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Sessions focus on hurdles for women and minority faculty

"Becoming Faculty and Succeeding: What Helps? What Hurts? Two Authors Engage MIT in Provocative Discussions" was a day-long conference in which individual strategies for -- and institutional barriers against -- getting and keeping jobs in academia were explored.

The three-session conference, organized by Judy Jackson, ombudsman in the President's Ofice and staff intern in the Provost's Office, was held at MIT on February 20. It featured two speakers prominent in the study of individuals' relationships to colleges and universities. Professor Virginia Valian of City University of New York, author of Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, and Professor Richard Reis of Stanford University, author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, co-led panel discussions with members of the MIT community and responded to questions.

The sessions of "Becoming Faculty and Succeeding" addressed the challenges facing graduate students, postdocs, junior faculty, department heads and faculty recruiters in the areas of career planning and diversity.

President Charles M. Vest opened the final session of the day by pointing out "what we all know -- that although significant progress has been made since the late '60s, it's moving painfully slowly at senior levels. The glass ceiling is still firmly in place. "

Dr. Vest compared national figures with those at MIT -- 80 percent of tenured professors in the US are white males, while at MIT, 90 percent of the tenured faculty and 74 percent of the total faculty are white males. He declared "with a bizarre mix of sadness and gladness" that MIT had just awarded tenure to its first African-American woman (Associate Professor Evelynn Hammonds of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society).

He also encouraged the conference participants to be aware of "forces that impede change��������������������������� the habits, attitudes and schema, conscious or unconscious, which continue to limit opportunities in institutions of higher education."

Professor Valian, professor of psychology and linguistics at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, began her remarks with a summary of research demonstrating the effect of "gender schema" in hiring and promoting women and concluded with suggestions for how department heads might correct for these effects.

Gender schema, she explained, are "hypotheses about what it means to be male or female." Operating unconsciously, gender schema assign different psychological characteristsic to males ("independent, task-oriented," etc.) and to females ("nurturant, expressive.") Gender schema play out in hiring and promotion processes so that, for example, early achievement for women scientists does not predict advancement, the same credentials do not buy women the same status as men, and women do not accumulate professional advantage as men do.

Professor Valian acknowledged that each time a woman (or, via other schema, a person of color) is denied tenure "may be a molehill. But mountains are molehills piled one on top of the other��������������������������� The situation is dire in general."

Yet there are "encouraging signs that institutions can do something," she said. These remedies include developing objective and open evaluation processes, providing concrete information on how to move through the ranks; correcting for errors in reasoning processes (i.e., taking on schema directly) and establishing an aggressive program to increase the number of women associate professors, as was done at Johns Hopkins.

Professor Cardinal Warde of electrical engineering and computer science then widened the discussion to include issues of race. "If science and engineering are objective, why are race and gender so powerful?" he asked the nearly full lecture hall.

"Institutions like MIT are more willing to train minorities, a temporary commitment, than to hire them -- a permanent commitment, like a family," said Professor Warde, to a roll of applause.

Professor Reis, executive director of two university-industry consortia at Stanford University, focused directly on strategies for getting and keeping those familial commitments reflected in tenure appointments.


Data and vignettes in his book, Tomorrow's Professor, demonstrate that there are various routes to tenure though some are more circuitous than others; that "schools don't spell out criteria, explicitly to keep wiggle room," so understanding institutional culture is important; and that tenure isn't the only nor even always the best of all possible worlds for people with advanced degrees.

Like Professor Valian, Professor Reis readily stated there were ways that senior faculty and institutions could ease the burdens of stress and frustration widely reported by junior faculty.

Institutional strategies on behalf of the next generation of professors can include setting the proper context, specifying what's expected of junior faculty, explicitly stating which senior faculty are available as mentors, seeking out beginners to ask how they're doing, and supporting beginning faculty to set long-term goals. In addition, Professor Reis challenged colleges and universities to overhaul tenure, match their rhetoric about diversity with reality, and attend to the fairness of the tenure process.

A lively discussion followed the three panelists' talks, with young faculty women describing experiences ranging from disappointment to harassment. "White women believe in a meritocracy to an unwarranted extent," said Professor Valian in a discussion of statistics on optimism about getting tenure (white males express the most optimism, black males the least). "The idea 'just do your work' denies the real limits in the tenure process."In answer to the question, "Is tenure really still a black box?" Professor Valian said, "The more elite the institution, the less open it tends to be about criteria for tenure."

In response to questions about issues facing minority scholars and strategies useful within a system "not really accepting of us," Professor Valian acknowledged that black women are being responded to as either women or as blacks, so "at any given time, success was more compromised."

Professor Warde added, "You just have to expect that the more technical the institution, the more out of place you are going to seem. You have to prove yourself every day."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 25, 1998.

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