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.