Women in the Academy

The Chronicle of Higher Education has put together a brilliant piece on women in academia, The AwakeningIn the current atmosphere of #metoo and #timesup, of last year’s women’s marches and resistance to Trump, it’s important to bring that scrutiny to what’s been going on in the academy, too.

There’s a common misconception that higher education is somehow more “enlightened” and egalitarian than other fields, that it’s a meritocracy where women and people of colour are welcomed with open arms. Over the past three decades, the proportion of female students enrolled at US universities has grown substantially:

chart gender

Data from National Center for Education Statistics

Women are earning the majority of undergraduate degrees, and by quite a big margin, but we can’t celebrate that achievement while women are still very much underrepresented in leadership positions across all fields–politics, business, law, and yes, in academia, too.

It’s not just in the US, either. Catalyst has this great summary page of statistics on Women in Academia around the world:

–In Australia, women hold 53% of Lecturer and more junior roles, 44% of Senior Lecturer roles, and only 31% of more senior roles.

–In the EU, women hold 40% of academic positions, but only 20% of senior roles

–In Japan, 52% of junior college staff are women, but just 23% of full-time university teachers are women.

–In India, 25% of professors are women (better than Japan and the EU average, but still low!)

For women in academia who intend to have children, research suggests that there is no perfect time for academic women to start a family. The decisions of whether and when to have children have markedly different impacts for men and women, including when it comes to tenure.

“Women who have children soon after receiving their Ph.D. are much less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children at the same point in their career.” (Williams, 2005, p. 91).

Delaying having children seems like the obvious answer, and it’s becoming increasingly popular with recent advancements in assisted reproductive technologies, such as IUI and IVF. Unfortunately this is problematic, too, because there are simply new work pressures later on in academic careers. Jacobs and Winslow (2004) found that the ages during which women might pursue delayed motherhood, their late thirties to early forties, are the same years in which academics are working towards tenure. So rather than clashing with the establishment of an academic career in the ECA stage, motherhood clashes with the acquisition of tenure.

In their study of the Nordic countries’ famously egalitarian family leave and childcare policies and their impact on gender balance in academia, Mayer and Tikka found no appreciable difference between the US and Nordic countries in the representation of women among academic staff.

“Improved family policies are a necessary but not sufficient condition for continued improvement in the representation of women in academia, and must occur in concert with efforts to advance a broader societal shift towards gender equality.” (Mayer and Tikka, 2008, pp. 371-372).

The discrepancy between the number of female PhDs and the number of women in tenured positions is about more than just family leave policies.

The demand for mobility can also be problematic for female academics. Research has shown that mothers are less likely to relocate than men or women without children (Bielby and Bielby, 1992; Williams, 2005). When it comes to questions of relocating for better job opportunities, women are more likely than men to think about potential family impacts in their decision-making process. One study found that “…women in dual-earner couples were substantially more likely than men to cite family considerations as a reason for their reservations about relocating for a better job. Over half of the women (56%) reported a reluctance to relocated because of family considerations, compared with just 16% of the men.” (Bielby and Bielby, 1992, p. 1253). Even in cases where couples professed ‘nontraditional’ egalitarian gender role beliefs, the authors still found that “nontraditional males were not nearly as sensitive to their spouses’ job circumstances as were nontraditional females.” (ibid., p. 1262).

Moreover, women often follow their husband’s career to the detriment of their own professional development. “One had worked in 18 countries across all five continents, moving with her husband’s job. The careers of all seven of these women had been affected as they had lost substantial professional ground after each move.” (Powney, 1997, p. 58).

Some critics might argue that female academics are privileged and their #firstworldproblems of struggling to achieve tenure and “have it all” can be easily dismissed. But I think the fate of women in academia reveals a great deal about their position in society more generally. If academia is supposed to be a progressive bastion, it should be a place where we see best practice in terms of equality and diversity. It should be market-leading in family leave, flexibility, affordable on-site childcare, etc.

The internet went crazy with praise for a professor who picked up a student’s crying baby during a lecture–but what if the professor were a woman, and the baby were her own? She’d probably be considered ‘unprofessional’ for bringing her kid to class, not praised in a viral social media post.

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