Searching for a Critical Mass


Every few months, many of the 41 tenured women professors of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences get together for lunch.

The men couldn't do the equivalent: There are, by 1992 figures, 356 of them, and besides, says McKay Professor of Computer Science Barbara J. Grosz, "Men get together all the time. All they have to do is go out in the hall."

The lunches provide a network, a conference opportunity and a social get-together for professors in areas ranging from biochemistry to Romance languages. But they also serve to organize the group politically around women's issues, sending delegations to meet with President Neil L. Rudenstine to discuss the status of women in the Faculty.

Yet conversations over stuffed chicken and mixed vegetables cannot create a critical mass of women in academia. The constant feeling of being a minority is not alleviated by the occasional Faculty Club lunch, and students who look to professors as role models see few women blazing a path before them.

The way to solve this lack of a critical mass has not yet emerged, and opinions differ on the barriers faced by women in academia. But sharing common experiences, Harvard's women professors say, allows them to look forward to the day when such lunches are no longer necessary.

The dearth of women senior faculty in many of Harvard's departments is nothing new in the experiences of those women who've managed to climb the ladder to tenure at the University. Extreme and unbalanced ratios are common complaints which pepper professors' descriptions of their careers both at Harvard and elsewhere.

Professor of Chemistry Cynthia M. Friend, for example, was one of only four women in a group of 90 Ph.D. candidates at the University of California, Berkeley. Grosz remembers no more than three women in any mathematics or computer class she took as a graduate student. Porter University Professor Helen H. Vendler says she was taught by no women while studying for her Ph.D.

Once they arrived at Harvard, many women entered otherwise all-male departments, heralded as "the first-ever tenured woman." That label often remains, say the women faculty, and they are always aware of it.

Practically speaking, says Professor of English and Comparative Literature Barbara E. Johnson, the dearth of female professors means women are more often pressed into service on committees and other administrative obligations.

"There aren't enough women to go around, and so they often work harder," she says, "because the administration rightly thinks they have to be represented on committees."

On a more emotional level, some scholars feel a sense of isolation in overwhelmingly male departments.

"I think in many ways Harvard is very much a male institution," says Susan J. Pharr, Reischauer professor of Japanese politics and chair of the Government Department. "I interact almost entirely with men."

Not all female professors agree that the lack of female professional companionship is a cause of loneliness. But they agree that the small representation of women in Harvard's faculty is a genuine problem.

Perhaps the most personal reason for the agreement is the feeling for some that their opinions are less respected or acknowledged by colleagues because of their gender.

"There have been times in meetings when I would say something and it would be completely ignored," says Grosz, author of the 1991 Report on the Status of Women in Science.

Even more damaging than the disrespect is the possibility of harassment, which the report found was widespread in science departments. A recent update, authored by Friend, found that for female graduate students in the sciences, such incidents are still a problem.

Evidence that graduate students in other departments are the subject of disparaging comments or even sexual harassment surfaced last year, when three first-year Classics Department graduate students, all women, left the department, calling the atmosphere "intellectually and ethically intolerable." The incident, members of the department said at the time, raised important questions about how women are treated in a department whose scholarship tends to focus on studies dominated by male figures.

But colleagues are not the only source of differential treatment. Students often visualize the ideal Ivy League professor as the gray-haired white man, a model into which women and minorities do not fit, professors say. And disrespect based on such images may be fought by adding to the ranks of female professors.

"I do think sometimes students view me differently," says Friend, who chairs the Standing Committee on the Status of Women. "Students will comment on the way I look. I will co-teach with male faculty and they don't get the same kind of comments."

Professor of English Marjorie Garber, who teaches the popular Core curriculum introductory Shakespeare class, says students and graduates seem not to expect a woman standing in front of the Sanders Theatre lectern.

"Both alumni and my own students notice that fact [a woman is teaching the traditional introductory Shakespeare course] and I think it's a good thing and an exciting thing," she says.

An increased presence of female professors will not only alleviate such misconceptions, it will supply mentors and possible role models for younger female scholars who might otherwise have avoided graduate school, the women say.

"I think one feels the gratitude of students that there are women here," says Vendler.

An obstacle to changing hiring practices, female professors say, is that the Faculty misses the opportunity to sign on certain qualified women simply because their untraditional research interests lie outside the mainstream.

"I think to begin with, they're losing out on first-rate scholars now," says Friend. "If Harvard wants to continue to be very traditional, it might lose out on new trends in all areas."

Women in the Faculty tend to bring new ideas and approaches to scholarship, professors say. Although all stress the impossibility of generalizing about scholarly interests of either men or women, some feel women tend to bring novel view-points to some disciplines.

Pharr notes that perhaps because they have experienced it, "quite a number are interested in the problem of marginalization itself." Others say women tend to have a more interdisciplinary outlook.

Although feminist critique and the study of gender as a factor in shaping history are not uniquely identified with women scholars, some see a tie between the presence of women and the study of gender.

Like the number of women professors, the amount of scholarship devoted at Harvard to issues of gender is below par, some female scholars say.

"Various social science departments haven't appointed as many scholars as you might expect who are interested in gender studies," says Professor of Sociology Theda Skocpol.

Johnson says some departments are more amenable to new approaches in research than others.

"I think Harvard changes slowly and a lot of the assumptions that are still in place about what is serious scholarship have not changed as fast as they should have," she says.

Some professors say that as a result of that reluctance to bring about change, in both what defines "the best" in scholarship and who is to perform it, Harvard's tenure process is not always a fair one for female candidates.

Tenure is at the basis of any change in composition of the Faculty, either in gender or area of study, professors say. When Harvard begins searches determined to find the "best qualified candidate" in any given field, it sometimes neglects interdisciplinary scholars.

"Women often define new fields, so they don't fit in existing fields in any standard way," says Johnson. Others echo her concern that narrowly defined search criteria can exclude women whose areas of expertise straddle several disciplines or embody new viewpoints.

Pharr says that narrowly defined searches can limit the likelihood that a woman will be hired. "When the standard is stated in that way, it's generally a male candidate that springs to mind," Pharr says. She is ambivalent about Harvard's procedure to find "the best" professors, and says the challenge is to make sure women candidates get equal consideration.

"Quality should be a matter for debate, and...more than one kind of quality should be recognized," Johnson says.

Vendler says she has seen no statistical evidence of a gender bias in the tenure process, and Garber, who is dean for affirmative action, says being a woman can sometimes even be an advantage.

"In some cases, it's as likely to function as an incentive as a disincentive," she says. "I don't think there is a widespread resistance to the appointment of women."

But Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles says that although he strongly supports affirmative action and equal access for women candidates, no reexamination of the tenure process is planned. "I don't believe we could or should change the criteria for tenure," he says. "I don't think we could or should change the quality of our faculty."

Instead, Knowles says, the answer is in "making sure departments search widely enough, define sub-fields widely enough so as not to exclude the possibility of appointments of women and minorities." He praises Garber's work in monitoring such searches.

In the end, while recruitment initiatives, like all affirmative action efforts, must come from individual departments, some assistance can come from the top. Female faculty members say the work of Knowles and President Neil L. Rudenstine might have some positive effect on the dearth of female faculty.

The recently created affirmative action fund for 15 University faculty appointments over the next five years is a step in the right direction, they say. And an even greater cause for optimism, professors and officials agree, are shifts in graduate school admissions that will shape long-term changes in the faculty.

"If you look at the pipeline for women, the number of women in doctoral programs has grown over the last decade at a remarkable pace," says Joseph J. McCarthy, assistant dean for academic planning.

Pharr says that this year the class of graduate students admitted to the Government Department was 50 percent women, up from 33 percent in recent years.

Faculty members say they do not plan to wait passively for pool population shifts to make a difference in the numbers and the status of women in the Faculty.

Friend says her committee will begin investigating the situation of undergraduate women. She says committee members will also meet with department chairs and present their findings, working to change the conditions documented by the committee.

Garber will continue meeting with department chairs, and next year, as she takes a leave of absence, Grosz will take over her duties as dean.

And the 41-woman Faculty Club lunches will continue for a while, according to Grosz, or at least until a "critical mass" of women is reached. "Until the faculty is 30 percent women, the lunches will play an important role," she says.