Women in academia

I was reading this article, ‘Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors’, by Kate Zernike in the New York times,  sent to the radical geographer’s list, and straight after that I read Natalia’s review. It was inevitable that I talked about this, you see.

This article tells the story of gender progressive change in the School of Science of MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It shows the attempts at overcoming gender inequalities, but also, how this brought about a different set of thorny issues.

This is the story. The starting point for this change was women who were fed up with the situation, who reached out to other women. This wasn’t particularly difficult, as the article points out, because there were only 15 women with tenure, compared to 197 men.

I love the way they set up to prove this inequality:

Women undergraduates outnumbered men in some departments, but the percentage of women on the faculty had remained relatively flat for 20 years. The school had never had a woman in any position of leadership. [..] The women gathered more data — crawling on the floor with tape measures to compare lab space for men and for women. They took their concerns to the dean, Robert J. Birgeneau, who did his own study, which backed up the women’s conclusions that there were wide disparities in salary and resources and a general marginalization of women.

And this is the university’s president wise conclusion, an admittance which created waves in other universities. 

 “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception,” the university’s president, Charles M. Vest, wrote in the 1999 report. “True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

Satisfying to hear it admitted like this, isn’t it? It kind of makes me want to get my tape measure out…

So what happened? After 10  years of gender progressive policies, there was impressive change. The numbers of female faculty nearly doubled, there are now many women in positions of power (president, deans and department heads). It has become very family friendly, as the university provides a pause for a year in the tenure clock, and everyone gets a term-long leave after the arrival of a child. There is day care on campus and subsidies for child care while travelling on business, and  ‘inequities in salaries, resources, lab space and teaching loads have largely been eliminated.’

But. There is always a but…

  • One of the main concerns is that because of this aggressive push to hire more women, and to include more women, there is an impression that women are given an unfair advantage, when actually this is not the case, as nobody is hired without at least 15 (!) recommendations outside MIT, as the article states. But women undergraduates keep asking for advice on how to handle the ‘you are just here because you are a women’ kind of remark.
  • Because the rule is that women have to be present at every committee, and there are still less women in the faculty, a lot of their time is taken in this bureaucratic work, in detriment of their research time.
  • Even with generous family policies, which meant that families are now the norm, parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one, and women, not men, are often invited to speak about their work-life balance. Moreover, men use family time to do outside work, which increases professional inequalities. 
  • Stereotypes about women remain: there is an acceptable range of behaviour for women, which women describe as not too aggressive, but not too soft either. And biases are found in letters of recommendation for tenure, which for men tend to focus on intellect while women’s tend to dwell on temperament.

Because of this progress, the faculty now struggles to accommodate two career couples, while ten years ago, women with tenure ‘tended to be married only to their careers’.

I find this story fascinating. To see what can be achieved when you really go for change. It is impressive. And how, as always, new things come up, or as it turns out, some things that were good in principle, such as women participating in committees, turned into burdens and a new source of inequalities. But it also shows how change has to be wider than what can be done at one faculty or university. As one of the professors there states:  

‘The more fundamental issues are societal, and M.I.T. can’t solve them on its own’.

True, oh so true. But there is no changing things unless small/big changes take place. So hurray for this.

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