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national | REPORTS

Harvard Isn’t Enough
Women in academia still face hurdles to equity—including the “Baby Gap”

When the news broke in February that Drew Gilpin Faust was named Harvard University’s first woman president, many noted that half of the nation’s prestigious Ivy League schools would now be headed by women. One might think such a statistic is proof that equality has been achieved. Such an assumption would be mistaken.

Related News:
Women Leaders Converge To Discuss Lack of Equity in Academia
On May 2, Harvard's president-elect, Drew Gilpin Faust, gathered four current and former women presidents of Ivy League schools to participate in a coffee-table panel on the position of women in academia.

Feminists celebrated Faust’s selection for many reasons, including her distinguished feminist scholarship and the fact she was once a director of women’s studies. But while her appointment is historic and symbolically important, it should not mask the reality of life for women in higher education. Faust herself said in a speech to Harvard students in 2001, “Harvard is still in transition to a state in which men are not the norm” and women a deviation from it. The same could be said of most U.S. colleges and universities. There are stunning successes. In 2004, the percentage of women undergraduates approached two-thirds (59 percent). As for graduate education, when I received my doctorate in 1974 only 20 percent were awarded to women, but as my younger daughter receives hers in 2007 the number has more than doubled, to 45.4 percent. Even in today’s lagging science disciplines, the number of women getting doctorates in physical sciences has grown from 8 percent in 1974 to 27 percent in 2004, and in engineering from 1 percent to 18 percent.

Similarly, between 1986 and 2006, the percentage of women presidents has risen from 10 percent to 23 percent. Yet women continue to advance more slowly up faculty ranks and earn less salary than their male colleagues. Even though more women are tenured today, the tenure gender gap has not narrowed in the last 25 years.

Furthermore, despite high-profile appointees such as Faust, women are still disproportionately represented in lower ranks and at less prestigious institutions. Although nearly 29 percent of associate-degree-granting colleges were headed by women, less than 14 percent of doctorate-granting institutions have women presidents. And while there has been progress in closing the salary gap between men and women when new academic appointments are made, within five years of hire the equity begins to evaporate.

There have also been recent external and internal policy changes in academia that have not served women well. According to Martin Finkelstein, professor of education at Seton Hall University, only one out of four new faculty appointments in 2001 was to a full-time tenure-track position. White women, and men and women of color, are now over-represented in the new category of non-tenure-line positions and, as before, in part-time faculty positions. The constant assault on affirmative action has also erased or crippled one of the single most effective policies that increased women’s access to equal opportunities.

And many of the same political forces organized against affirmative action have sought to prevent collection of data on race or gender, which profoundly hinders the ability to measure equality. In California, for example, it was not until a female state legislator asked for a study that data revealed the percent of women faculty hired in the university system had plummeted by 30 percent in the three years since anit-affirmativeaction policies had been implemented.

One of the explanations for the gender differential in academic careers may be the “Baby Gap,” according to researchers Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden at the University of California, Berkeley. Their investigations have shown that having children, especially “early babies,” is a disadvantage for women’s professional careers—but an advantage for men’s. Women with babies are 29 percent less likely than women without to enter a tenure- track position, and married women are 20 percent less likely than single women to do so.

Women with “early” babies leave academia more frequently before getting their first tenure-track job, but women with “late” babies do as well as women without children. Given that systemic bias against motherhood, it is not surprising that women who achieve tenure are far more likely than men to be single. In the American Council on Education’s 2006 report, The American College President, a similar striking contrast was noted: While 89 percent of male presidents are married, only 63 percent of women presidents are, and while 91 percent of male presidents have children, only 68 percent of women presidents do.

Mason and Goulden believe such disadvantages can be eliminated by creating policies that do not penalize women for bearing children. They recommend acknowledging family-friendly packages as a recruitment tool to attract and keep the best faculty.

Some look forward to the time when we don’t have to think about gender differences, but this is a dangerous and faulty longing. Only by analyzing how gender is mapped in the places we work, in the policies that govern our lives, and in access to opportunities can we transition to that world where, as Faust told her Harvard students, women are not the deviation from the norm.

is senior vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.