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Where the Elite Teach, It's Still a Man's World

The women who do get hired at major research universities often find a 'toxic atmosphere'

By Robin Wilson
The Chronicle of Higher Education

December 3, 2004

It's been a decade since Nancy Hopkins first complained of gender inequities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and galvanized other top research universities to hire more female scholars. But when the presidents of nine leading institutions discussed the issue last spring, Ms. Hopkins says, the question was the same: "Where the hell are all the women?"

At first glance, higher education today might seem like a woman's world. Women make up about 60 percent of the undergraduate population, and in 2001-2, for the first time, more doctorates earned in the United States went to American women than to American men, according to the National Science Foundation's "Survey of Earned Doctorates."

But at the country's big research universities, the vast majority of professors are men.

While women have made inroads in professions like English and psychology, over all more than 70 percent of professors teaching at the country's top research institutions in the 2001-2 academic year were male. Even at the entry level, men made up nearly 60 percent of the assistant professors that year at research universities, according to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Indeed, the core problem facing women who want to advance in academe appears to be at research universities. The higher up the academic-prestige ladder a university is, the fewer women it usually has in tenured faculty positions. Research released this year shows that while the nation is doing a good job of turning out women with research doctorates, the top 50 institutions in research spending are not doing such a good job of hiring them.

Other recent research shows that women at doctorate-granting universities advance more slowly on the tenure track than men do, are paid less than their male counterparts, and are more apt to be dissatisfied with their jobs.

Although administrators at major research universities say there are some good reasons for the imbalance in the number of men and women they hire, they acknowledge that their institutions need to try harder, and some have recently started specific programs to bring in more female professors.

To prominent academic women, many of whom believed that gender inequities would be behind them by now, the persistent problem is deeply troubling. "This has a very early-'70s feel, like stuff we thought we had overcome," says Theda Skocpol, who holds an endowed chair in government and sociology at Harvard University. "I feel like I'm in a time warp."

Interviews with dozens of professors, administrators, and newly minted Ph.D.'s in several disciplines indicate disagreement on exactly why progress for women is so slow in academe, particularly at elite institutions. Some professors contend that although blatant sex discrimination appears to be a thing of the past, a complicated array of subtle biases still keeps women out of top institutions. But others say young women earning doctorates in fields like mathematics and the physical sciences are, surprisingly, turned off by the prospect of jobs at top universities.

"Women just are not applying," says Geraldine L. Richmond, who holds an endowed chair in chemistry at the University of Oregon. Many top-notch science departments, she argues, have "toxic atmospheres" that suffocate women's enthusiasm for their work and steer them away from research careers. But women are also rejecting elite research universities for other reasons, she says, like the fear that they will not have enough time for their families.

"Women are scared away because they don't see how they can put together a life that satisfies their personal and professional goals," she says. "They see that the best jobs are obtained by people who want to only do science and give it 100 percent."

Even if women are staying away of their own accord, says Ms. Richmond, science still suffers. "It's a problem because any discipline needs to have a variety of views and ideas about ways to approach things," she says. "If our faculties become small subsets of the population, in terms of personality and the way you approach science, we really have limited our ability to be creative."

At some of the nation's most prominent research universities, women are taking a hard look at hiring policies. Senior female faculty members at Harvard wrote a letter to the institution's president this year complaining that only 4 of the 32 tenured job offers the university made in the arts and sciences last year went to women. The proportion of offers of tenure to women at Harvard has been falling since 2001.

Women at the University of California, too, raised a red flag after the number of female hires on the system's campuses took a nose dive in the late 1990s. Under pressure from female professors, the California Legislature held hearings on the issue, and the system started hiring more women.

"We were beginning the biggest hiring surge in UC's history," says Gyöngy Laky, a professor in the division of textiles and clothing on the university's Davis campus. "But because of the drop in the number of women we were hiring, we could have ended up with 80 percent men. We were in the process of locking in a terrible situation for the next 50 years."

The Bottom Rung

While the situation for female professors might look dismal at some top universities, women have clearly made advances in higher education. Thirty years ago women earned only 16 percent of all Ph.D.'s conferred in the United States. By 2002, the most recent year for which such statistics are available, they were earning 45 percent. And among Americans, women received just over 50 percent of the Ph.D.'s that year, the science foundation's survey found.

The number of women teaching at the nation's major research institutions has also been rising. While women made up only 20 percent of teaching-faculty members at those universities in 1989-90, by 2001-2 that proportion had risen to 28 percent, according to the UCLA research institute.

Still, the more prestigious the institution, the fewer women it has. In 2001 women made up 48 percent of the professoriate at two-year colleges, compared with 38 percent at baccalaureate-granting institutions, and 28 percent at research institutions (classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as those that awarded the most Ph.D.'s across the widest number of fields).

"There's a huge gulf between baccalaureate-granting and research institutions on tenure-track hires in terms of gender," says Norean Radke Sharpe, an associate professor of statistics at Babson College. "The environment in research institutions has a reputation for being difficult for women."

And women's salaries still lag behind men's. A survey by the American Association of University Professors in 2002-3 found that male assistant professors at doctoral institutions earned $5,687 more per year than their female colleagues. Ten years ago the gap was just $4,642 in today's dollars.

This year Donna J. Nelson, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, released a study that provided some of the first national data on the gender gap between Ph.D. production and faculty hiring. She looked at the number of women hired by the nation's 50 elite research universities -- determined by spending on research -- and compared it with the number of women earning Ph.D.'s in several fields. She found that those research institutions were hiring women at much lower rates than women were earning doctoral degrees.

In biology, for example, 45 percent of the Ph.D.'s awarded nationwide from 1993 to 2002 went to women, a statistic that is essentially mirrored at elite research institutions. But in 2002 only 30 percent of assistant professors of biology at the top 50 research universities were women. The trend is the same even in a field like psychology, where women earned 66 percent of the Ph.D.'s from 1993 to 2002 but represented only 46 percent of the assistant professors in 2002 at the nation's top universities.

Administrators say there are logical reasons for some of the gaps.

First, while across all fields women are earning 45 percent of all Ph.D.'s, most of the new hires at research universities are in male-dominated fields, where the proportion of women earning degrees is much lower.

"The vast majority of female Ph.D.'s are being produced in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts," says M.R.C. Greenwood, provost of the University of California system. "In a research university, we hire a lot more scientists and engineers than you find in a smaller four-year institution. So part of the disparity between the national pool of Ph.D.'s and the real pool available to us has to do with the disciplinary distribution of people who get Ph.D.'s."

Second, in biology and chemistry, among other fields, top institutions typically hire only scholars with several years of postdoctoral experience. Once that narrower employment pool is taken into account, says Ms. Greenwood, the life-sciences departments in the California system are hiring women in about equal proportion to their availability.

But that is not the case in every discipline. In chemistry, for example, women make up about 31 percent of the Ph.D. earners and 20 percent of those who have completed postdoctoral training. But only about 13 percent of the chemistry professors that the California system has hired over the past several years are female.

At Harvard, women say an emphasis on hiring "rising young scholars" may inadvertently exclude women. In a letter last June to Lawrence H. Summers, the university's president, senior female professors wrote that instead of focusing on a scholar's accomplishments, the hunt for young stars encourages search committees to speculate about candidates' future productivity.

Research shows that "people tend to fall back on stereotypes and ... imagine good things in the future for people who remind them of themselves in the past," the female professors wrote. Given that most professors on hiring committees are male, that can mean trouble for female candidates.

The Harvard women also said that focusing on young scholars can eliminate women because "the clash of professional and family responsibilities faced by many young women" means that women's research careers tend to peak later than men's careers.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Summers said gender concerns were "monitored" in every faculty search. But he also told The Boston Globe that academic departments must be more vigilant on the issue. "Last year, basically, departments proposed male candidates, and that's why the university appointed male candidates," he told the Globe. "Departments do need to step up their energy in this regard."

Below the Radar

While the small number of women landing jobs at major research universities makes many of them feel peripheral, those interviewed by The Chronicle say they do not believe that the situation is the result of overt sex discrimination. But that doesn't mean that women in higher education no longer experience uncomfortable situations.

One young scientist who earned her Ph.D. from a major research institution this year says the male professors in her department frequently posted an orange "Men Working" sign in the hallway outside their offices. Most people considered it a joke, she says, but the sign certainly didn't send a warm message to women in the department.

"You hear horror stories," says Virginia Valian, a distinguished professor of psychology and linguistics at Hunter College of the City University of New York. "But most women don't perceive themselves as having experienced discrimination. What's happening now is below everybody's radar screen." Ms. Valian has written Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women (MIT Press, 1998), about why women occupy so few positions of power and prestige in all professions.

While girls get encouragement and earn good grades through high school and even college, subtle biases seem to kick in during graduate school. When young women come to Ph.D. programs, their undergraduate grades are just as good as those of their male colleagues, academics say. But after six or seven years, "very few women come out on the top of the Ph.D. class," says a female economist at a prominent research university, who asked to remain anonymous. "And I don't think it's because they're dumb."

One possible reason is that graduate students' success depends heavily on their relationships with their advisers. And male professors -- particularly in male-dominated disciplines like economics -- may be less comfortable with female students.

"If you are a woman, your male adviser may have spent less time working with you on your dissertation and believed less in your potential," says the female economist. "They promote their female students less, so by the end of the Ph.D. you see women disproportionately in the bottom half of the class." In turn, when it comes time to recommend Ph.D. candidates for jobs at top-notch institutions, male professors automatically think of their male students.

Ms. Hopkins, who teaches biology at MIT, says that chairmen tend to ask male colleagues at other universities whether they have any great candidates. "And the response is: 'There's Joe and Harry.' But when you ask, Do you have any women? They'll say, 'Oh, yes. There's Mary.'"

Search committees looking for new professors may also have blinders on when it comes to women's achievements. Women, says Ms. Valian, are frequently judged less charitably than men are. For example, "if a woman is listed as co-author on a paper, I might be likely to think she was given a gift," Ms. Valian says. Letters of recommendation written for women are likely to be weaker than those written for men, she adds, and they are apt to describe women as "reliable, responsible, and meticulous," while men are called "brilliant and original."

In general, she says, search committees at research institutions "are more selective about the women they're hiring because they don't think women are quite as good as men."

Female scholars may also be limiting their own success. "Women are sometimes seen as more careful and less willing to make big claims," says Elizabeth Lunbeck, a professor of history at Princeton University. But when it comes to hiring, search committees are looking for work that is original and exciting -- terms that female candidates are less likely than men to use in describing their own work, she says.

"In-group favoritism" means that male candidates often get the benefit of the doubt in hiring decisions, says Joan C. Williams, a law professor and director of American University's Program on WorkLife Law. "You throw the book at women and apply the rules rigidly for them, looking strictly at their accomplishments," she says. "For a male candidate, you look at his promise."

Acute Dissatisfaction

Women who do manage to snag jobs at research institutions often find working conditions rougher than they had expected.

"The Study of New Scholars," a report completed by Cathy A. Trower of Harvard's Graduate School of Education in 2002, points to a high level of dissatisfaction among academic women at research institutions. The study of 983 assistant professors at six major research universities found that young female professors were less satisfied than young males on 19 of 28 measures. Among the items that made them less satisfied: They were unclear about expectations for tenure, and they lacked not just time and money for research, but also support from their department heads.

A recent survey of female members of the American Historical Association, the major professional organization for history professors, likewise found "a tremendous amount of gender discontent," says Ms. Lunbeck, who completed the survey. A report on the results will be released in December.

Dissatisfaction among women is particularly acute on some campuses. A survey conducted last spring by two female senior professors at the University of Notre Dame found that a majority of female faculty members and graduate students in the College of Arts and Letters agreed that "most professionally prominent, strong, independent women faculty would not wish to come to Notre Dame." Nearly half said they would not recommend that "any talented woman come to Notre Dame as a professional faculty member."

Kristin Shrader-Frechette, who holds an endowed chair in philosophy and biological sciences and helped conduct the survey, says female faculty members at Notre Dame feel that "some male professors don't respect them." In the past six years, she says, three female professors who have visited her office to talk have broken down in tears. "What they say is that they are treated as if they are stupid," she says.

Nathan O. Hatch, Notre Dame's provost, said in an interview that although he is "concerned" about the survey results, "improving the climate for women has been a big priority of mine." The university "is considerably better than it was a decade ago," he said, adding that women represent 22 percent of the faculty now, compared with just 13 percent in 1990.

But part of what frustrates women in higher education is that, as a rule, they don't progress as fast as their male colleagues do. Marc Goulden, a research analyst at the University of California at Berkeley, has compared the advancement of male and female professors at research universities. For each year after securing a tenure-track job, he found, male assistant professors are 23 percent more likely than their female counterparts to earn tenure. And for each year after earning tenure, male professors are 35 percent more likely than their female colleagues to be named full professors.

The fact that female scholars advance more slowly than their male peers -- and that they resent it -- is not lost on female graduate students, who spend years getting a close-up view of their male and female professors at work.

Sensing the difficulties and frustrations faced by their female mentors is enough to make some female graduate students "self-select out" of academic careers, says Martha S. West, a law professor at Davis who has been pushing the University of California system to hire more women.

Ms. Nelson, the chemist at Oklahoma, agrees: "When the young women look at what's happening, they perceive differential treatment. They see that women have to work harder for everything. Young women in my own department have said, 'I don't want to put up with everything you put up with.'"

Young women also may be opting out of research-university jobs for personal reasons. Many would-be female scholars, particularly in the sciences, seem to believe that children and a hard-charging research career don't mix. "A lot of us look like we're running around all the time," says Angelica M. Stacy, associate vice provost for faculty equity at Berkeley and a professor of chemistry there. "Young women aren't seeing the fun, the flexibility, the rewarding stuff."

Some women are also finding what they see as more rewarding alternatives to an academic career. Anna L.W. Sears earned her Ph.D. in population biology from Davis last summer and is working as research director of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization in Sebastopol, Calif. After starting graduate school "with high aspirations for an academic future," she says, she "experienced a big turnaround part way through." She had come to see academe as a "competitive, narrow culture that is so tracked." And she wondered whether other women felt the same way.

So she surveyed 258 male and female graduate students at Davis in 2002 and learned that women were much more likely than men to abandon their plans for an academic career. Women cited a clash between a research career and a family, as well as "disillusionment with academia" because of its "low pay, political infighting, and harsh competition for money."

Looking for Answers

Some colleges are trying to attract more women to higher education. And there are signs of success.

Women represented 36 percent of the new hires at the University of California this year, up from 27 percent last year. "There is quite clearly a sea change happening in terms of who's being hired," says Ms. Greenwood, the provost.

Ms. Stacy, at Berkeley, says universities can inspire change simply by installing people at the top who make it clear that the institution is interested in hiring women: "To have someone in the room who keeps saying, 'Women, diversity,' makes a big difference," she says. "The thing I like about Berkeley is that we have an administration that is not afraid to say, 'We have a problem here, let's fix it.'"

Abigail J. Stewart, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan, credits the administration with taking "a central role in encouraging departments to bring in more women."

First, says Ms. Stewart, who is leading Michigan's effort to hire more women, the university distributed sociological studies to faculty members in the sciences and engineering, showing that "bias happens even when people don't intend it." Then the administration enlisted senior professors in those disciplines to run continuing workshops for their colleagues on how to avoid bias. They talk about focusing on job applicants' professional characteristics rather than personal ones. And instead of asking search committees to rate finalists based on a general impression, they suggest that professors rank the candidates according to several specific criteria -- including who would make the best teacher and who would do the most-original research.

So far the strategy is working. In the 2003-4 academic year, 39 percent of the new hires in the sciences and engineering at Michigan were women, compared with 13 percent in 2000-1. Ms. Stewart says Michigan plans to expand the recruitment program to the rest of the university.

The engineering school at MIT has made similar strides. It hired 17 women between June 2002 and June 2004, representing 44 percent of all engineering hires. To find more women, "we started searching in less-traditional places," says Thomas L. Magnanti, dean of the school. "We might look in industry, or in [national] labs." The proportion of women hired has slipped a little since July, however, with only 3 of the 16 new engineering jobs at MIT going to women.

Ms. Hopkins, of MIT, has witnessed the ups and downs of efforts to recruit women. Many faculty members have high hopes for change after Susan Hockfield, a neuroscientist and former provost at Yale University, takes over in December as MIT's first female president. One of Ms. Hockfield's first tasks will be to attend a meeting, sponsored by MIT, that will attract journalists and scholars from around the world to talk about the international role of women in science.

But as far as what a female president will mean for the institution, Ms. Hopkins is taking a wait-and-see approach. "It will be up to all of us to continue to do this work, with her support," she says. "We cannot expect her to wave a magic wand and solve this problem any more easily than a supportive male president could do."

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