Beyond Binders

The Harvard Kennedy School should make an effort to increase female faculty

On the heels of Mitt Romney’s most recent campaign gaffe on gender equality in the workplace, a group of students at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government have staged a protest against the dearth of diversity among the school’s faculty, asserting that “at least Romney had binders.”

In 1988, a mere 10 percent of HKS faculty was female. In comparison, today’s 27 percent female junior faculty and 19 percent female senior faculty is a noteworthy improvement. Nonetheless, there remain significant structural impediments to women’s advancement in academia. Particularly, the rigidity of the traditional tenure track poses an undue burden on female academics seeking to balance the requirements of family and work. We urge HKS to examine and address its current tenure process to level the playing field.

Significant gender disparity among the faculty at any institution is worrying. There are many ways in which interacting predominantly with male instructors can shape students’ expectations of which careers they can expect to succeed in, and this is particularly relevant to HKS because many of its students will go on to pursue careers in government, a field that remains disproportionately male. It is not unreasonable to suppose that a greater number of female professors at an institution as prestigious as HKS would translate into greater female participation in government across the U.S.

The gender disparity at HKS is especially alarming because of the high profile that gender-related issues hold in contemporary politics. There is perhaps no better testament to this than the prominence of women’s issues in the current presidential and congressional campaigns, where issues like contraception, rape, and abortion routinely take center-stage. Students of government go on to shape policies that touch millions of lives, and the interests of men and women cannot be equitably addressed until all genders are represented equally in government.

That HKS employs a lower percentage of female faculty than its peers suggests that some practice specific to HKS is preventing women from obtaining professorships. Professor Jane J. Mansbridge notes that the Kennedy School’s system of tenure, unlike those of some of its peer institutions, is not particularly accommodating to female academics. We encourage HKS to remain cognizant of the unique challenges posed by the tenure track when raising a family. In a culture where women more often than men are expected to and will raise their families, women continue to bear the brunt of these challenges.

To this end, HKS should examine and consider reforming its system of tenure so that it may be more compatible with the lives of women. A number of universities, such as the University of California, have implemented systems under which tenure candidates can switch between part-time and full-time status. In the same spirit, Princeton University’s track automatically allows faculty extra time to pursue tenure after having a child. Such a system would not only enable more women to pursue tenure tracks rather than poorly paid lecturer positions, but it will also increase the diversity of perspectives and consequently the intellectual productivity of HKS by facilitating the entry of both women and men raising families into tenured professorships.

Though David T. Ellwood ’75, dean of HKS, has commendably doubled the school’s number of tenured female faculty since his appointment in 2004, he has stated that he has “no immediate plans” to continue closing the gap. In light of the national conversation on gender in the workplace prompted by Romney’s campaign blunder of “binders full of women,” we hope that HKS administrators realize the importance of prioritizing gender equality among faculty.

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