of political science and philosophy at the University of California Irvine and former fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute. In an interview with the HPR, Monroe explained, “The best way to create change is to get women who really care about this problem…and put them in leadership positions.” Her research showed that increasing the number of role models that female faculty members and students can look to—by having more women either in HBS case studies or as university presidents—helps women navigate their careers in academia.
The persistent underrepresentation of women in faculty and leadership positions suggests that attention must be redirected to the societal pressures, expectations, and stereotypes that negatively influence female academics as they pursue tenured positions. Rather than focus solely on increasing the number of women entering the “academic pipeline” by way of college and graduate school, turning instead to implementing solutions dedicated to supporting women throughout their academic careers may help empower female academics in breaking the glass ceilings that surround them.

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