The Ivory Ceiling: How Academia Keeps Women Out

Last March, Native American scholar and activist Andrea Smith was denied tenure by the Women’s Studies department at the University of Michigan. Smith’s publications and awards were more than enough warrant the job security that tenure provides; to students, colleagues, activists, and observers, it seemed clear that the decision stemmed not from objective concern over academic integrity (that is, whether or not she could do the job), but from a (probably subconscious) belief that work centering on women of color doesn’t have a place within higher education. It raised profoundly disturbing questions about which lines of inquiry are considered “intellectual” and which aren’t, and indicated that work that makes lives better doesn’t seem to be a priority in the university system. Brownfemipower, the leading archivist and commentator on the Smith case in the feminist blogosphere, was forced to wonder what the point of academia even is, if it’s actively disenfranchising such huge swaths of society. She writes:

As I talked with more and more women of color, I came to see that I was not the only one who spent a least a small amount of time feeling betrayed and angry that so much of our greatest thinking is created and owned by academia. I know many women of color who refuse to “do” academia at all, and I know just as many women of color who not only refuse to “do” academia, but think that other women of color who *are* in academia are not necessarily sell outs–but not necessarily doing the best thing with their time either. There’s SO much work that needs to be done in our communities, how can we waste any time fighting an uphill battle making inroads with a profession that has proven to be nothing but hostile to us?

It was about this time that things began to shift for me. I began to wonder what academia as an institution had to do with curriculum–who decided what was taught? Who decided what was researched? Who ‘owned’ the research once it was done? Who was the research done for? Who made the rules in this work place? And if women of color and their communities are not the first answers to ANY of these questions–then what’s the point of women of color being there to begin with?

One of the most frustrating aspects of Andrea Smith’s case was the opacity of the tenure process. Tenure is supposed to function as a recognition of expertise – an acknowledgment, by your peers, that your work warrants permanent academic freedom and job security. However, since tenure committees aren’t required to justify their decisions, tenure often serves as a protective screen for racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. If Smith had merely been fired, she’d have actually had more recourse to challenge the committee’s decision by filing suit for wrongful termination (although litigation has its own set of problems). In academia, however, she’s expected to accept the loss of her job without question.

It’s a daunting problem to face, but it’s easy to forget that a woman only confronts it after she’s secured a full-time tenure track position. And with those positions becoming increasingly rare – currently, 75% of college classes are taught by part-time lecturers or grad students – more and more women aren’t even getting to the point where tenure is on the horizon. Although 57% of part-time instructors are women, we only make up 26% of full-time professors (Bousquet 171), and at, for example, the University of Michigan, only 3% of professors are women of color. Why is the pipeline so leaky? Obviously, all the normal bias plays out in academia (I was going to link to some studies here, but instead I’ll direct you to Ashley’s excellent post), and female academics – even in supposedly more egalitarian fields like the humanities – regularly report sexist behavior among their male colleagues. But there’s more going on here. After three years of working part-time in academia – two as a grad student, and one as a community college instructor – I’ve come to realize that the very structure of academia is hurting women’s chances at securing full-time jobs.

A quick note: as a white woman and an English instructor, I realize that my experience doesn’t speak to all academics. Please do leave a comment if your experience in academia differs from mine.

Working On Your Own Time
Here’s a funny thing about academia: the more time you put into your job, the less likely you are to get a promotion. Doesn’t seem to make sense – until you consider that a part-time instructors (commonly known as an adjunct)’s sole responsibility is to teach. Sure, it may be hard to get your boss to see the good job you’re doing at teaching, since deans and department chairs don’t often sit in on classes, but how could good teaching possibly hurt you?

Well, while a solid teaching record is certainly an important factor in applications for full-time jobs, what makes or breaks most CVs is research and writing, which must be done off the clock. Are you earning a reputation in your field? Are you producing acclaimed fiction or poetry, garnering citations, reading at conferences, taking an active role in professional associations? Any time you spend teaching is time that you’re not devoting to these activities, which means that the more classes you take on – or the more work you put into the quality of each class – the less time you have to further your career. And adjuncts regularly teach up to eight classes per semester: a staggering amount of grading, prep, classroom time, and miscellaneous tasks compared with a full-time professor’s load of two or three sections. Theoretically, research is part of an academic’s job description (in fact, it’s right there in the name!), but few schools will pay an adjunct to write a book or organize a panel. If we want to work toward a better job – at our current institution or elsewhere – we receive no help from our departments.

But how does this disproportionally affect women? Surely men face the same hurdles?

As a young woman with no children, I’ll admit that it doesn’t have a gargantuan affect on me. I can afford to teach fewer classes in exchange for time to work on my fiction. But what if I did have kids? A recent New York Times Magazine article revealed that, even in straight families that consider themselves egalitarian, women handle the bulk of childcare, spending a whopping five times more hours taking care of kids than men do. The same goes for eldercare and other, similar responsibilities; when, say, an aging parent needs to move in with one of his or her children, a daughter is usually expected to take on the burden. Even housework remains squarely in the woman’s sphere – the article states that straight women do roughly twice as much housework as men, and often feel grateful for husbands who do any housework at all. Any way you look at it, women tend to have more responsibilities outside the workplace, even before you factor in single mothers. No wonder female adjuncts find it so hard to make time for academic work.

Of course, women in other fields face the same frustrations. But at least the work they’re getting paid for counts toward their career advancement. It’s almost impossible to get out of a dead-end job in a nightmarishly competitive field when you’re expected to produce meticulous and groundbreaking research on top of the forty to sixty hours you’re already working. Male adjuncts find the time to write because they’re not expected to take care of things at home – and, helped along by hiring biases, male adjuncts easily leave their female counterparts behind. A system where part-time faculty members are expected to devote their own time, for free, to advancing their career almost seems expressly designed to shut women out.

Student Respect
You may have noticed that I haven’t been referring to adjuncts as professors. This is because the term “professor” is reserved for full-time faculty. Part-time faculty members are called instructors, and graduate students are called teaching assistants (even though they rarely “assist” any professor). When you look at the work being done in the classroom, there’s actually little difference between a professor and an instructor; they often teach the same classes, have the same credentials, and may even have comparable publishing records. It’s common knowledge in academia that landing a full-time job is often based more on luck than merit, since most openings can attract over a hundred qualified candidates. That part-time educators don’t deserve the title of Professor seems axiomatic at first; the title of Instructor implies lower-level work, easier material, and labor that requires less skill. A professor teaches nuclear physics; an instructor teaches remedial grammar. But why is English 101 considered “professing” when a full-timer does it, but “instructing” when handled by a part-timer? What about “instructors” who teach upper division or even graduate courses? Is the distinction really based in reality,* or is it a way of justifying lower pay and the denial of benefits?

Couple that distinction with a lack of office space – virtually all adjuncts meet students in shared offices, coffee shops, or classrooms – and you get a working environment in which it’s difficult to get students to take you seriously. When I work at one of the five computers (shared by over 100 adjuncts) in our part-time office, I and the other (mostly female) instructors are routinely mistaken for secretaries; I’ve had more than one student become angry when I refused to take a message for their instructor. This dismissal carries over into the classroom, where a female instructor’s second tier status – or even third or fourth tier, if she’s at a school with full-time lecturers or star faculty – is immediately apparent to students, and begins to feed into the sexism that those students probably walked in with. I and my female colleagues all have plenty of stories about disrespectful or even hostile students. We’re regularly bullied, interrupted, lied to, and flirted with; we’re called “chica” or “sweetie” by 19-year-olds; we routinely deal with threatening emails and sexual harassment. It’s true that full-time faculty wrestle with the same problems, but notice that we part-timers can’t even say, “Stop it – I am a professor” to bolster our authority? Titles and offices may seem like little things, but when students work with a female instructor who schedules conferences at the campus Starbucks, they develop very different opinions of her credibility and expertise than that of their male professor who holds court in a private office.

And this lack of respect has the potential to do long-term damage to our careers. As I mentioned above, one’s teaching record does play a role in full-time job applications, even though it’s usually not the most important factor. Since student evaluations are a common means of gauging teaching skills, dismissive or disrespectful evaluations can cast an unprofessional pallor over an applicant’s record and feed into a hiring committee’s unconscious bias (see above). The cycle just keeps going.

Furthermore, you have to consider the issue of basic morale. Any faculty member can tell you stories of rude or confrontational students, thanks to the current cash-for-credits mentality, in which students see themselves as consumers buying degrees. But it’s hard not to internalize disrespect when you have no symbols of authority. How can we be effective educators, pushing students to think critically and challenge their assumptions, when we’re bombarded with the message that we’re no more than unskilled information dispensers working anonymous, interchangeable jobs?

Since this essay is long, I’ve broken it up into two posts. Tune in tomorrow to find out why our problem is your problem, and what the hell we can do about it.

Source cited: Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works. New York: NYU Press, 2007.

*One could argue that professors are paid to do research and help govern their departments through service such as committee work. However, the distinction starts to crumble when you consider that many instructors do the same work, except for free.

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36 comments for “The Ivory Ceiling: How Academia Keeps Women Out

  1. June 30, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Hurray Girl Detective! I love seeing you and Mahlena-Rae here! It’s two of my favorite peeps in one convenient package.

    I wrote a bit about women in academia here with an awesome link to a series of powerpoints about the gender gap in the ivory tower. There are also some great links to other articles in the comments section.

    There are some sections about interviewees in a Swedish study where women were always judged more critically than men on the same merits. These tiny slights over the course of a career end up creating a huge gap between achievements for men and women, even before you take child rearing and family care into account. So the old standby that women prefer babies to money (or career success) isn’t exactly true. But the perception that is true hurts women who want to succeed in career and men who want more time with their families.

  2. June 30, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    Thanks for this post, GD. As someone who’s thinking about going into academia, I now have quite a bit to consider.

  3. Emily Jane
    June 30, 2008 at 11:46 pm


    As one of the leaks — a grad school dropout (okay, I took an MS drop, but I feel like a dropout) — I love to see this topic discussed. There were many reasons why I decided academia wasn’t for me, but almost all of them tie back to gender somehow (I’m white…)

    And I totally agree 100% with the ‘Working hard backfiring’. One of the professors I highly respected as an undergrad told me that my male classmates were geniuses, but I just worked hard (and my letters of rec said that too.) I am really glad to see someone else talking about how gender stereotypes play with this coded language that people use to communicate who deserves what and how it impacts where people end up — the whole ‘working hard’ versus ‘naturally gifted’ is coded language to describe who deserves to get ahead.

    And if women have to work twice as hard to get noticed….therefore they are hard workers….therefore…..

    I did have a fairly good experience teaching, though. But not good enough to make me want to do it forever, that’s for damn sure.

  4. July 1, 2008 at 12:05 am

    Excellent analysis, GD.

  5. July 1, 2008 at 12:39 am

    This was a very distressing read.

    I have friends who insist there’s no gender bias in academia because men who made the same decisions as women would be treated the same way. Which I suppose makes sense if you never consider how often women are expected to take care of the children – and constantly treated as though they will, even if they have no plans to have kids.

  6. jed
    July 1, 2008 at 1:51 am

    Also to be taken into consideration are grants collected and donations pumped from alumni. Your students today are your benefactors tomorrow.

  7. disillusioned (regular commenter going anonymous)
    July 1, 2008 at 3:10 am

    Warning: academia rant ahead.

    All of these things are why I’ve pretty much decided to “leak from the pipeline”. I’m almost finished my PhD in English (defense in September, woo!) but there’s so much about academia as it stands now that’s unconscionable to me. The god-awful pay for part-timers – if you put together classroom hours, office hours, hours spent advising students and grading hours, I made about $8/hour adjuncting at one of my jobs this past semester. The fact that, after many, many years of education, there’s only a 40% chance you’ll get a full time job at all (if you’re in the humanities), and even if you do, you’ll probably have to move away from your friends and family, potentially to different places several years in a row, in order to make less than $50,000/year to start.

    I’m going into my post-PhD year without a full-time position (beaten out by men after all three campus interviews this year) and I was offered an adjunct position at a school 3 hours away by train, by someone there who had been given my name by a colleague. I said that I lived in a different city and wouldn’t be able to commute, and the response was, “Oh, you won’t really make any money when it all shakes out, but you’ll gain valuable experience that will help you find a full-time job later on!”

    There’s the overt sexism, of course; my guess is that few people would suggest that a man with a PhD work essentially for free for an entire semester. But there’s also the fact that, although I feel like a terrible feminist for feeling this way, I want to be able to choose where I live, to be near my friends and family and community and to have kids when I want them (within reason), not just “after tenure”. Academia is one of the worst industries out there for penalizing women with kids, because everything is wrapped up with tenure, and women who have kids on the tenure clock (which often coincides with prime childbearing years) are disadvantaged significantly. And if you don’t get tenure, like 1/3 of academics or more at some schools, guess what? You either have to leave academia completely or find another job – probably in a completely different city, which also means uprooting your family if you have a partner and/or children.

    Oh, and if you leave? Then you get the “failed academic” narrative. It wasn’t that you chose to do something else, that you saw what academia was offering you and decided that it wasn’t enough, or it wasn’t what you wanted for your life. It was that you “couldn’t hack it”, or “weren’t smart enough”, or bla bla fucking bla.

    For some people, the desire to teach and write for a living is enough to lead them to make all of these sacrifices. A few others get lucky, and get a job where they want to be. Me, I’m going to find something equally awesome to do with my life, and maybe teach part-time in the evenings. I have a PhD (almost), I have some other good work experience from putting myself through school, I’m sure I can figure out something. Speaking of which, for any other academics thinking of defecting, Basalla and Debelius’ So What Are You Going To Do With That? is very much worth a read.

    End rant.

  8. joshua
    July 1, 2008 at 4:07 am

    What a fabulous write-up. I’m looking forward to part two!

  9. eruvande
    July 1, 2008 at 9:22 am

    Thank you for reminding me why I chose not to go on for my Ph.D. I may get more Master’s degrees (I’m working on 2 at present), but I certainly don’t want a career where doing what I love–teaching–takes a backseat to doing something I don’t particularly like–writing research papers. Mind if I print this post and hand it out to family and friends who don’t understand my decision? ^_^

  10. activistgradgal
    July 1, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Your post totally caught my eye as I’m a grad student at the University of Michigan (not in the women’s studies dept, but I have taken courses in that dept and do know folks in the PhD program in that dept). I believe there were actually two other women in the women’s studies dept in addition to Andrea Smith who were denied tenure this year. One of them was also a woman of color who was denied at the departmental level and another was a white woman who was denied at the university level (rumor is that it was giving birth and hence taking time off and putting off publishing her book that did her in).

    I think you’re right that for all the problems full time faculty face, adjuncts get screwed much more severely. I worked as an adjunct at a nearby university once during grad school and other semesters I have taught at my own university. At my own university being a TA for about 50 students for a semester is supposed to require about 20 hours a week of work (class time, prep time, grading, syllabus creation, office hours, meeting with students, etc.) and it pays about $9000. At the other university where I was an adjunct for 50 students it was implied that the teaching should take less than 10 hours a week and I got paid a little over $2000. In addition to showing just how badly adjuncts get screwed I think that disparity also shows that college students who are taught by adjuncts (or their parents who are footing the bill) have a lot to complain about. Why should they be taught by someone who makes so little money that they are forced to spend only 1/2 or 1/3 of the time on their class that the class deserves?

    I will be on the job market in about two years and I pretty much have already decided that I just will not do adjuncting. It’s just too hard and there’s no financial security (not to mention no benefits), which are of particular importance as we want to have a baby shortly after I finish grad school. It would be horribly sad to throw 6 years of grad school down the toilet (and a total waste of the government’s–I have a government fellowship–and the university’s money), but it’s just not worth it to me.

    As you point out the number of women in top research universities like the University of Michigan are pretty depressing. In my own dept women make up only 10% of the faculty and there doesn’t seem to be any sense that this is a problem amongst most of the faculty.

    And I think you are completely right that kids are a big part of what accounts for the gender disproportion. I constantly hear other female grad students talking about “work/life balance” which is essentially code for “how the heck am I going to have this career and also have kids?” One big issue for a lot of us is just the mere biology factor. Many of the women grad students I know enter their programs when they are already in their mid 20s. Assuming 6 years of grad school and 6 years for tenure, and they will be about 37 by the time they have any job security and don’t have to worry about constant productivity. We are constantly debating the merits of having babies at different times during our careers. Waiting until after tenure might mean putting one’s desire for children on hold for a decade and gambling that one will still be fertile into one’s 40s. (My mother started perimenopause around age 38.) Almost everyone agrees that the first two years of a position are a really bad time to have a baby because the transition from grad student to faculty member is hard enough. But year 3-5 isn’t good either, that’s the time that you are producing the bulk of your publications for tenure. Many faculty members I know of suggest that grad school is the best time in terms of both biology and time (except of course that grad students are notoriously poor and have no guarantee of employment when they finish!). I’m actually lucky in that I started grad school early, so I could actually be only 34 when I get tenure giving me a little extra time for kids than most of my colleagues. But in my case, my partner is actually the one who will be giving birth, and she is significantly older than me. So we are planning to go against all advice and have a baby in my first year or two of a job, and I’ll just have to cross my fingers about tenure.

    Speaking of babies, I recently read this report: and was just shocked at how bad things were. I knew that having kids was a big problem for women, but I didn’t realize things were *this* bad. In terms of professional success, things look best for married men with children and things look worst for married women with children. Figure 6 is also really interesting to me. Women pretty much stop having babies 16 years or so after being hired (which makes sense since that would put them in their 40s at the earliest), but men are still having babies 20+ years after they are hired (hence into their 50s). I wonder, did they marry women who were significantly younger than them, or is this a 2nd (youngerr) wife phenomenon? In any case, it’s horribly depressing.

  11. Mandolin
    July 1, 2008 at 11:34 am

    !!! I read through all this nodding before realizing who you were! Yay!

  12. exholt
    July 1, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Academia as it currently exists is extremely unfriendly to anyone who desires a semblance of a life, much less one with family and kids. When I was still an undergrad, I’ve heard many horror stories from classmates with older friends in PhD programs being severely reprimanded and/or tossed out for not doing what was expected by their advisor….spending as close to 100% of your waking hours on research for your dissertation and assisting the Prof(s) with labwork, TAing, other grad student tasks considered too menial for the Profs. When you have a grad student with a publishing record which rivals tenure-track assistant Profs in a competitive science field being tossed out merely for spending a few hours a week rock climbing to relax and rejuvenate….that speaks volumes about how screwed up many senior Profs are.

    This issue continues even if one gets on the tenure track and gets tenure from observing as the post pointed out judging by the amount of tenured/tenure track Profs who drank heavily due to working in an isolated rural campus far from friends, family, and potential compatible life partners, especially when the college was the only major industry in that town and the fact town-gown relations was horrid when I attended due to economic disparity issues and political differences between the more conservative townspeople and the radical-left progressive orientation of the campus.

    Though I have the privilege of being male, that is offset by the fact I am non-White, child of immigrants, and came from a working-class background. This is especially when I have observed how upper/upper-middle class suburban raised White and totally assimilated/Americanized POC voices are taken far more seriously in academia even in topics where they completely lack the relevant personal experiences or had access to close relatives and neighbors who had such experiences to learn from.

    As for adjuncts, that position was largely created and structured not only to take PhD and MA graduates who were not considered “good enough” to be picked for the tenure track/tenured and to keep them there as a flexible pool of cheap labor in an era of an increasingly commodified higher education. Keeps labor costs down and prevents the “un/underqualified” PhDs rejected from the tenure track to ever be able to compete with the “elect” PhDs for tenure-track/tenured positions which makes higher-ed admins, trustees, and senior Profs happy.

    As at all research universities and even many well-reputed small liberal arts colleges, research is considered paramount or of equal importance respectively. Teaching to those at the research universities is considered a “distraction” from one’s true obligation…published research in the forms of books, journal articles, creative artistic works, etc.

    This disdain for teaching also carries into how university faculty at Arts & Sciences and other divisions seem to view faculty and students who attend schools of education. On several campuses I’ve visited, faculty and students who are at their institution’s school of education are considered to be of much lower quality and much of the research from them to be of questionable utility and highly dubious by faculty and grad students at other divisions. They also had little reluctance to show disdain and crack jokes at the expense of Ed school faculty and grad students when they were telling me about their university.

    It does not help that schools of education often have had to lower their admission standards relative to other grad schools on the same campus due to the fact most of the best performing undergrads opt to join more lucrative and/or prestigious occupations/grad schools due to low occupational pay relative to level of education and the high levels of disrespect meted out to K-12 teachers by students*, parents, administrators, and everyone else.

    Did I also mention that academia is extremely hierarchical which is ironic considering all the lip service I’ve seen paid by their senior profs and admins about promoting more egalitarian inclusive discourse?

    * I was guilty of this, too. In my defense, however, it was in response to certain teachers who felt entitled to be petty authoritarians to augment their own egos at the expense of their students.

  13. dananddanica
    July 1, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    I wonder about this. ActivistGradgirl, only 10% of your department faculty is female? Whenever I hear stats like that I always want to ask, what was the percentage 5-10 years ago? How long does it take to make full time faculty in that department? What percentage of the people on the tenure track for that were women, 10, 15, or 20+ years ago?

    If only 5% of the people on the tenure track for your department were women 20 years ago, is not 10% a reasonable number now? All the sexism and discrimination that took place then, and still happens now, has quite an effect but the changes that have been effected will take years to show up at the highest levels, whether that be a tenured professor, judge, or fortune 500 ceo. Does that make any sense?

    As far as the difficulties women who have babies face, again seems only logical to me given the system we currently have. If you get off the track or delay things, how exactly do you compete with someone who has the privilege to not have to worry about it, whether that be a man or another woman? Would that be -fair- to them? Even if we got everything a lot of us wanted, helpful partner/s, fully funded daycare etc, in a results driven world populated by the intellectual elite, falling behind for any reason is punished and having a kid will continue to be dont you think?

  14. james
    July 1, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    I wonder too. Why is the blame directed at academia? In terms of children, if you are doing a disproportionate share of the childcare and so can’t get ahead in your career I don’t think the problem is academia trying to shut women out, so much as it is your partner being a shit. It almost seems as if people will try and blame everything – business, government, academia and so on – while ignoring the fact most women have enormously unequal relationships because of the simple fact they’re being exploited by their partners. I think considering the nut and blots of the relationships most of us are in is so raw and close to home that most of use just can’t bear thinking about it.

  15. shah8
    July 1, 2008 at 7:06 pm


    People that don’t actually *read* the dang blogpost!

    What part of can’t have children *at all* Don’t You Guys Understand?

    As in pregnancy is a cause for no tenure. Early childcare. Probably even freakin’ getting sick. It don’t matter ’cause, well, these, if you have been paying attention at all, are excuses, as well as causes, for university not to give tenure to women

    Now, I know I’m not good at writing and clarity, but I do think I was reasonably clear there…

  16. July 1, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    As another one who opted out of academia after years of adjuncting (and hasn’t looked back), let me ask you this:

    How do you (as in, a general “you”) think you’ll be able to impact the lives of more people–by writing (in my case) yet another book on Bakhtin and Shakespeare, or by finding a career alternative, like teaching at a high school or getting a job in the industry and devoting your work/life balance to a social project either in the U.S. and A. or abroad?

    For me, the answer was pretty clear. Producing more research that’s going to land in some journal issue which might or might not be read and find its way into more articles and journal issues that might or might not be read wasn’t going to be enough for me. Ivory tower my a**; I got a “day job” and started teaching at community colleges in the evenings or at the weekends because, hey, that kind of teaching, when treated as a serious hobby, became valuable for me and made me a better and more impactful teacher.

  17. exholt
    July 1, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Why is the blame directed at academia?

    Because in the areas of academia I’ve witnessed as an undergrad and as a grad student, being an academic is one of those all-consuming professions where one is expected to dedicate nearly all of their waking hours towards academic research in their field of specialization with some additional time for teaching, departmental/field related service work, etc.

    Taking even a little bit of time to have a life outside of that is often taken by senior Profs as a sign one is “lacking in seriousness” and “undedicated”….perceptions that can sink an academic career, especially at the grad school where it may mean being denied a chance at a prestigious post-doc or tenure-track position, or early in one’s academic career where it means you don’t get tenure and have to leave.

  18. July 1, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    james: t almost seems as if people will try and blame everything – business, government, academia and so on – while ignoring the fact most women have enormously unequal relationships because of the simple fact they’re being exploited by their partners.

    You are missing an important point, james: business, government, and academia have institutionalised the presumption that heterosexual couples with children will have enormously unequal relationships: have set up a system where someone who aims to have a successful career and a family will have someone at home taking care of the necessary work to support their career.

  19. activistgradgal
    July 1, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    Actually, my department actually used to have *more* women then it does now. When I accepted the offer it had more like 18%. It’s low point since I’ve been around was something like 5%.

    My field at large is one of the worst of the non-science/technical fields, but it is still significantly better than my department–it’s more like just under 30% of people in the field are women as well as just under 30% of new PhDs. The number of female graduate students in my dept. The topic of why there are so few women in my field and why the ones who are there have so many complaints has been getting more attention in the field recently. In some of these discussions and conferences my department has been specifically brought up by women who were there 15 years ago. And apparently the number of women have not changed at all in those 15 years. And this is not a problem of not having had enough women in the tenure line, given that probably 30% of hired people are already tenured and are often full professors.

    So no–there really isn’t an excuse for the department’s numbers. I might be wiling to cut them some slack because we are in an undesirable location and so it is hard to convince any faculty members to take jobs here. BUT, it’s not just a problem of numbers but also a problem of attitude–there is a distinct feeling that much of the faculty doesn’t think it matters if they have any female faculty or not. It is pretty clear that the gender of a job applicant plays no role at all in the department’s decision about whom to hire, which is crazy given that there the female grad students are clearly negatively affected by the environment and quite upset at the dwindling numbers of women.

    As for the baby issue, the problem is that not everyone who has a baby gets punished. There are huge differences in how that affects men vs. women (i.e. men with babies are more successful, women with babies are less so.) Some of that may be the result of the fact that women end up doing more of the housework/childcare, but as more and more relationships become more and more egalitarian, it’s hard to believe that this is the full explanation. I think there is likely something else going on.

    For instance, the way the tenure system works is just about as bad as possible for women given that it is putting the most pressure on women at the same time that their fertility begins to drop-off. There have actually been research which has shown that women academics’ most productivity goes up after tenure while men’s productivity goes down. But since tenure occurs before this upswing in productivity, women get no credit for it. But why does the tenure system have to be the way it is? It could focus on 10 years; it could focus on 3. It could be different in a thousand ways. Why should it be a way that systematically disadvantages women who, if they were judged on a different basis, might actually end up outperforming their male colleagues?

  20. anon
    July 1, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    I worked for an international scholarly publisher in the U.S. I also have been adjuncting for 10 years now. Research and publishing requirements/pressures are the biggest jokes going unless one is producing new information or updating textbooks. The only people who give a damn about these books are people in academia. The sales are horrible and textbooks are the only thing that make money. Anyone who has attended college or taught at one knows what a racket that can be. The scholarly journals, at least the ones I dealt with, were all run out of universities – convenient. It is a little elitist microcosm. I once worked with a semiotics prof. who could not understand why her sales were so low. Give me a break! I find semiotics really interesting, but most people would rather read Grisham.

  21. anon grad
    July 1, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    I agreed with the aspects of this post highlighting the academic hierarchy and how it can be biased against underprivileged groups. However, I would like to dispute the off-hand remark that graduate student TA’s rarely help their professors. Putting down a further subordinate class of people in academia is not going to further your cause, and almost all of the TA’s I work with care deeply about doing a good job. Perhaps it is the culture of antipathy against undergraduates perpetuated by full-time professors that makes some graduate student TA’s less than helpful to their professors. Regardless, I find it incredibly offensive that you would be so dismissive of the grad student population, which is possibly even more overworked and less appreciated than adjunct profs and instructors.

  22. The Girl Detective
    July 2, 2008 at 12:33 am

    However, I would like to dispute the off-hand remark that graduate student TA’s rarely help their professors. Putting down a further subordinate class of people in academia is not going to further your cause, and almost all of the TA’s I work with care deeply about doing a good job.

    Anon grad –

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear. When I said that TAs rarely assist professors, I meant that TAs almost always teach their own classes without supervision instead of, say, leading discussion sections in a professor’s lecture course. I didn’t mean to imply that TAs don’t care about their jobs; rather, I meant that they’re teaching independently rather than acting as assistants. And, of course, there are exceptions. Again, my apologies.

  23. anon
    July 2, 2008 at 4:11 am

    There’s the overt sexism, of course; my guess is that few people would suggest that a man with a PhD work essentially for free for an entire semester.

    I don’t think that’s true. I’m sure that women do face more hurdles in academia than their male counterparts, but everyone is treated pretty poorly. Teaching a low-paying part-time or temporary jobs is de rigueur for academics, masters or PhD, certainly if they choose a liberal arts route rather than research institution.


    When I said that TAs rarely assist professors, I meant that TAs almost always teach their own classes without supervision instead of, say, leading discussion sections in a professor’s lecture course.

    Be careful about generalizing. At both my undergrad and grad institutions, in the physics and astronomy departments at least, TAs were just that – TAs. They never taught their own courses. I don’t think these are “exceptions” generally in academia, although clearly your departments and institutions are different.

  24. dananddanica
    July 2, 2008 at 5:43 am

    I understand that completely. Its the way its set up, to attain a position, what, .0001% of the population can attain, you have to forego a lot of personal freedom. Am I agreeing with that system? No, just looking at it and noting that yes, you cant have a baby “at all” but you also cant take extended paternity leave as a man. In no way are those two equal but for lack of a better phrase, when something is that competitive you simply cant have it all. There are many women I know who simply do not want to have children and that is their choice, there are also male friends who are privileged to have a stay at home spouse (of either gender). Someone within the current system who chooses to have a baby, again how can they expect to compete with women or men who choose not to either have a baby or take a lot of time out of their lives to take care of it?

    Want to change the system? More power to you but I the rarefied competitive air of people in this position, hard almost impossible choices must be made if you want to attain a position. I dont see a way around that unless you completely change the system. For me its difficult if you have two equal people, no two are ever completely equal in ability, drive, etc but lets just say we have 2 that are equal. We have these 2 striving for a position that takes years and years to qualify for, they are competing against some very bright and motivated people. One takes off 1 month, 2 months, or has something happen to them that makes them unable to work 50, 60,70+ hours a week, travel extensively, etc. Who should then get the position?

    So are you saying that in our current system women at that level, very bright and motivated, should be able to take time/focus off to have a child and pay no penalty for it? Again how is it fair to women who didnt make that choice when in theory its results and time put in that matter most?

  25. dananddanica
    July 2, 2008 at 5:50 am

    Then the system should change. I do not think women would outperform men if the system was changed as I dont believe women are superior to men, as groups they are equal. It does seem unfair that all pressure is put in place at precisely the wrong time for women wanting to have children but if you have any further ideas as to why things are they way they are now or how you would change things I’d love to hear them. Perhaps that would change the numbers for those getting their PhD’s.

    Also if you have any ideas on how to change these same institutions so that the percentage of male graduates vs female graduates comes closer to parity at the undergraduate or graduate levels I’m all ears as well.

  26. July 2, 2008 at 9:02 am

    There are definitely problems for women in Academia and the system is definitely set up to favor people who are willing to work all of the time, and thus in turn not have kids, hobbies, or other lives. However, the fact that it is like this means that there is still competition for jobs and there are always going to be people working longer, working harder, working more, whether male or female. In my experience, the difference arises in that men are much more willing to make the trade-off while women are more likely to say “screw this, I want a family, a life, a hobby” etc. Of the women I know who started in academia, one has tenure, two were denied tenure (and kids/family certainly played a role in one of those two cases) but the vast majority actually quit before going up for tenure. I’m pre-tenure and childless by choice and so I have a decent chance of making it, although I’m about to abandon my most time-consuming hobby in order to stay on top of the ever-more-demanding day job. There are obviously things about this life that must be appealing, or so many people would not want to do it and be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do it. For me it definitely comes down to the students, they make the pain worthwhile. But even then I sometimes wonder how long I will last, and at what point I will decide that the 24/7 nature of my email in box, backlog of papers to review, backlog of papers to write and books to finish, are not worth it. The thing that kills me is the constant stress of never being able to rest and know that I should be resting and not working — because there is always something I should be doing or should have done.

  27. Mercurial Georgia
    July 2, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    This is horrible…and why I regret not going to a community college instead…and why I didn’t chose to take uni English anything, but I will take one course next year to boost my mark.

    The biological clock ticking (along with the WTF sexuality was I) was a major stress factor in my life that had me panicking for the past few years over What To Do, before I decide to ‘See What Happens Now’. I realise I have more CHOICES in this GLBT marriage legal world. It’s like on Queer As Folk, a baby can have two mommies AND two daddies, therefore the financial and time cost of childrearing shall be shared more! I wouldn’t have to worry about Old Eggs if another mother is the one who contributes the egg while I carry. (I remember a surrogate story about a mother who carried her grandson because her daughter couldn’t)

  28. Joaquin Stick
    July 3, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Wow, my little ostensibly crappy little public liberal-arts college in the deepest sticks of upstate New York is either suddenly a hotbed of progressive policy, or there’s a bit of self-selection going on in the way this narrative is being described.

    Let me preface this with a clear statement — in no way do I wish to deny that sexist, racist, and classist (to say nothing of the big, ugly open secret in academe, ageism) people and policies are plentiful in academe — but if my department, hardly a historical bastion of enlightened personnel interactions, can have women in nine of seventeen tenure lines, and if my college can have pre-tenure leave programs devoted exclusively to women and underrepresented minorities, and if my college can have a family leave policy that not only gives a full semester of leave but also a subsequent semester of teaching reassignment, then it strikes me that the real problem is not with “academe” but perhaps with elite academic institutions, such as the University of Michigan. Let’s face it, almost everybody under the rank of endowed chair full prof is getting the shaft at those places, including some individuals with privilege aplenty. For all the rhetoric of egalitarianism and empowerment issuing forth from scholars at the most elite universities in the U.S., the personal politics of the departments to which these scholars belong is not that different from the 1950s in terms of gatekeeping. I’ve always been dismayed at the ways in which many salon Marxists of research-university English departments can behave like the very targets they savage in their writing when it comes time to, say, fund adjunct pay at subsistence wages.

    One answer that springs immediately to mind for me is that if you go visit a department at a graduate program that only has 10% female faculty and you find that this is a problem for you, don’t go there and make sure that the admissions people know that this is why you chose not to attend said school, but I recognize that this is also overly reductive. Don’t fall prey, however, to the Chronicle of Higher Ed worldview when discussing academia. There are other schools than Brown, Berkeley, and Michigan (or Wellesley, Denison, and Sewanee, for that matter…).

  29. July 6, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Great post, and what a rich group of responses. Thanks for all this. I just blogged about the same thing, but with a bit of hope from where I sit. Please check it out at let me know what you think:

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