The Women Who Leave

By Claire E. Parker and Luca F. Schroeder
By Ujunwa S Nwosu

When Alison J. Simmons arrived in Harvard’s Philosophy Department in 1994, there were two senior women on the faculty who had been hired with tenure from other universities. But Simmons—who would become the first woman to receive tenure from within the department—remembers feeling grateful that she could even call those two colleagues.

“It’s weird to say that, because I was walking in thinking, ‘why do I feel fortunate?’ There were two women out of 18 and I felt fortunate,” she said. It was a time when the vast majority of tenured faculty were white men. Simmons found it intimidating to break into that environment.

The proportion of female faculty in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has grown over the course of the past two decades. But many of the cultural barriers Simmons and other women faced in those days persist. And, as Harvard tries to diversify its senior faculty, a challenge remains: women junior faculty—associate and assistant professors—leave FAS’s tenure track at higher rates than do men.

At an FAS faculty meeting in October, administrators presented what they considered “troubling” statistics. Sixty-six percent of women who began their associate professorships between fall 2003 and spring 2012 remained at Harvard for the final stage of the tenure process, compared to 78 percent of men. A third of women in the process, then, were leaving Harvard, and the gap between the percentage of men and women who stayed was widening.

According to the most recent University-wide report on faculty, the disproportionate attrition of tenure-track women in FAS is a long-term trend. Administrators, department chairs, and female faculty who went through Harvard’s infamously rigorous tenure track themselves have offered various hypotheses for these women’s departures.

Several women who have left Harvard’s tenure track declined to comment on their reasons for leaving.

But many current faculty and administrators agree that a combination of formal processes and informal forces disadvantage women on the FAS tenure track, pushing some to leave before they come up for final review. And while the University is taking steps to tackle gender inequality in its senior ranks, faculty question the extent to which it can shape departmental cultures and counteract prevailing social norms.


Solving the attrition problem is a puzzle. Women in FAS are already a significant minority, which many say discourages women who feel excluded and overburdened from continuing their careers at Harvard.

Indeed, for Sociology professor Mary C. Brinton—the chair of a committee charged with monitoring the environment for women and brainstorming improvements—the problem is one of “critical mass.”

“It’s not that you necessarily have to have a lot of other women around, but if the numbers are so small then it kind of perpetuates itself,” Brinton said. “You’ve got to get beyond that sort of token phenomenon—you’ve got to get up to 30 or 40 percent.”

Currently, 28 percent of ladder faculty in FAS—tenured or tenure-track professors—are women.

While the percentage of women ladder faculty has increased since 2006, the year after Harvard’s tenure track was established, there still exist stark differences in the gender composition of FAS’s three academic divisions and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Whereas 34 percent of tenured professors and 63 percent of tenure-track professors in the Arts and Humanities are women, only 15 percent of tenured professors and 17 percent of those on the tenure-track are women in SEAS.

By Niamh Mulholland

Some departments, like Economics, are notorious for having fewer women. Economics Department Chair David I. Laibson ’88 is concerned that the department has just two senior women. Two, he said, is “woefully too few.”

And at least one department—mathematics, which still does not have tenure-track faculty—has no women in its senior ranks.

Part of the disparity in some fields—particularly those in math and science—stems from earlier pipeline issues, said Organismic and Evolutionary Biology professor Elena M. Kramer, a former chair of the FAS committee on women. Fewer women in these fields receive Ph.D.s to begin with, resulting in applicant pools for junior positions that similarly lack gender diversity. Kramer said the committee conducts demographic studies to put pressure on these departments to ensure their faculties reflect the gender composition of their broader fields.

The committee’s analyses indicated that divisions with low representation of women also experienced the highest attrition rates of female junior faculty in recent years.

High attrition rates among women often mean that men continue to dominate certain departments. To counter this trend, FAS has tried to increase the proportion of women serving on administrative committees such as search committees. But departmental service is the least important component of the tenure review process, and the increased representation can often have “perverse” effects, Kramer said.

“Every committee wants to have women on the committee, every conference wants to have women in the conference, every journal wants to have women reviewing articles for them—you’ve got fewer women, so they’re going to be stretched more thin because of that,” assistant Philosophy professor Susanna Rinard said. “I think one thing that’s really important to learn is what to say no to and how to say no to those things.”


Low numbers of women in certain departments reinforce what Government and Sociology professor Theda R. Skocpol calls “macho cultures” that favor men over women and can lead junior-level women to feel uncomfortable.

Physics Chair Masahiro Morii said he has personally witnessed this reality in the sciences division.

“When people say the male professors don’t take female scientists as seriously as they take male scientists, I think it is true,” Morii said. “Just because we grew up within a culture where the image of scientists we learned and absorbed as a child, they are always guys with glasses and white coats—and it’s never going to go away completely.”

Mentors are critical in changing these perceptions, but with few women in the first place, female role models can be scarce. And historically, Harvard has not generally had a strong culture of mentorship.

Judith D. Singer is the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity.
Judith D. Singer is the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity. By Thomas W. Franck

“Ten years ago, the thought that you would really mentor faculty here was crazy,” said Judith D. Singer, the senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity. “I mean, mentor a Harvard faculty member? They come knowing what they should do.”

But male junior faculty have long benefited from informal relationships with their male senior colleagues, Singer said, whether it was going out for beers, playing card games, or traveling to conferences together—social interactions that would bring the younger men into a broader professional network of scholars across academia.

“There was an era in which the female faculty at Harvard didn’t get any of that,” Singer added. “It created this very interesting dynamic where mentoring was something that the guys always got, but it wasn’t called mentoring.”

When women are left out of these “good old boy networks of transmission,” as Romance Languages and Literatures Chair Virginie Greene called them, they miss key information and guidance on how to navigate Harvard.

Simmons, the Philosophy professor, recalled showing up to teach her first class at 10 a.m., only to be greeted by an empty room. No one had told her about “Harvard time.”

“Those little things get to you, because you feel like ‘how am I supposed to know this stuff that everybody else knows?’ and that wears you down,” Simmons said.

Professor Virginie Greene is the Chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.
Professor Virginie Greene is the Chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. By Thomas W. Franck

The scarcity of senior women in many departments also makes it difficult for junior women to develop relationships with mentors who understand the gender dynamics at play.

For many female faculty who had gone through Harvard’s tenure track, having senior women in the department was empowering: it provided role models and hope for their own careers in academia.

The absence of such figures and the presence of a “macho culture” creates a departmental climate that leaves some junior women feeling isolated. An FAS-specific annual report from 2015 identified adverse departmental cultures as “the most striking reason” why some women choose to leave.

“In many cases, these faculty members found that the culture of the department was not conducive to their productivity and was a significant factor in their decision to leave,” the report reads.

As a result, FAS published a guide to faculty mentoring earlier this semester. The guide—synthesized from “sucessful practices” collected in a review of departmental mentoring plans—emphasizes the importance of mentoring and outlines expectations for department chairs, mentors, and mentees.

While Kramer praised the recommendations, she said strong leadership at the departmental level will be necessary to ensure departments actually adopt them. Chairs play a critical role in setting the tone in departments, Brinton said, and need training to be cognizant of gender dynamics and foster an environment that values mentorship.

“We’re not trained to do this kind of work—we’re trained to be scholars and teachers, and then when you go into this role, I found—I’ve been department chair for five years—I had to kind of teach myself, ‘what should I be sort of keeping my finger on, the pulse of this and that, and what can I be doing,’” Brinton said.


Harvard’s tenure process, notoriously rigorous, can itself disadvantage women and push them away. Unlike most universities, the seven-year promotion trajectory grants tenure at the full—rather than associate—level. In lieu of explicit requirements, Harvard instead requires that tenured faculty are “scholars of the first order of eminence.”

This demanding—but ambiguous—standard calls for a subjective interpretation of a candidate’s promise that can leave room for implicit bias.

“When you think about our search image of what a successful Harvard tenure case looks like—usually this is unconscious—we often tend to think of some white guy who is spending a huge amount of time at work and publishing with very high consistent rates,” Kramer said.

For Skocpol, a process that requires speculative judgment favors men.

“That’s got to do with a very well-known gender stereotype, which is that it’s easier for everyone to see promise in men than it is to see promise in women,” Skocpol said.

The subjectivity of the review process is “terrifying,” Simmons said. “I think the scariest thing for everybody is just the unknown.”

For women, the process falls at a time when they are starting families—when predictability and stability are desirable. The timing of promotion competes with women’s biological clocks, and Rinard said many prefer to have the job security that comes with tenure before having children.

“Many female scholars at Harvard are at the top of their fields, and they might get tenure offers from other institutions before the time at which they would come up for tenure at Harvard—so it could be quite tempting with that imminent fertility decline to move to a position elsewhere,” said Rinard, who has thus far delayed having children.

Other institutions that tenure at the associate professor level, then, can entice junior female faculty members with attractive offers.


Personal family considerations can also prevent women from reaching the final stage of review.

In Rinard’s observations, men are more likely than women to have stay-at-home spouses. “I know many of my male colleagues have wives who stay at home, and that makes things easier if you’re on the tenure track and you have a partner who’s taking care of all the domestic arrangements and childcare,” she said.

Meanwhile, women who are part of dual-career couples face domestic burdens on top of the long hours the tenure track demands. According to a 2013 survey on the environment for Harvard faculty, junior female faculty who are either single, or have children and a working partner, spend a median of 20 more hours each week on household duties than their male counterparts.

“They’re working just as hard at work as guys, but they go home and work an extra three hours a day if they’ve got small kids,” Singer said.

Being one half of a dual-career couple also generates challenges as women base their career decisions partly on those of their partners, which are sometimes given higher priority.

Morii said his observations confirm this trend. “I can’t think of any male junior faculty situation where the wife’s profession was the major obstacle for hiring, but whenever we try to hire a woman we always think about who is the partner and does he have a job,” he said.

And when both partners are academics, the University’s ability to find a position for a junior woman’s spouse can determine whether she stays.

Brinton said that while Harvard makes efforts to find positions for spouses, it cannot require a department to hire someone, so it is not always able to provide a solution.

Kramer said the Harvard name may not be enough anymore to compel women whose partners are unable to find jobs to stay.

“Some of our peer institutions like Duke and even Princeton have become more aggressive about making attractive spousal appointments,” Kramer said.

Prevailing social norms and very personal life decisions often fall outside of the realm of the University’s influence.

“There’s an issue about the extent to which Harvard as an institution can insert itself into the private lives of the faculty,” Rinard said. “There are broader cultural trends that really complicate things.”

FAS is trying to address the aspects of gender inequality among its faculty that it can control. In order to increase the visibility of junior women and their research, for example, the committee on women has sponsored mini-symposia that give female tenure-track faculty the opportunity to present their work. The audience at these events includes FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, division and department heads, and colleagues in their department—many of whom will later review their tenure case.

Still, Smith said, achieving gender parity across FAS will take time.

“This is something we can’t declare victory [on] tomorrow and be done,” Smith said. “This is something we have to constantly do.”

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.

—Staff writer Luca F. Schroeder can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @lucaschroeder.

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