How Can We Encourage Women in the Academy?

Marie Curie

Marie Curie, winner of two Nobel Prizes and 1st female professor at the University of Paris

Last week, the New York Times reported that women are making gains at Harvard, five years after former Harvard President Lawrence Summers made some ill-advised remarks about women that eventually led to his resignation. NYTimes reporter Tamar Lewin describes some of the changes that Harvard has made to recruit more women faculty members, such as:

  • A task force on women in science
  • Improved childcare facilities
  • Grants to help junior faculty pay for childcare on research trips

Lewin also notes that Harvard replaced Summers with its first female president — Drew Gilpin Faust — but that it’s not clear what effect, if any, Faust’s presidency, has had on the gender balance at Harvard. The percentage of women on the Harvard faculty is up past 25% now, an all-time high, though it varies dramatically across disciplines. In addition, Harvard’s academic culture is running into conflicts with a generational culture of younger faculty who want to spend more time with their families.

“Our biggest challenge is this misperception that Harvard doesn’t tenure its own junior faculty,” Dr. [Elena A.] Kramer [biology professor] said. “And because many of our wonderful senior faculty women came up in the ’70s and ’80s and don’t have families, some young women who know they want families might look at them and say, ‘I don’t want that kind of life’ and take themselves out of the pipeline.”

While I’m not sure about her “misperception” point (see this Crimson article), I agree that there is a change of faculty assumptions about career choices taking place.

My question: What can universities — as well as groups like ESN — do to encourage women who pursuing academic vocations?

Before leaving the comments to you, let me recommend our partner ministry, The Well, published by InterVarsity’s Women in the Academy and Professions. They consistently great articles about women, vocation, family, and related topics (which I often borrow for publication in the Emerging Scholars Review).

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    MH commented on March 15, 2010 Reply

    Childcare is a biggie for me, not only providing good childcare near the university or allowing for childcare on research/field trips, but also providing for childcare at conferences. Meetings should also not be scheduled after school hours.

    A story to illustrate: it frustrates me that my female colleague, a single mom, has to miss many departmental meeting, scheduled at 3 pm on Fri, because she has to be home for her elementary school son… The dept looks down on her. She has requsted that these meetings be rescheduled for 7 years now. By contrast, when my male colleague brings his two year old screaming son to the meeting and spends most of the time in the hall calming him down or playing with him, everyone praises him as if he were “dad of the year.” He is not a single dad. This particular colleague just uses his son as an excuse to reschedule or skip meetings/events, and simply just refuses to get a babysitter…

    Gender equity should also be mandatory in all universities. When our university re-adjusted salaries, it found that women were being paid 0.67$ for every dollar males received in same positions…

    There have to be more women in higher administrative positions at universities (Deans, Associate Deans, VPs, Presidents). Women are sorely underrepresented in this regard, though often women are chairs — so the most onerous of admin tasks.

    Finally, women in the academy need better mentorship, more understanding and support from the campus community. It sickens me some of the ignorant stuff I have heard said on the subject, sadly, sometimes from some of my PhD colleagues… Lastly, as Christians, I think it is our mission to pray for women in all walks of life, academic women included…

    SWC commented on March 16, 2010 Reply

    I agree with MH about the need for better mentorship for women in academia. I was just at a meeting for women with terminal degrees (Phd, JD, etc…) who are looking to get back into the workforce after taking time off to raise their children, and there was agreement around the table that women (including those attending college and grad school now) lack mentoring by other women. What I’m talking about needs to go beyond “how to” advice on doing a particular job to include real conversations about how women academics have faced particular challenges (the tenure process, finding adjunct work and affording childcare, etc..) and thrived in the rigid environment of academia.

    Micheal Hickerson commented on March 16, 2010 Reply

    When it comes to mentoring, how important do you think it is for the mentor to be a woman?

      CP commented on March 16, 2010 Reply

      I’m blessed with great childcare close to work (with preferential placement due to my faculty status). My frustrations have been around the lack of a University policy for both women and men that governs parental leave policies in the event of pregnancy/child birth/adoption. There is a lack of acknowledgment that having an infant at home has a huge impact on productivity. The first year or so with a new baby is full of sleep deprivation, constant change, (and if they’re in daycare) frequent illness. There is no energy left in the evenings/weekends to push forward research, let alone all the weekdays interrupted by unanticipated events. Advocating for both time off and stopping the clock is really helpful.

      Women faculty are often expected to be superwomen, fulfilling Caroline Moser’s “triple role” of production, reproduction, and community worker. And many times we desire to juggle these. We can be helped by (1) better exploring/researching this phenomena in academia, (2) encouraging us to balance these roles in the way God sees fit.

      Re mentors, it is ideal to find a woman in a similar life circumstance to your own who has successfully reached tenure. But I also have many compassionate male colleagues who love my family, support my research agenda, advise me against taking on to much meaningless service opportunities, and help me understand the rules of the game here in order to help me succeed.

    Sharon commented on March 18, 2010 Reply

    Thanks for the plug, Mike. We appreciate the good work you are doing at ESN and the desire to be particularly effective for women.

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