Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Quiet Desperation of Academic Women

Kristen MonroeThat's the title to this article in Inside Higher Ed, on a new study by Kristen Monroe (who happens to be a former professor of mine when I was a political science major at UCI). Here's the abstract of the paper (full article available with academic subscription).

From the article (I am probably excerpting too generously, but it's a 20 page article):
Employment patterns in the academy reflect the pattern in the larger professional world; positions with higher status, power, and remuneration are generally dominated by males. While graduate enrollment in degree-granting institutions (figure 1) has been over 50 percent female for more than a decade (moving from 56 percent in 1996 to 58 percent in 2001), women accounted for only 44–45 percent of the recent Ph.D.s awarded, only 38 percent of the fulltime faculty in all institutions of higher education, and slightly more than 15 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty in “top” departments.7 In general, tenured professors are four times more likely to be male (80 percent of tenured faculty in 2001 were male), while tenure-track (65 percent male) and nontenure- track (61 percent) employment move somewhat closer to the average.

The aggregate statistical data thus suggest academia as a whole fares no better than the general workforce at large in terms of gender equity. Women are still underrepresented in almost all disciplines, and men are more likely than women to hold tenure track positions, be promoted to tenure, achieve full professorships, and be paid more than women of equal rank.

Statistics provide one view of the situation for women; anecdotal data and biographies offer further insight.The more detailed qualitative work on women in academia suggests a dismal picture: a rigid system of rewards that makes scant allowance for deviation from the traditional male model, high levels of isolation, stress and fatigue among female faculty, continuing unconscious and deepseated discrimination and stereotyping by male colleagues, and a remarkably unbreakable glass ceiling.

One common solution to discrimination is to increase the number of power holders who are members of the discriminated group. Our interviews suggest a more complex relationship of women to power, status, and office holding. Just holding office is not always enough to ensure change.

Women were delighted about the increase in female chairs, deans, or central administrators; some considered that these increases signaled genuine improvement. Too often, however, a woman’s holding of this position would devalue or minimize it somewhat, casting it into the service mode, not the power mode. We heard this comment so frequently across all disciplines that we finally named it gender devaluation. Gender devaluation refers to the subtle process by which administrative positions lose their aura of status, power, and authority when held by women. These positions often become treated as service or support roles until they are reoccupied by men. So, for example, being a department chair could be viewed as a position of power or one of service. When a man is department chair, the position confers status, respect, and power. When a woman becomes department chair, the power and status seem diminished, and the service dimension becomes stressed.

Other women told how their accomplishments—being elected to a scholarly academy, an office in the professional association or international society, even receiving outside job offers—were routinely written off by their male colleagues as simply reflections of affirmative action, not the woman’s own accomplishments.

Service differentials often resulted from subtle forms of discrimination. Some instances centered on different expectations of men and women and differences in the way the same behavior was evaluated, depending on the gender of the person performing the act. Women take on these service tasks, despite knowing the disadvantages of spending their time on duties for which they will not be rewarded, because they also recognize that such positions enabled them to open things up for other women.

How effective are existing legal mechanisms in protecting women? If women use these mechanisms, are they stigmatized for doing so? Our speakers suggest that the benefit of legal mechanisms is unclear but the costs associated with pursuing legal remedies are real and high.

Our speakers were extremely adept at detecting the Academy’s cultural cues. Most feared backlash and retribution if they agitated openly for change, so they rejected overt collective activism in favor of more subtle, nonthreatening collective actions. Whereas overt activism tries to directly change power and institutional structures, collective action—as we conceptualize it—refers to organized efforts to improve women’s conditions in the university through more proactive interpersonal processes. The most uniform and enthusiastic recommendation of this type was to expand and reconceptualize mentoring programs. Women especially valued mentoring from women, which provide both role modeling and concrete illustrations of alternative life choices to the traditional male model.

Finding that women reject legal and administrative mechanisms in favor of the subtler collective action proposals noted here reflects other findings in the literature. A more surprising result is the extent to which UCI faculty women fell back on a model of individual responsibility for their situation. Ironically, if not surprisingly, several of our women noted one important and insidious aspect of discrimination; they felt they had to do more to succeed than their male counterparts. While many lamented this, few seemed angered. This was closely related to the fact that these women demonstrated acute understanding of the authority of the university in considerations of family obligation and therefore adapted their experience of inequality to an individual model of responsibility. In this way, most did not relate their own experience with discrimination in broader political terms so much as they deemed it an individual problem they had to address on their own. They held themselves to high standards and interpreted their failures less to gender discrimination and more to their own shortcomings.

Two points are striking, as we listen to the sense of quiet desperation in the choices faced by these women. First, uniformly the UCI women believed the tension between career and family/children is a fact of life for all professional women. It is not unique to UCI, or to academia. Second, we heard a surprising lack of anger. Few women asked for institutional intervention toward a more just reconciliation between the commitment to family and the commitment to career. From the standpoint of institutional reform, then, these are not efficacious voices. These are voices of struggle, denial, and helplessness, ultimately lacking the empowering strategies to handle or change their seemingly intractable circumstances. They are not voices that see the personal as political. This process of internalizing responsibility also occurred in descriptions of both the subtle forms of discrimination and descriptions of overt ones. Stories of both types of discrimination, however, were closely linked to an institutional climate more concerned with bureaucracy and what several speakers called “window dressing” than with ethics. This linkage suggested the lack of political demands may represent a shrewd and knowing calculus on the part of policy savvy women who realize such politicization is doomed to fail in eliciting a positive institutional response.

Here, our interviews suggested specific findings relevant for reform and pointed to several strategies useful in dealing with gender inequity in society at large, not just academia. First, having more women and minorities in positions of power helps sometimes but is not enough. As a general reform, the concept of professional success needs to be redefined so it allows for alternative models, not simply the traditional, linear male model in which the professional is full time and focused on a career, with few family duties. An important aspect of this issue concerns the extent to which the male model also traps men into stereotypes, making it difficult for individual men to break out of traditional roles, if they so desire.We find the human dimension of this issue largely ignored in the feminist literature and believe a new model, which displaces both the traditional male model and the exploited female model, would be greatly welcomed.

Second, as part of this general reform, specific policies can help. Institute longer tracks to tenure and allow for maternity and family leave time. Ensure that legal mechanisms are in place and that they actually work since our interviews suggested such policies that do exist are in place but unobserved in reality. Third, as part of this general re-shifting in the professional model, recognize that women who are professional frequently have husbands who also are professionals, and institute career partner-hiring policies. Finally, institute a comprehensive andreconceptualized mentoring program, so that all faculty—not just women—are automatically entered into it. This will help remove the stigma of participating in formal mentoring. Mentoring also should be extended beyond tenure. Doing so would recognize that the requirements for professional growth are on-going and existing career models make it difficult to conceptualize one’s way out of situations often held irreconcilable, such as the tension between children and career. Such reforms recognize the difficulties of progressing up the academic ladder and respond to the need for continuing institutional efforts to help crack what remains a glass ceiling for women in academia.
Read the rest of this post . . . .And from IHE:
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.”
I am lucky enough to have an advisor (who of course also does work/family law) who gives me the same advice: be savvy about negotiating at which Step I begin my position, consider the faculty development budget I'm allowed, try to limit participation in service committees, negotiate my initial teaching load, and pay this forward by giving similar candid mentoring advice to my students. And I too, may be able to have a baby pre-tenure. This is wonderfully candid, savvy advice, and much less depressing than hearing "just don't have a baby, ever" or "it's impossible to advance far in the legal academy if you want work/life balance." I am not suggesting I want to be pampered with a 1-1 teaching load, no service/committee requirements, or plan to have a baby as soon as I'm hired. But I am suggesting that we, as an academy, have to recognize the increasing diversity of the academic ranks--our student bodies have almost equal numbers of women and men--should not our faculty ranks also reflect this? We, as an academy, might decry the "mommy track" of law firms, as some of our best and brightest students are pushed to the sidelines as their work is valued less than their male colleagues. We should also decry the deleterious gender disparity that our own system often engages in: sidelining women faculty into lower status, non-tenure track positions, unrewarded service commitments, and failing to provide institutional resources for those faculty (male or female) who must balance work and family demands.

The defensiveness of UCI's response highlights the institutional recalcitrance to both legal and non-legal reforms. It is one thing to change policies. It is quite another to change culture, and institutions are reluctant to admit that their professional culture and structure produce an environment that is contradictory to their egalitarian ethos and cultural values. Academia shuttles back and forth between its elitist nature and its egalitarian (Dewey-esque Democracy as Education) project: I am not saying that we must lower standards in the academy for tenure, service, and teaching. I am saying that we, as an academy, must reevaluate our supposed "meritocracy" to ensure that good scholarship is rewarded, and not merely good institutional citizenship. Silence and complacence should not be rewarded, as if those suffering from overt and subtle discrimination must just accept their position in the white-male dominated legal academy. Rather, the academy itself must feel responsibility to change its structure and culture to accommodate the changing face of the academy--a changing face it says it wants, but for the lack of qualified, meritorious candidates. Make the conditions ripe for merit, and it will show itself.

Hat Tip: Feminist Law Profs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Newsflash for the annoying xxx: Life sucks for everybody.

6/17/2008 12:39 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

I have not read the article but wonder if it is a bit general. I think most of what is referred to is the difficulty of women who choose to have children. In this respect the woes of women in academia are no different and I think less pressing than say women who are not in academia. Compare the plight of faculty women with children who often can afford child care and can take time off for a visit to the doctor with that of the secretaries (usually also women).

I understand that the job is not designed for women with children but I wonder what jobs are. Isn't it just possible that more attention should be focused on working women who do not have the flexibility of academic women (and men.) If we are concerned about all women getting a fair break, doesn't the effort start somewhere else?

6/17/2008 11:52 PM  

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