Women in Academia

Bestcollegesonline.com recently published a list of “15 Incredibly Inspiring Women in Academia.” The list includes such notable women as Marie Curie, Maya Angelou, and Judith Butler. Included in the list are brief biographical notes about the women’s respective accomplishments and the hurdles each had to overcome to achieve success in academia. Hopefully we have moved past the days when talented female mathematicians like Sophie Germain had to take on the identity of a male university student in order to gain a higher education. However, women have yet to earn equality in academia.

A 2011 study (PDF) published by Catalyst, “the leading nonprofit membership organization expanding opportunities for women and business” reveals some upsetting gender inequalities in academia. During the time in which the study took place, “women had fewer and lower percentages of tenure positions than men at doctoral, masters, and bachelor’s institutions. Women [also] occupied more non-tenure track positions than tenure track positions, and men overwhelmingly comprised  the majority of tenured faculty.” Indeed, the study found that only 24% of full professors were women.

The lack of women in academia seems inconsistent with the number of women in higher education. Indeed, “women continue to earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees, and are projected to earn in the majority of master’s [degrees].”Though the number of women faculty members doubled (PDF) from 1984 to 2008 and a lower percentage of men start out on the tenure track than women, Danielle L. Auriemma and Tovah P. Klein of Barnard College  found that “a much higher percentage of [men], compared to women, hold tenure, and far fewer [men] are on the non-tenure-track.”

An explanation for the lack of women in various career fields that “has been pushed by media” is that women “freely choose not to work after becoming mothers.” However, Auriemma and Klein show that statistics do not prove this claim to be true. Indeed, “the majority of educated women with young children [are] in the work force. In 2007, over 70% of women with children worked outside the home (Halpern, 2008). Statistics are similar for highly educated women in their thirties where 2/3 of those with a young child work outside the home (Boushey, 2005).”

Though the question of where the women in academia go and why does not have a definitive answer, many have pointed to an insufficient support system for mothers in academia as one culprit.  Female faculty members reported having to turn down speaking engagements and generally traveling less for work in order to accommodate their children. Female faculty members also reported having less time to have “uninterrupted, concentrated time- to think, to create new ideas,” necessary for an academic.

Male faculty members do not share the burdens of parenthood evenly with their female counterparts. An opinion piece by Sara Ballard and Gurtina Besla for The Harvard Crimson shows that this trend starts when future professors are in graduate school.

A 2008 GSAS study of graduate student parents found that graduate student mothers bore the primary responsibilities for childcare in the months after the birth of a child: more than half (55 percent) of the spouses of Harvard graduate mothers stayed home for four weeks or less, while only two percent of the spouses of Harvard graduate fathers stayed home for four weeks or less. The burden of childcare is undeniably borne more heavily by the women graduate students. This statistic is reflected in the findings of the UCBerkeleystudy that determined that tenured women professors in science are three times more likely to be single without children than their male counterparts (25 percent versus nine percent).

In order to retain talented female scholars in academia in light of the disproportionate demands of parenthood on women, the American Federation of Teachers’  Higher Education Department suggested (PDF) that faculty unions make gender diversity a bigger priority. Auriemma and Klein also suggest more

Institutional attention to providing, publicizing, and encouraging the use of policies that help faculty deal with professional and personal responsibilities [which] will both enhance the quality of the environment, making it more attractive to academic women, and help individual scholars fulfill professional and personal duties.

Auriemma and Klein also suggest a re-envisioning of the tenure-track model. They ask “what would it mean to envision a career over a longer time span, not over a 7 year span? Rather than a linear progression, peaks and valleys over time would be expected. What does it mean to invest up front and allow a woman to become a mother, then to see her productivity soar at a later time?”

To make sure young mothers may pursue a professorship, Ballard and Besla recommend childcare assistance programs be made available for graduate students as well as faculty.

Women, now the majority of bachelor’s degree earners, are still underrepresented in academia, particularly in tenured positions. In the effort to figure out the reasons for this disparity and to make the playing field of academia an even one for both genders we may look to the 15 incredible women that bestcollegesonline.com provides for us as inspiration.  These women are testaments to how important it is to make sure the next great mathematician or Poet Laureate has her talent realized.

(Photo from hvaldez1)

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