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Progress on Gender Equity at Nine Top Research Universities

By J. L. Sokoloski

Jeno Sokoloski is an NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian
CfA, where she works on observational studies of jets from accreting white dwarfs.
She is also a volunteer teacher in the Cambridge Science Club for Girls and a co-coordinator of
the CfA Women’s Program Committee.

January 2005

In 1999, the influential report on gender equity from MIT revealed a pervasive, if unintentional,
bias against women faculty in the School of Science. Discrepancies between male and female
faculty members were found in areas such as hiring, promotion, compensation, access to leadership roles,
and the allocation of resources such as research space. In addition, women science faculty at MIT
often felt less valued by their peers than did their male counterparts, and generally more marginalized.
These inequities led to high levels of job dissatisfaction among female faculty.

The MIT study prompted the presidents or provosts of nine top research universities—U. C.
Berkeley, Caltech, Harvard, MIT, U. Michigan, U. Penn, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale—to attend the
President’s Workshop on Gender Equity at MIT in 2001. At that meeting, representatives from each of
the nine universities pledged to examine the status of women faculty at their own institutions, and to start
taking the steps necessary to improve the hiring and retention of women on their campuses. They also
agreed to hold a second president- and provost-level meeting to evaluate their progress. That follow-up
meeting was held in April, 2004, in Washington, D.C.

Of the nine universities that attended the President’s Workshop on Gender Equity in 2001, six
have completed MIT-style studies of gender equity sponsored by top-level administration on their
campuses. The reports from these studies, by Caltech, MIT (now including four additional schools
besides the School of Science), U. Michigan, U. Penn, Princeton, and Stanford, can be found on either
the website of the National Academies: http://www7.nationalacademies.org/cwse/gender
_faculty_links.html or the website created by the Provost’s Advisory Committee on the Status
of Women Faculty at Stanford University: http:/ universitywomen.stanford.edu/reports.html.

Three universities that participated in the President’s Workshop—U. C. Berkeley, Harvard,
and Yale—have not yet performed comprehensive studies. On the websites mentioned above, one can
find the results of a more limited work-and-family survey from U.C. Berkeley, the 1991 Grosz report
on women in the sciences at Harvard, and a survey by Yale’s Women Faculty Forum of the numbers,
distribution, and leadership roles of women faculty at Yale.

Based on the reports from the six institutions that have completed their analysis of gender equity on campus, women faculty at different universities experience some similar patterns of underrepresentation and bias. For example, several universities found that whether or not female junior faculty are hired in proportion to their availability in the applicant pool depends on the department. Furthermore, at least one report expressed concerns about a male bias in hiring at high seniority levels. After being hired, women are
typically slower to be promoted. Although comparisons between faculty at the same rank often
reveal no statistically significant salary discrepancies, the slower rate of promotion (as well as lower levels
of non-salary compensation such as retention bonuses and the presence of what Stanford calls “a few male
high-outliers”) can produce salaries that are effectively lower for women (U. Michigan finds by
about 3%). The Caltech report discusses another common problem: the number of women faculty in
science and engineering is often so low that it is difficult to perform statistically meaningful
comparisons between men and women. Despite the statistical challenges, however, the Stanford report
notes that the “…overall pattern of difference is unidirectional”. Women are making more of an
appearance in upper-level administration (particularly noteworthy is Princeton, where currently the
President, the Provost, the Dean of the College, and the Dean of Engineering and Applied Science are
women). On the other hand, they are doing less well at attaining positions of power within their own
departments. Women, especially senior-level women, typically report more job dissatisfaction than their
male counterparts. With less support at home (the U. Michigan study finds that male faculty are much
more likely than female faculty to share a home with an adult who works less than full time), female
faculty report more stress associated with balancing work and family. Finally, junior women faculty
generally receive less professional mentoring.

The six universities with published reports each made specific recommendations concerning actions that need to be taken to improve the status of women faculty on their campuses. Common
recommendations include: that funds be provided for recruitment and retention of female faculty;
improved monitoring of hiring practices and recordkeeping during faculty searches; more direct
communication between department chairs and upper-level administration, including regular reporting
on progress in hiring and retention of women; implementation of formal mentoring programs as well
as making the path to career advancement more transparent; and that steps be taken to make universities
more family-friendly (such as automatic extension of the tenure clock for new parents and establishing
affordable child care). At several of the reporting institutions, these recommendations are already
being implemented, in some cases with already documented positive results.

Editor's Notes:

Meg Urry (Yale University) attended the April 2004 Gender Equity Conference and reports that the
meeting had a different tenor compared to the first 9- university meeting 3 years ago. There seemed to be
cause for celebration, a sense of making progress. There is a change in paradigm from fixing the women
to fixing the system. Yet, despite encouraging discussions about hiring processes and systematic data collection there remain substantial pipeline and retention issues. Universities are educating women who enter programs eager to pursue their scientific interests and determined to have careers in science , as well as families. After 4 or 5 years of graduate school they are worn down and discouraged because of what we teach them, including the impression that science has to be a religious calling, soaking up every last iota of energy. This is a retention problem not a pipeline problem. Many women claim they are leaving because of family issues but this may be hiding other concerns about not belonging, having few role models, feeling uncomfortable, being made to feel unwelcome. There is recognition that “off-scale” women will succeed but women in the middle still may not survive, whereas men in the middle can and do succeed.

The situation at Harvard has been attracting attention from the press. The September 17th 2004
issue of Science included a report on a June 18, 2004 letter sent by some two dozen women faculty to
Harvard President Larry Summers calling attention to the fact that the percentage of women offered
tenured slots at Harvard has dropped by half in the past 5 years. On October 7th the Boston Globe
reported that little progress was made in a meeting of more than 50 senior professors with President
Summers and William Kirby, Dean of Arts and Sciences. Anonymous faculty were quoted saying such
things as “They acknowledged that there’s a problem but they were basically saying ‘Leave it to us.’ Looking at the results of the last three years, I don’t think people felt terribly comfortable with that answer.” When pressed for a response, Summers said, “The university has a longstanding tradition, which as president I have a particular obligation to uphold…that appointments are made because of excellence in teaching and research and not to fill quotas.” Watch this space for further developments on the gender gap at Harvard. But don’t hold your breath.

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