Last year, a pitiful 12.5 percent of new tenured Faculty were women, a number which has fallen steadily every year since University President Lawrence H. Summers took office in 2001. After a rocky meeting with members of the Faculty this fall who sought to emphasize the severity of the problem, Summers has taken some important steps to address the troubling trend and make it a serious priority. We have no doubt that the administration’s support for this issue extends beyond mere lip service.
The problem of gender inequality in Faculty hiring demands concerted attention from the upper levels of the administration. Harvard’s notoriously secretive tenure process compounds what is typically a self-perpetuating problem, and setting the right tone from above is crucial. Currently, a department which has received permission to appoint more tenured Faculty draws up a short list of candidates, which is then whittled down by the recommendations of outside scholars and senior faculty. Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby must then approve of a tenure offer before the formation of an ad hoc committee chaired by President Summers. This committee makes its decisions in secret, and Summers reserves personal veto power in all cases.
To be sure, the explanations for the lack of female faculty are varied and we do not wish to suggest that Harvard is by any means the only institution grappling with this issue. But it would be irresponsible to ignore the male-dominated cultures that pervade some of Harvard’s departments. The problem is especially severe, perhaps not surprisingly, in the sciences. The Mathematics Department, for instance, has no female senior faculty, the Chemistry Department has one out of 18 and the Economics Department has two out of 35. There are of course, fewer women in these fields to begin, but with such a severe gender imbalance it becomes increasingly difficult for Harvard to recruit and identify the top female scientists in these fields. Even without conscious discrimination, these male-dominated departments linked to male-dominated social and academic networks tend to inevitably underestimate the contributions of females—not to mention discourage rising female candidates from pursuing academic careers.
The current procedures encourage departments to seek out female (and other underrepresented minority candidates) with the assistance of the four new Divisional Deans. But the recent numbers have demonstrated that this hands-off approach is not enough. A few key people, foremost Kirby and Summers, have the ability to apply pressure so that more female candidates are vetted. Nobody is advocating a lowering of standards to foster greater diversity, but simply an extension of outreach efforts in the highly subjective area of determining the most promising scholars in academia. We are pleased that these key administrators do seem to understand the gravity of the problem. Kirby agreed recently that the downward trend is “unacceptable” and a “matter of some emergency.” And Summers has assured that “we have already matched last year’s rather sorry total” of female hires.
We should state, however, our hesitations about one of the proposed solutions advocated by some members of the Faculty, including the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, which has pushed for a restoration of the post of the Associate Dean for Affirmative Action. This deanship, which existed from 1989 to 2002, was designed to embed an advocate for female and minority candidates deeply involved in the tenure process. While the good intentions of such a post are clear, everyone involved in the tenure process must become advocates for such candidates. By delegating this responsibility to an associate dean, it lets the administration off the hook too easily, when being cognizant of diversity should be central to the mission of the tenure committee. Furthermore, we worry that such a deanship might unfairly mark affirmative action hires as somehow less deserving of a prestigious post. All tenure decisions hinge on a determination of what unique perspectives a candidate offers the academic community—a determination which should take into account a candidates’ gender and race.
Ultimately, what matters above all is not the method but the result. Kirby insists that the 2003-2004 numbers “will very quickly become an anomaly.” Now that Summers and Kirby have thankfully acknowledged that the ball is in their court, we hope to watch the number of female tenure offers continue increasing for years ahead.