Universities Discourage Women Seeking Tenure

New Harvard Study Finds Universities Need Instruction on Making Workplace Equitable

When it comes to the academic workplace at major research universities, women are far more dissatisfied than men and far less likely to become full professors, according to a new study released today from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The report from the Study of New Scholars, a project based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which surveyed male and female faculty members, finds that the academic workplace at large research universities is neither as inviting to nor as supportive of women as it is of men.”As more women earn Ph.D.s and enter the academic workforce,” said Cathy Trower, the study’s primary author, and senior researcher at the Study of New Scholars, “we should be seeing a much greater number of women on the tenure track. Unfortunately, while many other institutions in our society have changed, major research universities still adhere to a ‘Father Knows Best’ model of climbing the academic success ladder.
“The survey found that women are less satisfied than men in a number of areas, but especially those concerning research–expectations for research output, outside research funding, the amount of time available for research, the resources available to support research, and the professional assistance received to secure research funding. These concerns, coupled with the lack of support for professional development, the perceived lack of fit in one’s department, poor mentoring, less than adequate professional interactions with colleagues, and the difficulty balancing personal and work responsibilities, leave women far less satisfied than men in the academic workplace.
“The sharp difference between men and women in achieving tenure and becoming full professors,” said Trower, “is related to the fact that too many university departments remain islands of 19th-century academic culture in a frothing sea of 21st-century social change.”The Study of New Scholars project, funded by the Ford Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies, measured the satisfaction of male and female full-time, tenure-track faculty at four public and two private research universities. Of the 28 measures of workplace satisfaction in this study, junior faculty women are significantly less satisfied than men on 19–two out of three– measures. Conversely, in no area were males significantly less satisfied than females.”Despite the appearance of a meritocracy, gender differences continue to exist in research universities.
Until programs recognize the processes, policies, and practices that may adversely affect women, we shouldn’t expect much change in the attitudes uncovered in our survey,” said Trower.Many of the areas for which there are no significant gender differences in satisfaction are those that are easier to measure such as level and number of courses taught, number and quality of students, and the physical setting for work.However, women are not the only ones who are dissatisfied with the way tenure systems operate. While the numbers clearly show deep dissatisfaction among women, men are often within close range. Fifty-eight percent of women in the study strongly or somewhat agreed that they have received mixed messages about the requirements for tenure from senior colleagues, yet 44% of men also agreed.
Similarly, 53% of women were very or somewhat dissatisfied with the amount of time they have to conduct research compared to 39 percent of men who are dissatisfied.While the study was fueled by the desire to understand what makes for a great place for faculty to work, the data go a long way towards explaining why academic women do not progress as fast or as far as men. In the 1970’s, women earned 21% of all doctorates awarded, 34% in the 1980s, and 39% in the 1990s. Women hold 35% of the full-time faculty positions in the United States, but at the top 20 research universities, that percentage falls to 26%. The percentage of women with tenure compared to men with tenure in 1980, 1990, and in 2000 was 50% v. 70%, 45% v. 68%, and 51% v. 69%, respectively.
The survey responses lead to steps to improve the current system:
  • Formalize mentoring by creating senior men and women mentoring teams within departments, schools, or colleges;
  • Train department chairs in tenure guidelines and promotion, as well as in communication with, and evaluation of, junior faculty;
  • Require periodic meetings of department chairs and mentoring teams to examine the level and degree of junior/senior faculty collaboration within the department, school, or college to detect and correct gross inequities;
  • Implement a variety of “family-friendly” and “life-friendly” policies and practices, and monitor their usage and efficacy.

“Over time, with greater commitment and subsequent systemic changes, more women will eventually enter and stay in the academy,” Trower added. “Making the academic environment more family friendly is not really different from the U.S. military’s effort to attract and retain quality personnel by addressing the needs of women and families. Perhaps universities will make the supports, mentoring, quality of life policies, and collaboration equal for men and women, so that academic women will have what they want and deserve–a fair shot.”

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