U’s gender gap in tenure is narrowing, but slowly

Kamariea Forcier

The gender gap among University faculty members closed by three-tenths of a percent this year — a modest gain that has administrators claiming continued progress on the issue.
Based on statistics for the 1996-97 academic year that were presented in a May Board of Regents meeting, women make up 21.1 percent of tenured faculty at the University, while their male counterparts hold 78.9 percent of tenured positions.
Though the gender gap continues to be large, the schism is closing. This year’s numbers mark an improvement over the 1995-96 academic year, when women held 20.8 percent of tenured positions.
Compared to nine other Big Ten schools, the University ranks fifth in the ratio of women to men among tenured faculty members. Indiana University ranks first with women holding about 27 percent of tenured positions. Northwestern University ranks last, with women comprising just more than 14 percent of tenured faculty.
Administrators around the Big Ten are trying several methods to encourage their schools to hire more women. Some Universities offer financial incentives to be used as salary proposals for qualified female applicants. Pennsylvania State University established a mentoring program between tenured faculty members and tenure-track professors.
But the current gap is more a result of historical trends than a lack of effort on the part of administrators to address the issue.
“What you’re looking at is sort of a historical demographic for most universities and colleges around the country,” said Stephanie Lieberman, the University’s director of the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office.
During the 1950s and 1960s, higher education went through an enrollment boom with students flocking to the universities. So universities were forced to hire large numbers of faculty members coming out of Ph.D. programs. During that time, Ph.D. programs were dominated by men in all fields.
“So what you’re seeing is sort of a giant game of catch-up,” Lieberman said.
As more women graduate from Ph.D. programs in all disciplines, they will make up an ever-growing percentage of faculty members, she said.
The University is looking to hire a significant number of female faculty members within the next five to 10 years, when many tenured faculty members are expected to retire. Many of those expected to retire are products of the post-war hiring boom.
But at Penn State University, officials aren’t counting on the retirement of faculty to ease the gap.
James Stewart, Vice Provost for Educational Equality at Penn State University, said administrators there are not counting on huge opportunities in the upcoming years.
“It’s clear there are going to be retirements but there are two other things we have to keep in mind. One is that there’s no formal retirement age for faculty,” Stewart said.
“Secondly, higher education is no longer in a growth period, so a lot of the positions that are going to be vacated may not be filled as part of downsizing, so that will slow the opportunities to create more gender diversity of the faculty.”
Another cause of the continued gender gap is simple human nature, said Sarah Evans, a professor of history at the University.
“During the time that you’re compiling your record (for tenure) … women are starting their families,” Evans said. “So you have a collision between child-bearing and meeting the criteria for tenure.”
To counter that problem, the Board of Regents adopted the Stopping the Clock proposal in 1993. The program allows any person on the six-year tenure track to apply for a one-year extension for the birth or adoption of a child or because of a need to care for a family member diagnosed with an extended illness.
Changes like the Stopping the Clock program came about because administrators saw a need to accommodate the needs of women tenure candidates. But some changes occur as a result of current classroom compositions.
“I remember very well when I was doing my Ph.D. program, there were virtually no women in the medical class. They were a rare oddity,” said Dr. Joe Coulter, interim associate provost for diversity at the University of Iowa. “Now our medical classes are, often, a majority of women. Yet you look out at the whole field of physicians, and there’s still a huge imbalance. That was when I realized ‘God, this is really going to take years to really show things.'”
Changing the landscape of faculty members is a slow process, Coulter said. “There’s just not that many faculty jobs out there. University faculties are just not growing that quickly.”
The University of Iowa recently hired more than 70 faculty members at their University, almost half of whom were women.
“But that’s on the front end,” Coulter said. “That doesn’t change the total unless you keep at it and have success like that over a number of years.
“If universities are basically not increasing the number of faculty, then really all you’ve got is faculty turnover,” Coulter said. “And that’s sort of the mode we’ve been in, and so things haven’t changed that much.”
But taking numbers from the tenure track into consideration, Universities are making progress. At the University, the percentage of women faculty with tenure or on the tenure track rose to 24.25 percent this year. Around the Big Ten, women made up at least 21 percent of tenure-track faculty at each of the six schools reporting such statistics.
“I don’t think the increase or modest success we’ve realized is a result of any new programs but rather the payoff of concerted efforts over the years,” said Susan Mask, director of the affirmative action office at the University of Iowa.
At Penn State, deans of various colleges have been told by their superiors to diversify their staffs, Stewart said.
“We haven’t set specific numeric goals, but all the deans have been told very directly that one of our University objectives is to increase the diversity of our faculty,” he said.
In 1990, the University of Iowa’s Board of Regents adopted a plan similar to Minnesota’s University 2000 initiative.
The Iowa plan calls for increasing the number of women among tenured faculty. Iowa plans to increase women tenure and tenure track faculty members from their current 22 percent to at least 25 percent by 2001.
“This is a real priority issue and what we realistically think we can accomplish,” Coulter said.
The University of Minnesota has goals, too, said Lieberman. “In every discipline we have goals for women and faculty of color. Very few of our goals have we met, but we do have goals.”
Affirmative action offices base their goals on the number of Ph.D.s coming out of any given program. The theory is that the percentage of women on faculty in a program should mirror the percentage of female Ph.D. candidates in that program.
Most Universities run into trouble when they enter science, engineering and math fields.
“With some colleges, it’s more of a pipeline problem than others,” Stewart said.
“There are a number of programs designed to help cultivate interest in women undergraduates to consider careers in science,” Stewart said.
“Those programs are, I think, working well, but it takes a long time to see the payoff.”
Lieberman said it is just a matter of time before the University of Minnesota sees those payoffs. “The number of women is increasing slowly, very slowly, in the sciences and maths, but it’s happening,” Lieberman said.
For the University to really advance into the 21st century, the school needs to continue its commitment to increasing the diversity of its staff, Evans said.
“The key for institutions is to hire people with great potential, and to mentor them and nourish them,” Evans said. “This is how we build great institutions.”