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Researchers analyze causes of gender gap in tenured faculty

Symposium speakers discussing "Coordinating Academic and Biological Clocks: Parenting and Tenure" approached the topic from three perspectives but arrived at the same conclusion: that the relatively low number of tenured women at academic institutions is not simply a problem of timing childbirth.

About 60 women and a handful of men attended the October 29 symposium, which was sponsored by the Women's Studies Program and moderated by Lotte Bailyn, T. Wilson (1953) Professor of Management and chair of the faculty. In addition to the panelist's presentations, the two-hour symposium included a question-and-answer period which prompted discussion of the need for -- and possible means for achieving -- change at MIT.

The panel session grew out of a recent proposal floated at MIT to give an extra year of consideration for women faculty members who bear children during the tenure process. Professor Bailyn, who studies the ways that work and personal lives can be effectively balanced, explained that the proposal is controversial in part because it appears to set policy based on biological differences and to reinforce stereotypical values by detracting from the effort to get men more involved with child care.

The panelists were Professor Anne Preston, a labor economist at the Russell Sage Foundation and the W. Averell Harriman School for Policy and Management at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; Dr. Shirley Malcom, head of the Directorate of Education and Human Resource Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and Dr. Virginia Valian, professor of psychology and linguistics at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, and author of the forthcoming book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women (MIT Press).

Professor Preston presented findings from research including a survey of 50,000 men and women working at all levels of science and engineering. Although women PhDs hold twice the responsibility of men PhDs for household chores and child care, Professor Preston said that, surprisingly, the women she interviewed felt that their primary career compromise came not with children, but in accommodating a dual-career marriage. This was most true of the women in science, whose careers often entail frequent moves early on for postdoctoral positions.

Women in dual-career marriages are more likely to have a geographically constrained job search, and so take jobs that are less appealing or that are at institutions where they may be "marginalized" in their work, she said.

Women PhDs are also the only group for which marriage is associated with an income loss of 20 percent. But with children, Professor Preston found, women show a 16 percent increase in income -- regardless of how much child care responsibility they took on.

"With children, women and men become more stable, committed workers," she said. When she compared the incomes of women to men among academically employed PhD scientists, she found that women earn less, regardless of marital status or the presence of children.


Dr. Malcom approached the problem from a policy perspective, asking the question, "Are children only the responsibility of the family?" She noted that academic institutions have not yet managed to do what business, government and even the military are trying to accomplish -- accommodating the familial responsibilities of their work-force.

"Why are universities so different? Most are quite out of step with the changes we're seeing in business, even in the military, in hospitals, in nonprofits," said Dr. Malcom. "But institutions that feel they are at the pinnacle don't feel they have to make concessions."

She recommended that policies deal with the family requirements of both men and women, and go beyond the tenure period. Birthing, parenting, fathering, adopting, elder-dependent care, disability, military service -- all these things can require stopping the promotion clock.

Professor Valian, whose research deals directly with the inequity in percentages of women and men getting tenure, said women appear to be almost a full rank behind their peers from graduate school, even though their work may be equally good or better.

"Men and women appear to make a different quantity/quality trade-off. Men publish more articles, but women publish higher-quality articles, based on the number of citations the article receives," she said.

The tenure gender gap does not appear to be related to parenthood; women with children are no less productive than women without children, Professor Valian said. Rather, the problem is in what she calls "gender schemas," which are hypotheses people use unconsciously to assign different traits to men and women. These represent discrimination that is not blatant or intentional, but nonetheless very effective.

"Our gender schemas skew our evaluation of men and women, causing us to overrate men and underrate women for the same achievements. People aren't perceived as people; they're perceived as men and women," said Professor Valian. Over time, this results in the accumulation of advantage or disadvantage, she said.

"The small but systematic discrimination culminates in women's earning smaller salaries and a smaller percentage being promoted to tenure," she said. "But it is only through the presentation of a lot of data that people can see these things are true."

Professor Mary Potter of brain and cognitive sciences said that women were at a disadvantage when it came to getting tenure at MIT and some action needed to be taken immediately. Although the proposal under discussion might not be the only answer, it was important, even symbolically, to act on it now, she said.

A lengthy discussion followed, with much debate among the panelists and audience on the merits of the proposal. The three panelists came down against the proposal, recommending that at the very least, the same option should be made available to men who became fathers during the tenure process.

Dr. Valian said she disagreed with the policy because it fails to address the underlying problem of undervaluation of women and reinforces the concept that women have most of the responsibility for childcare.


Dr. Malcom suggested that the group come up with a set of policy proposals that would be inclusive of family needs beyond childbirth, and would not target one group for special privileges. She recommended that the problem of undervaluation be addressed as well, stressing that adding a year to the tenure clock does not make women tenure candidates more successful.

Associate Professor Marjorie Resnick of foreign languages and literatures said that if the panelists truly understood the situation at MIT, they might see a particular need for taking this step. Other senior faculty members expressed a desire to push ahead with the proposal, because it had originated in discussions with junior faculty who believed the additional year would help.

A recently tenured professor who bore children during the tenure process said she would not have supported the proposal a year ago, but does now. Another audience member said a good reason for supporting the proposal was that it could help in the recruitment of women faculty by making MIT a more hospitable environment for women.

However, not all the young faculty members agreed. One said that the underlying problems should be addressed, rather than extending the entire tenure process for women and allowing them to fall another year behind their male colleagues.

Just before the symposium ended, a senior faculty member challenged Professor Bailyn, as chair of the faculty, to ensure that the issue of policy changes be pursued. Deans and department heads, she said, must be involved in future discussions on the issue, and they should be apprised of the research available concerning gender schemas and tenure evaluation.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 12, 1997.

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