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University leaders pledge support for women academics

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Declaring that "barriers still exist to the full participation of women, not only in science and engineering, but also in academic fields throughout higher education," the leaders of nine of the nation's premier research universities, including MIT, announced on Tuesday, Dec. 6, that they will undertake further efforts to remove the barriers.

Making academic careers compatible with family responsibilities is essential if universities are to achieve gender equity, they said in a joint statement. All pledged that their universities will develop academic personnel policies and institutional resources, and take steps to improve campus cultures to better support family commitments.

The statement was signed by President David Baltimore of Caltech; President Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard; President Susan Hockfield of MIT; President Shirley M. Tilghman of Princeton; President John Hennessy of Stanford; Chancellor Robert Birgeneau of the University of California at Berkeley; President Mary Sue Coleman of the University of Michigan; President Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania; and President Richard C. Levin of Yale.

"This is an historic moment for universities. I'm pleased that my colleagues share our commitment to addressing work/family issues as an important element of achieving gender equity in the academy," said Birgeneau.

Women now make up nearly half of Ph.D. recipients in the United States, but they comprise only about one quarter of professors. The lack of gender equity on university faculties has been the subject of much recent scrutiny. Studies published by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that women Ph.D.s who were married or have young children were far less likely to secure tenure-track jobs and eventually achieve tenure than men who are married or have young children or single women without children. 

Other studies suggest that many women may be disadvantaged early in their careers by the competing demands of academic and family responsibilities, and some may be negatively stereotyped because of their family status. Even when policies are in place to better accommodate the dual demands of career and family duties, both men and women fail to make full use of them because they fear that their peers will view them less favorably.

Funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, representatives from the nine universities met at the University of California at Berkeley in June to share best practices and initiatives addressing faculty with family responsibilities. A consensus emerged that more work must be done to assure that all members of the academic community can perform at their highest level of academic achievement and enjoy both a satisfying career and family life.
"Helping our faculty balance the demands of their careers with family responsibilities is critical if our universities are to attract the brightest young people to the professorial ranks," said Hennessy. "While these efforts will benefit faculty of all disciplines and both genders, we especially hope that they will contribute to increased numbers of women pursuing academic careers in fields in which they have long been underrepresented, such as science and engineering."
The group, called Nine Presidents, first met in 2001 in response to an MIT report that found institutionalized gender inequity at all levels of faculty. In light of a joint statement issued then, major research universities across the country convened task forces to learn whether similar patterns of gender disparity existed at their institutions. In many cases, institutions found such disparities and have moved to remedy them.

In recent years, members of the Nine Presidents group have supported more robust family accommodation policies for faculty at their universities. Most now offer extensions of the tenure clock in the event of childbirth or adoption, and many provide birth mothers and new parents of both genders with generous leave or relief from teaching options. Some are exploring the possibility of allowing faculty to go part time as family needs arise, as well as expanding on-site childcare centers and spousal/partner employment assistance programs.

"The University of Michigan is working to build more flexibility into our policies and resources for women and for men, so that we enable faculty to accomplish ambitious academic and professional goals, while also pursuing satisfying personal lives," Coleman said.

The newly released Nine Presidents statement is intended to foster institutional excellence by promoting gender equity, helping to attract and retain women faculty, and enabling male and female faculty to have fulfilling personal as well as professional lives.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 7, 2005 (download PDF).

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