Sexist Universities

Sarah Baker*, 60, got her first taste of gender discrimination when she completed three years of arduous course work for her Ph.D. When her male colleagues in the Business Management Department, where she teaches organizational behavior,  were cited for achieving ABD status ('all but dissertation'), she was not.  The men received congratulatory emails; she did not.

For the first time in her teaching career, she noticed that no one responded to her ideas and questions. She was told to "just sign" her performance appraisal, even though she wanted to appeal the criticism that she had not been published enough or in sufficiently prestigious journals. "I felt completely marginalized," says Baker. "It was a real shock because, at 60, this was my first experience with discrimination. It's like I hit a wall. It's a horrible feeling and it has lessened my creativity."

Her experience reflects the findings of several studies: that while junior female faculty tend to feel relatively untouched by discrimination, as they become senior faculty - and compete for real power - they feel increasingly marginalized and overlooked by male colleagues. Junior faculty members appear to be less threatening in the beginning. It is only when they achieve some seniority that they are perceived as capable of challenging male authority.

In its recently released annual report on the economic status of the profession, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington D.C, examined four indicators: Who gets faculty positions? Who among faculty achieve tenure? Are salaries equal? Who makes it into the senior ranks? "Women are still disadvantaged in terms of all four indicators," says John Curtis, AAUP's Director of Research. The report was released in 2004 and did a comparative study of approximately 25 years.

Curtis worries that there is a prevailing attitude that progress has been made so administrators and others think equity has been achieved. "There's an attempt to turn to individual factors that serve to 'explain' differences between men and women as faculty. You know, 'women take time out to have kids, or they choose to work part-time', but we need to ask why those differences exist in the first place. We can't use them to justify the differences."

According to the most recent AAUP data, women account for 38 per cent of faculty in the US. They are most represented at community colleges and least represented at doctoral-level institutions. Among full-time faculty, 41 per cent of men - and only 20 per cent of women - are full professors. Of all full-time women faculty members, 22 per cent are instructors,  lecturers and unranked faculty as compared to only 11 per cent of all full-time male faculty members.

Across all ranks and all institutional types, on average, women earn 80 per cent of what men do. The earning gap is largest at the rank of full professor and smallest at the rank of instructor. The ratios have changed "very little" over the last 25 years, according to AAUP data.

In its report, which considers long-term trends, AAUP reveals that women are 10 to 15 per cent less likely than men to be in tenure-track positions. Since the late 1970s, when it first began tracking trends, AAUP surveys show that only about 47 per cent of women on the fulltime faculty have had tenure, while 70 per cent of their male counterparts achieve that goal. In terms of women reaching full professorship, there has been some slight progress, but "the situation is still far from equitable". At doctoral universities, women are still less than half as likely as men to be full professors.

To be effective agents of change on campus, women faculty need to organize, says Martha West, a law professor at the University of California (Davis) and a member of the AAUP's Committee on the Status of Women. In a paper written for AAUP, 'Organizing Women Faculty', West says, "Women gain power through collective action, allowing them to overcome the frustration and isolation they often experience on campus... The most effective efforts for women faculty [on her campus] have involved short-term political organization around specific issues."

Vicky Freimuth, professor of communications at the University of Georgia,  agrees. While teaching at the University of Maryland in the 1980s, she joined a group of women faculty calling for salary and tenure equity. The groundwork for their activism had been laid by economics professor Barbara Bergman, a radical feminist who organized a class action suit against the University in the 1970s. As a result of Bergman's suit, the chancellor set  up a committee on women's issues to take a serious look at salary differentials and other issues affecting women faculty. "It was a one-two punch," recalls Freimuth. "Barbara was the radical, while our group worked within the system. We needed both."

Salary studies were conducted, in which every woman faculty member was paired with a male equivalent in her department. If predicted salaries were not equal between them, the discrepancy had to be justified. As a result, Freimuth achieved parity with her male colleague - after three raises. However, he sought and received tenure before she did, and she was then  compared to a new counterpart. "It was very complex," says Freimuth. When she left the University of Maryland in 1996, many of the issues were still unresolved.

West says, "Women faculty are eager to work together if they perceive a threat or benefit to themselves as a group, but it is more difficult to get faculty members' attention when the problem is one woman faculty member fighting her individual battle for tenure or promotion. Many women faculty hesitate to get involved in such situations, not understanding that we
still face systemic prejudice that affects us all."

West also stresses that it is important to "remember the gentlemen". She thinks women will be more successful in reaching parity if they "build coalitions with male colleagues who understand the problems women faculty face". Together, she says, male and female faculty need "to systematically infiltrate" university structures.

Sarah Baker puts it this way: "When change happens, we need to ask 'how is it set up?' For women faculty, is it a win-win or a win-lose situation?"   


More by :  Elayne Clift

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