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Tenure and Gender

Sure, women have babies, but they write pretty good books too

By Sarah C. Stein Lubrano

In case you didn’t notice during class selection this fall, female professors are a bit scarce at Harvard. In fact, women continuously hold many fewer higher-level positions and tenure than men at elite universities. Harvard’s most recent Faculty Trends report states, “Over the last four years women have made up between 25 and 26 percent of the ladder faculty. With respect to rank, women currently represent 22 percent of tenured faculty and 36 percent of tenure-track faculty.” In short, women consistently make up about one fifth of tenured faculty, even though they represent about one third of those eligible for it. They aren’t just underrepresented in academia; they are also underrepresented among tenured academics. (The statistics on minorities, which deserve an opinion piece of their own, are equally unrepresentative of the population of the United States.) Of course, the idea that this gender imbalance is a problem rests on two premises: that we should have higher numbers of elite women academics, and that we don’t because of discrimination or bias—something systematically unfair.

The first seems practically self-evident to this particular Harvard student for the very basic, almost simplistic reason that I like having female professors. I see myself in them; their success encourages me. I can ask them to dinner without feeling awkward. On a purely anecdotal level, they show a lot more interest in my wellbeing. But beyond my feelings on the matter, it is obvious that women have half the minds of this world, and their apparent exclusion thus likely means worse scholarship. Such exclusion appears likely knowing that the problem extends to women who are already brilliant and accomplished enough to be tenure-tracked at Harvard.

So why are there so few female professors at Harvard and comparable institutions?

Naturally some of the problem is clearly that women bear children, and this particularly disrupts things like writing books. However welcomed, pregnancies are medical conditions, and sometimes rather serious ones. Nevertheless, men parent newborns too. What they can’t do at Harvard—and many other places in the U.S.—is take the same amount of time off after the birth of a child. Women are granted an extra thirteen weeks for medical leave, which accommodates biological necessity, but it as well encourages couples to economize their time out of work so that women are out for longer periods. On top of that, it seems that male academics are less likely to take the paternity leave they are entitled to, and when they do take it they are more likely to use it to write articles rather than change diapers.

Both biology and social norms are therefore major factors in why so many more men than women become elite academics. But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to change the weight these factors have or that no structural changes would create a more equitable environment. Remember the buzz-generating article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter? Midway through, she took the time to explain a simple change in tenure policy at Princeton. Previously, Princeton had allowed assistant professors of any gender to take an extension on their tenure clock whenever they had a child. Essentially this gave them extra time to rack up publications and other accomplishments before they were reviewed for tenure. Despite the policy, almost no one used this extension, possibly because the assistant professors were unlikely to predict benefits from the extension, or perhaps because they felt taking the extension would look bad and hurt their eventual chances for tenure. As a result, the gender imbalance persisted. Then, in 2005, “Princeton changed the default rule. The administration announced that all assistant professors, female and male, who had a new child would automatically receive a one-year extension on the tenure clock, with no opt-outs allowed. Instead, assistant professors could request early consideration for tenure if they wished. The number of assistant professors who receive a tenure extension has tripled since the change.”

It’s still early to see how much this will affect the tenure rates of male and female faculty members, but it’s certainly a start. Most importantly, we can’t simply have a defeatist attitude toward a situation that makes it much harder to be a female academic, creates a discouraging atmosphere for female students, and potentially keeps some of the most intelligent professors out of Harvard because they are women. My mother always said of the balance between family and work, “You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.” This should be equally true for women and men.

Sarah C. Stein Lubrano ’13 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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