CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–The reverberations of an extraordinary conference held here in January are beginning to be felt throughout academia.
The University of Arizona recently launched the Millennium Project to study the work life of all faculty in the university’s 15 schools, including gender inequities in laboratory space, research funds and salaries.
The university, with 1,600 faculty and 34,000 students, says that it intends its project to serve as a national model for analyzing and improving the status of women in higher education by conducting a thorough analysis not only of salary discrepancies but also by conducting a series of interviews and focus groups among male and female faculty randomly selected from every college–from the sciences to the humanities–and among existing groups of women faculty, and by analyzing survey data gathered by others.
“Even in cases where women are not statistically underrepresented, their voices are not always being heard,” the Arizona project description plan states.
That is the latest, but clearly not the last, effort within universities and colleges to level the playing field for female faculty.
The Arizona project follows on the heels of an unprecedented acknowledgement of sexism in academia. Nine of the nation’s most prestigious science and engineering colleges pledged to rectify bias against women by working toward diversity, fairer pay and more family-friendly work conditions in a joint declaration in January.
“Institutions of higher education have an obligation both for themselves and for the nation, to fully develop and utilize all the creative talent available. We recognize that barriers still exist to the full participation of women in science and engineering,” reads the opening of the short joint statement issued in late January at a conference.
The statement was issued by the presidents and provosts of Caltech, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of California at Berkley, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of Pennsylvania and Yale University.
Hosted by MIT, the gathering of the nine, entitled the Presidents Workshop on Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering, was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Ford Foundation.
Equity Pledge Result of Study Finding Systemic Bias
The conference and equity pledge were prompted by a study published last year by senior women MIT faculty, describing systemic discrimination against women faculty in areas such as laboratory space, research support and promotions.
“It’s just hugely important, especially given the backlash lately against women and minorities and liberals,” said Mary Dee Wenniger, editor and publisher of Women in Higher Education, a monthly news journal. She also recently edited, along with Mary Helen Conroy, “Gender Equity or Bust!: On the Road to Campus Leadership With Women in Higher Education.”
Affirmative Action, widely misunderstood to be hiring and promotion preferences, have been under attack through voter initiatives and court challenges. The MIT report and other studies indicate that the nation’s most elite centers of learning treat women faculty unfairly and that steps must be taken to end the inequities.
One apparent clear result of gender bias is that in 1998 women faculty at MIT earned an average of $12,725 less per year than comparable men faculty, Wenniger said.
In a 1999-2000 report, the American Association of University Professors found that women faculty in science and engineering are inadequately represented at the top levels in their fields, according to Judith Glazner-Raymo, author of “Shattering the Myths: Women in Academe,” and a professor of education at Long Island University.
Citing a “distorted gender distribution,” the report found that women represent only 16.3 percent of tenured science and engineering faculty and 35 percent of untenured faculty, although the ranks of women undergraduates entering science and engineering has swelled to more than half of all students. The association also found that in 1998-1999 among full professors, salaries for male faculty ran 15 percent higher than salaries for female faculty.
MIT Statement Addresses Three Points of Bias
Specifically, the joint statement promised that each school would work on three areas: diversity, equity for and full participation of women faculty and consideration of family issues.
- “A faculty whose diversity reflects that of the students we educate. This goal will be pursued in part by monitoring data and sharing results annually.
- “Equity for, and full participation by, women faculty. This goal will be pursued in part by periodic analysis of data concerning compensation and the distribution of resources to faculty. Senior women faculty should be significantly involved in this analysis.
- “A profession, and institutions, in which individuals with family responsibilities are not disadvantaged.”
In all, the statement is only 184 words long. But its impact could be far-reaching.
“It was an extraordinary meeting, to get presidents and provosts together to talk about these issues. The statement they signed, in which they agreed there is a problem and they want to see what can be done about it, was just remarkable,” said Lotte Bailyn, professor of organizational psychology and management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Bailyn is one of three MIT professors behind the conference, along with Nancy Hopkins, a professor of molecular biology, and Lorna Gibson, a professor of materials science and engineering. Together they wrote the MIT report.
Address the Issues That Drive Women, Minorities to the Margins
“It’s a complicated issue and it’s going to take a long time to solve,” Bailyn said in a recent interview. “Bringing it out on the table is not a solution but it is the beginning of a process to find solutions.”
Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlined the challenges facing administrators and faculty in science and engineering.
“Institutions have the opportunity and responsibility to put structures in place to ensure that inequities do not appear. … We have a need to address the issues that force women (and minority) faculty to the margins and this group of institutions must lead in doing this,” Malcom said.
Hopkins, one of the three women whose investigations prompted the anti-bias statement, said the gathering was unique because top officials not only admitted that gender discrimination does exist but also accepted responsibility to redress it.
“I never thought that this could happen in my lifetime,” said Hopkins, who was prompted to study discrimination along with other MIT women because she was not granted additional laboratory space while the men around her seemed to enjoy a surfeit.
“It’s stunning,” said Barbara Grosz, professor of computer science at Harvard University. “These are nine of the most highly ranked research universities. The presidents and provosts and chancellors from these institutions were willing to state that there are barriers to the full participation of women in the sciences and to agree that their institutions have an obligation to fix this problem.
“This is a commitment from the top. These statements alone are not sufficient to solve the problem, but such statements are necessary to make things happen. When there is attention at the top to a problem, that reverberates throughout an institution.”
Natalie White is a free-lance writer in Massachusetts.
For more information, visit:
A Study on the status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT:
American Association for the Advancement of Science:
American Association of University Professors: