Lack of tenured female profs prompts 'U' to rethink tenure system

BY LEAH GUTTMAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 8, 2004

Across the country, increasing numbers of women are earning doctorates in the humanities and social sciences. “But few of these women are found in higher education positions,” said Psychology and Women’s Studies Prof. Abigail Stewart.

Within the University, females abound at the graduate instructor level and as lecturers and researchers. Their presence is even higher — 64 percent — in the ranks of archivists, curators and librarians, according to a 2003 report on the status of women affiliated with the University. But in tenure-track positions at the University, female representation is the lowest — 26 percent of the total — with few of these positions held by women of color.

The disparity between women and men in tenure-track positions at the nation’s top research universities raises questions about the nature of the tenure-process and whether changes within the system could help women aquire tenured professorships. The University is undertaking some steps to evaluate the possiblity of such changes.

Jean Waltman, a research associate at the Center for the Education of Women, said although there are places where women are at parity with men, the disparity increases in the ranks of full professorship.

“As the prestige of the university goes up, the number of women in tenure-track positions goes down,” she said, referring to institutes of higher education in general.

Researchers are examining a number of factors to explain the shortage of tenured female faculty.

Stewart said one possibility that may explain the disparity is that women are more likely than men to consider where they want to raise their families before the prestige of the university for which they want to work.

Waltman said women sometimes find an unwelcoming atmosphere at premier research institutions, pointing to research data showing that women in academia, compared to men, feel less engaged in their departments and more marginalized and have greater difficulty finding mentors. Though this is not true in every case, it does play into the problem, she said.

Another controversial factor is the sometimes covert nature of the hiring process, she said. “There is a traditional, unspoken sense of what a professor should look like, what a professor should study, what kind of training, background and publication records (he or she) should have,” Waltman said. “In some sense, women get excluded because they don’t fit the hiring pattern.”

According to the 2003 report, the University “lags dramatically behind the national pool in terms of gender representation.” And despite having an adequate number of doctoral students in most fields, “the percentage of women faculty within most academic disciplines at (the University) continues to be at or below the 1979 national levels.”

To address these kinds of problems, the University has undertaken programs such as ADVANCE, a five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation that seeks to improve the recruitment and retention of women faculty in science and engineering. The program appears to have made gains, as 40 percent of professors hired in these fields by the University this year were women, whereas women represented only 20 percent of hirings in 2001.

Also in progress is a discussion on re-assessing the concept of a tenure-track position., as well as changes in the tenure-track process itself. Waltman said innovative policies to address these issues are being considered by University administrators and faculty members.

Some of these, such as part-time tenure, would ease the balance between work and home life. This would permit an instructor to remain active in the University and stay on the tenure track while working at a reduced rate, Waltman said.

Permanently extending the tenure clock — a way of lengthening the five- to seven-year process — is also being discussed, Waltman said. This change would alter the University’s clock-stop policy, which currently allows instructors to take one year off while on the tenure track. Allowing more than one break would help women who need time to raise their families while on the tenure track, Waltman said.

“We’re already a little bit flexible,” Stewart said regarding the University’s tenure-track process. “But we’re not as flexible as we might be. … We have an outer limit and might consider changing that.”