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Women in Academe, and the Men Who Derail Them

By Wendy M. Williams

January 2002

Wendy M. Williams is an associate professor of human development at Cornell University. Her books
include Escaping the Advice Trap, written with Stephen J. Ceci (Andrews McMeel, 1998).


EACH SPRING, graduate students who are about to receive their Ph.D.’s hunt far and
wide for tenure-track jobs. Last year, one student in the program I teach in applied for 86
positions. Competition for assistant professorships in psychology and human development is
so fierce that often several hundred applicants vie for a single position. The process weeds out
anyone but the most committed.

Unfortunately, male and female graduate students respond differently to the demands of
the academic job market. Although 70 percent of the students in my graduate program are
female, it is the men who compete most aggressively for jobs – the student who sent out
86 applications last year was male. My informal tally reveals that 90 percent of the men apply
for virtually every job that remotely matches their qualifications, while only about half of the
women do so. When women apply for jobs, they do quite well – but they are far more likely than
men not to compete for positions. That pattern is confirmed anecdotally by my colleagues at
other institutions. Many intelligent and talented women substantially reduce their chances for
career success, prestige, and financial security by being unwilling to participate in a national job
search, usually because the men in their lives don’t want to move. We rarely see male graduate
students severely limiting their job searches because of their partners’ desires.

When brilliant women allow their careers to be derailed, everybody loses: the women, the
scholars who might have been their colleagues, and society at large. Why, in this era of greater
equity for women, are we experiencing such a sorry state of affairs?

Consider one example (with identifying details changed): A brilliant female student, on
a trajectory toward a remarkable career, began a love affair with an attorney late in her graduate
training. She had built a terrific vita, filled with impressive publications; she was a great teacher
who gave wonderful talks on important and interesting research. Her chances of landing a
prestigious job were high. But to get the kind of position that she had prepared for throughout
graduate school, she would have to participate in a national search and be willing to relocate.

All fall, her advisers sent her dozens of job announcements, encouraging her to apply for
each position. Yet she requested only five letters of recommendation, all for jobs within commuting
distance of the city where her partner worked. He certainly could have found an equivalent job
in any major city, but he made it clear that he wanted to remain where he was. Besides, he
noted, his city contained lots of colleges – why should they have to move?

The student was convinced by his arguments. She wound up with a one-year appointment
at a mediocre college; the job had low pay and a heavy workload. After a couple of years in
that position, she will have destroyed her chances of ever achieving the career for which
she spent many grueling years preparing.

Readers may wonder why the student could not make do with a bad job for a few years, or
even take a few years off, rejoining the career track later. Unfortunately, each research-oriented,
tenure-track academic job attracts so many top-notch applicants who have logged one
impressive accomplishment after another that most search committees rule out candidates who
have done less well for even one year. Committees often look first at the quality and
number of an applicant’s publications. Graduates whose temporary jobs require them to
teach eight or more courses a year and don’t give them adequate institutional resources to
conduct high-level research cannot pass that first hurdle. (Of course, some graduates want
teaching-oriented positions. But the students I am describing had prepared themselves for
research jobs in academe.)

How do the female graduate students who narrowly limit their job searches explain their
behavior? They describe in detail how impossible it would be for their men to move. They state,
usually erroneously, that they may still get prestigious, tenure-track jobs, and that even if they
do not succeed at first, they can try again later. After spending five, six, or more years preparing
themselves to conduct research as well as teach, the women end up losing the chance to reach
their goals when their partners insist on staying put.

Most of the partners do not realize that they are permanently derailing the women’s careers;
they think that they are asking the women to make reasonable compromises, or just to postpone
searching for the perfect jobs. The women are crippled by a lack of accurate information
about the academic job market, which prevents them from rebutting their partners’ arguments
that a move shouldn’t be necessary.

It is one thing if a woman decides to focus her life on her family, perhaps choosing to work
part time or to relocate if that would be good for her partner’s career. But the women I am
concerned about declared their career intentions when they applied to graduate school. Their
enrollments kept other promising candidates out of programs with limited numbers of slots. The
women accepted thousands of dollars each year in stipends from their universities, as well as
forgiveness of tuition charges. And at the last minute, they abandon the careers for which they
have trained so long – typically without even realizing how much they are sacrificing.

How can we help female graduate students stay on the path they have chosen? The key is to
make sure that from the start, when they apply to graduate programs, the women have adequate
information about academic careers.

Each graduate program should distribute to all applicants written descriptions of the steps
involved in getting a job as an assistant professor, and information about the resources the
program offers to help with a job search. Some examples of meaningful help are advice about
choosing a research topic likely to lead to jobs, assistance in developing a vita, opportunities to
participate in national academic meetings, and coaching for interviews.

Professors must talk explicitly with graduateschool applicants trying to choose advisers about
the steps involved in landing a job. Women (and men) who find academic careers unappealing
once they realize what job searches involve may withdraw their applications, making room in the
programs for applicants who are willing to relocate after they earn their Ph.D.’s.

For the most part, detailed information about getting a job becomes clear only after
students have been in a program for five or six years, when mentors can no longer ignore the
issue and when fellow students only a little more advanced in the program serve as examples of
success or failure. At that point, male graduate students step naturally up to the plate. Our
society expects men to compete for jobs, and men learn from childhood how to be assertive,
to play to win but to cope with losing, to place personal success at least sometimes above the
needs of friends and relatives.

On the other hand, many female graduate students are shocked to learn what they must do
to get a good research position. Women need extra help from their academic mentors: more
meetings dedicated to discussions of life after graduate school, and opportunities to talk
about the implications of the job-search process for their personal lives and their feelings
about competing.

I have led discussions in a professional development seminar for first-year graduate
students about how to land an academic job. Topics included the specific steps and sacrifices
involved in getting a research position, the types of careers available and the constraints of each,
how to choose a faculty mentor, how to choose a research topic designed to win a job, and how
to present yourself to professors as a good potential colleague.

More attention to research careers in such seminars, in informal meetings, and during
classes would prepare women to communicate more effectively with their partners. For
example, female graduate students should make clear early in their romantic relationships that they may have to move. If their partners are not flexible and supportive, the women can attempt to educate them – or find new partners. Professors should explain the choices and compromises they’ve made in their own lives, whether or not they’ve managed to combine careers and families.

Professors know what an academic career entails, but many of them are simply too
busy discussing research to talk about realworld issues. Others believe that such practical
matters are not their responsibility. In a society that does not implicitly prepare women to compete aggressively for jobs, we must explicitly pick up the slack with our female students. The process
of landing a job should not be a secret, nor should the consequences of failing to participate
in the search. Women must be told bluntly what they need to do to succeed in
the careers they have chosen, and we must teach them to expect of themselves
a level of commitment that we take for granted in men.


*This article first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Copyright © 2001 http://chronicle.com) in the July 20, 2001 issue. It has been reprinted in STATUS with permission from the author.

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