Tenure-seeking female faculty find decreasing disparity at 'U'

BY TOMISLAV LADIKA
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 13, 2003

Though the University has a higher percentage of minority faculty members than most other research schools, it still lags behind most Big Ten schools in its percentage of female faculty pursuing tenure.

Of the University's tenure-track faculty in 2001, 25 percent were female, ranking Michigan eighth in the Big Ten, according to statistics provided by the Association of American Universities Data Exchange.

The statistics also reveal the proportion of females teaching lecture courses is higher than the proportion who have received tenure. Females comprised 57 percent of all University lecturers in 2001, but 34 percent of associate and assistant professors, as well as 17 percent of tenured professors, were female. The percentage of females in all four categories has risen in the past decade.

In addition to encouraging all departments to recruit female faculty, the University is trying to improve the number of female professors teaching science and engineering, Senior Vice President Lester Monts said.

Science and engineering departments across the nation have greater difficulty recruiting female faculty than other departments, chemistry Prof. Carol Fierke said.

"It has to do with a discouragement of females in math and science, and I also think it has to do with the perception that it is a difficult career to follow and have a family," she said.

LSA freshman Marissa Lefler, a biology student and Women in Science and Engineering member, said because science and engineering "are traditionally male-dominated fields, and perhaps more competitive, it can be intimidating for females if they are in the minority."

To improve the recruitment and retention of female faculty in science and engineering fields, the University is using a $3.75 million grant received from the National Science Foundation in 2001 to fund its ADVANCE Institutional Transformation for five years.

The initiative created a variety of programs aimed at educating departments on gender-equitable hiring practices, providing financial support to female faculty to achieve their career goals and encouraging female students to pursue careers in science. It also allocates funds to departments looking to recruit female faculty or improve their departmental climate.

"It is easier for students, both men and women, to view science and engineering as fields in which women flourish if they are at least sometimes taught by women who are in fact flourishing," ADVANCE Principal Investigator Abigail Stewart said.

Because the programs were implemented last September, the results are difficult to gauge, Stewart said, but she added that she hopes the initiative "will increase the proportion of women scientists on the faculty, and that the women who are here are flourishing."

Stewart conducted research under ADVANCE revealing female science and engineering professors experienced higher rates of gender discrimination and sexual harassment than female social science faculty, and that female faculty rate the climate of their department more negatively than their male co-workers.

Stewart said that, like female faculty at most other universities across the nation, fewer female faculty at the University are on pace to receive tenure for science and engineering than in other fields. But she said the number of faculty across the country is lower than expected, considering the number of female graduate students in these fields.

Partly to blame for the lower number of female faculty seeking tenure is the fact that when underrepresented, females sometimes feel less valued than men, Stewart said. Another factor she pointed to is "the intensity of the time demands on the short tenure clock, which conflicts with the period in which most people begin families."

History of art Prof. Thelma Thomas said she has noticed the childbearing rate is lower for female faculty seeking tenure than for females working in other professions.

The risks and possible complications of a pregnancy often lead female tenure-track faculty to delay giving birth, sociology Prof. Barbara Anderson said.

To alleviate such challenges, the University began permitting female faculty an extra year to gain tenure a few years ago, providing them with a chance to give birth to and take care of a child, associate Provost for Faculty Affairs Valerie Castle said.

"Faculty can request to have a year off the (tenure) clock if in any way their academic pursuits have been interrupted," she said. "One of these reasons in fact can be childbearing. The hope is that that will allow women to maintain their academic careers and keep the pace they need to keep."

But another problem that the University has not completely eliminated is gender discrimination, Anderson said, calling attention to the glass ceiling which "still has a non-trivial effect," she said.

Thomas said a problem with glass ceilings is "you may know they exist, but it's very hard to point a finger."

But Fierke said she does not believe any explicit discrimination occurs. She said the number of female graduate students in science fields has increased from 5 to 40 percent in recent years.

Anderson said the situation has improved greatly in the past few decades, and that the University has addressed many of the gender discrimination problems.