By Erica C. Barnett
MAY 3, 1999: Two highly credentialed academic institutions assumed the rarified atmosphere of a confessional last month, as both MIT and the University of Texas released information that echoed what many female professors have been claiming for years: the schools have systematically (if inadvertently) discriminated against women in hiring, pay, and tenure decisions. Despite falling somewhat short of a hearty round of mea culpas, the reports were illuminating in their honesty about a problem that has surfaced anecdotally ever since women began serving on university faculties.
MIT's report, which The New York Times called "an extraordinary admission," documented a pattern of discrimination which grew more evident as women faculty members progressed through the university's hierarchy. Although the numbers of men and women were roughly equal among undergraduates, the report said, huge gender disparities became apparent by the time women had reached the faculty level. MIT's math department, for example, had only one female professor on a faculty with 47 men. When the study began in 1994, the 15 tenured women in the School of Science (of which the math department is a division) made up a tiny fraction of tenured faculty -- 13 times as many men had tenure. Nancy Hopkins, former chair of the committee that conducted the research at MIT, says the problem that confronted the researchers was "whether [discrimination] would really show up in a way that you could convince others: Could you measure gender bias with a tape measure? And it turned out that you could, and I was surprised to find out how easy it was."
UT's parallel nod to discrimination's pervasive influence, released with considerably less fanfare than MIT's comprehensive study, was no less extraordinary in its implications. Research data compiled by the Committee for the Support of Women, which is chaired by UT vice president Patricia Ohlendorf, showed that 284 men held named professorships, compared to 33 women, as of 1993.
Committee co-chair Janet Staiger, a professor in UT's Department of Communications who headed the research efforts, said the persistently low number of women who have attained the distinction of tenure at UT over the past 15 years indicates an important fact: "All the efforts to take affirmative measures to get people into the upper echelons of teaching positions have been unsuccessful." The figures are particularly disheartening for women in prestigious colleges such as the law school, Staiger says, where only four women have been promoted to tenured positions in the past 15 years; meanwhile, in the last six years, four female law professors have been denied promotions. "And so the question is," asks Staiger, "how come there's 50% becoming lawyers and only 14% going into teaching?"
At both MIT and UT, the studies showed that male faculty were most dominant in well-compensated, prestigious fields such as law and engineering. At UT, according to information obtained from the school's Business Affairs Office, eight women at the law school have tenure, compared to 52 men. That figure represents the second lowest percentage of tenured female law faculty in the state, according to the State Bar of Texas. Moreover, UT budget figures show that the average pay for tenured women at the law school -- in the neighborhood of $130,000 -- lags behind the overall average pay for tenured professors by more than $5,000 per year. Meanwhile, in the school of engineering, where average faculty compensation tops $80,000, only 4% of the tenured faculty are female. (On a national scale, women earn less than men in all ranks and levels of seniority in public and private higher education institutions, according to data collected by the America Association of University Professors and reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education; see chart below.)
Looking at UT's overall figures, women are in the minority among tenured faculty at every UT school except nursing, where 94% of the faculty as a whole and 93% of tenured faculty are female. Even in fields populated heavily by women, such as social work and education, men make up a majority of tenured faculty; and in every one of UT's 14 schools, men are more likely to have tenure than are women (see charts, p.26). Committee chair and UT vice president Ohlendorf cautions that she does not believe there are any "glaring inequities" in those statistics alone, although she adds that further research needs to be done in this area.
At MIT, where researchers focused on the traditionally male-dominated school of science, no department had a faculty that was more than 20% female, despite the fact that the ratio of male to female undergraduates was virtually equal in every division. This led MIT researchers to conclude that "the pipeline leaks at every stage of career." Whereas junior women and students felt that they had not been victims of discrimination at the school, the study said, "[g]radually ... their eyes were opened to the realization that the playing field is not level after all, and that they had paid a high price both personally and professionally as a result." Discrimination, the MIT researchers found, "consists of a pattern of powerful but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty even in the light of obvious good will ... Once you 'get it,' it seems almost obvious." MIT's Hopkins says the discrimination that researchers found at the university was almost wholly unconscious and rarely discussed among the women faculty.
"We [women faculty] just expected that this awful way of life was supposed to be our way of life," Hopkins says. "It was a feeling that this was just the nature of it and if you couldn't hack it, you had to get out."
UT Clams UpMIT released its tenure findings with a splash of publicity, reporting the information in the faculty's official newsletter and on the school Web site, at http://www.web.mit.edu. The dean of the university, Robert J. Birgeneau, introduced the study by asserting that MIT's faculty "remains overwhelmingly white male ... to the detriment of the students, the faculty, and MIT as a whole." The MIT committee recommended that the university take "affirmative actions" to remedy the problem of inequity at the school, including "addressing the serious under-representation of minority faculty at MIT." Hopkins says that MIT administrators are "absolutely on board" the mission to reverse gender inequity at the school. "The amazing thing was that the dean of the university backed the women. ... He said, 'At the end of the day, we're all scientists. You give us data and if it's convincing, we're going to be convinced. You can't argue with data.'"
Ever since the 1996 Hopwood decision, UT administrators have been reluctant to support affirmative action policies, and they've been similarly reticent about the issue of gender inequity. Researchers and administrators have so far taken a markedly more low-key approach to their committee's findings, as compared to MIT's frank discussion of its report. UT's Web site contains no reference to the Committee for the Support of Women, and does not provide a link to the school's tenure data, which the Chronicle obtained through an open records request. Ohlendorf saysthe university has been working quietly to reverse any perceived problems through its moderate affirmative action policy and the work of the committee, which is developing policies to help non-tenured faculty in the final year of their probationary period better understand the criteria for attaining tenure.
Researchers themselves indicate they aren't ready for a flood of MIT-style hoopla over the findings, which committee co-chair Staiger says are "inconclusive" at best. "The goal of the committee isn't really to issue a report," Staiger says. "I don't want to put out something that is easily refuted." If anything, Staiger says, the data indicate the need for stronger mentoring programs to teach both men and women the "rules" implicit in the tenure contest. "Many people believe that institutions tend to produce men who think they know the rules better than women," Staiger says. "Departments have their own kind of values, and unless you have some sense of the norms of the group that's making the decisions, you're not going to get ahead."
Time to Talk OpenlyIn this sense, Staiger says, the findings indicate a need for serious discussion among university faculty and administrators about who is getting tenure and why.
But while some university faculty have responded to the release of tenure information by flinging open the windows of discussion in the hope of finding new solutions, the strategy of several of the schools most affected by gender discrimination has been to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. Among these is the law school, where officials have tended to dismiss critics as misinformed rather than address their allegations. Despite repeated complaints of gender-motivated tenure denials and pay disparity, which have only accelerated in frequency since the early 1990s, law school officials say the institution's treatment of women has never been better. Law school Dean Maurice Sharlot -- whose deanship at UT has encompassed several challenges to the decision-making process regarding tenure and endowed chair appointments -- says he does not think the committee's figures apply to the law school. "I think that the law school has made enormous efforts to try to attract and retain women," since it first began hiring women 25 years ago, Sharlot says. "I am not an expert in the area of employment discrimination, but I don't think it's present."
Historically, changes throughout UT have occurred glacially, rather than with a sudden crash -- a fact that has as much to do with the university's tenacity in clinging to its history, perpetuating many customs until they solidify as traditions. The gradual process of integrating women into the ranks of tenured faculty has been no exception; as UT budget data indicate, the total number of women with tenure at UT has increased nearly 20% in the last five years, from 221 to 264, while the number of men with tenure has remained virtually unchanged. But that increase, dramatic on its face, masks the fact that women still make up only 19% of tenured professors at the university, where more than two-thirds of all faculty are male. Most damning, perhaps, are these figures:
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