Why Initiatives to Diversify Faculty Don’t Work

“Requiring that claims of bias prove intent allows higher eduction to preserve the meritocracy myth?

Back in 1920 when American women won the right to vote, 26% of full-time faculty were women. Today that number’s up to 41%. Not much gain in most of a century, especially when you consider the breakdown of today’s women faculty: 36% tenured, 23% on the tenure-track and 41% not on the tenure track.

Back in 1920 women were considered intellectually inferior and too frail for the rigors of scholarship. Today presidents who suggest such ideas don’t last long in their jobs. Most academics consider themselves fair-minded. We have equal opportunity laws and many schools have made policy changes to try to level the playing field. Why aren’t they working?

Dr. Cathy A. Trower is director and co-principal investigator at Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. COACHE collects comparative data among participating schools on junior faculty satisfaction and the recruitment and retention of faculty talent.

“Miles to Go Before We Sleep” was the title of her keynote at the annual conference of Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership (WWHEL) in October, followed by workshops on obstacles and solutions. Adapted from the poem by Robert Frost, it reflects the distance between reality and vision for women in the academy. Besides, she said, “Most women I know aren’t getting much sleep.”

Women accounted for more than half the new doctorates in 2006, so we can’t blame the pipeline. There’s attrition at every stage. Many schools have had on-campus child! care, flextime and stop-the-tenure-clock provisions in place for long enough to show that such policies—while worthwhile—aren’t a cure-all. Causes and solutions lie deeper in the culture.

 ‘Benchmark Man’

Equal opportunity laws and policies support the myth of meritocracy. As UC-Davis law professor Martha West has noted, requiring that claims of bias prove intent allows higher education to preserve the meritocracy myth.

As many studies have shown, academic bias is typically unintended. Most academics try to be fair. They strive to apply the same criteria to everyone. Trouble is, if those criteria are built around men, then applying them equally doesn’t create fairness.

Think football, designed by and for men. They suit up in mouth guard, helmet, shoulder pads and athletic supporter until every part of the body is covered in armor. Then they run around the field trying to block, sack, tackle and pulverize their opponents.

Would women dream up such a game? If a woman finds herself on the field, what’s she supposed to do? The rules aren’t written down and there’s nobody out there like her.

Think academia, especially as it plays out in elite research universities. Like football, it was created by and for men. They’re supposed to write, publish, turn down assignments that might interfere, ignore family and skimp on their teaching and students for a six-year probationary period.

Then the old boys already in the club decide whether to let them join the club. The more they look like the old boys who are already in, the better their chances. Rewards for membership in the club include status, prestige, lifetime job security and unfettered academic freedom.

Hand in hand with this goes Joan Williams’ ideal worker theory. “Ideal workers” give long-term, fulltime commitment to their jobs with no breaks for bearing or raising children—or anything else. Ideal workers are either men or else women with no other life.

Australian law professor Margaret Thornton has written about “Benchmark Man” who sets the norms: white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied and middle- or upper middle-class. That’s who the founders were picturing when they said “All men are created equal.” Updating men to people doesn’t change the mental image.

When Benchmark Man sets the rules, he can apply them impartially with predictable results. White middle-class men win out. By Benchmark Man’s criteria, no one else is as qualified.

After Clare Dalton was turned down for tenure at Harvard Law School in 1988, her husband Robert Reich wondered how thoughtful and intelligent men could reject her, especially after approving a series of less-qualified white males. The decision-makers were trying to be objective. They’d have been appalled by any suggestion of gender bias.

Gradually he came to understand. “They were applying their standard as impartially as they knew how. Yet their standard assumed that the person to whom they applied it had gone through the same training and had had the same formative intellectual experiences as they,” he told Ms. Magazine. “They had applied their standard as impartially as they knew how, but it was a male standard.”

Not only had Dalton described laws as oppressive, she hadn’t played the good daughter to older men in the department, giggling at their jokes. Neither had she talked loud and tough to be one of the boys. They didn’t know what to make of her.

Losing students

Benchmark Men especially dominate the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They’ve defined good science as rational, logical, competitive, detached and free of outside distractions. Peer review lets those already in the club decide what questions to ask.

“If we don’t get this right in STEM, the rest won’t really matter,” Trower said. That’s where the discrepancies are greatest. Cultural stereotypes are deep-rooted. In one study, ninth and tenth graders were asked to draw a picture of a scientist. Almost all drew a white guy with glasses and a beard.

“Many girls are told they’re not that good at math, and if they are, they’re losers that nobody would date,” she said. Friends and faculty discourage them. A department chair once told her, “Surely you have other opportunities.”

Women students are treated differently in the classroom. More likely to think before they speak, they raise their hands later than the guys and so get called on less often. They thrive less on competition and more on faculty attention. Huge introductory classes designed to weed out the “weaker” students reflect Benchmark Man’s priorities. Survival of the fittest means survival of those most comfortable with combat.

Science doesn’t offer many female role models, especially not with a life off campus. A lot of young people today see their parents’ generation as having VDD—vacation deficit disorder. They want career and family or other personal life. That’s harder for women than men.

Graduate school gets still more intense, with even fewer role models. Academic mentoring affects skills, motivation and confidence. Especially in the sciences, women grad students have less chance to get mentors who can model a life.

Women grad students are more likely than men to:

  • support themselves financially
  • take out loans
  • work as TAs, not RAs
  • be isolated
  • experience stress.

They’re less likely than men to:

  • have big-name mentors
  • have much contact with advisors
  • get help from advisors
  • feel like they’re taken seriously.

Similar problems arise for students of color and others who don’t fit the model of Benchmark Man.

Why initiatives fail

For the brave women who persist to a doctorate, attrition continues in the junior faculty ranks, especially in the STEM fields. Many schools have undertaken faculty diversity initiatives to increase representation of women and minorities. Many have introduced a variety of family-friendly policies.

Important as these are, they haven’t brought equity. Structural and cultural barriers remain. It’s been said that if pianos were made with smaller keyboards, women pianists could easily outplay men!

Defining study programs or tenure tracks in terms of a fixed number of years is structured to fit men. Benefits for spouses but not domestic partners are structured for heterosexuals. Departmental funding is structured to promote turf wars and discourage multidisciplinary efforts.

In her final workshop, Trower listed 16 less tangible reasons that campus diversity initiatives may fail:

  1. Differences are easier to focus on than similarities.
  2. Uncomfortable feelings aren’t fun to examine.
  3. Faculty diversity is rarely a top academic priority.
  4. Change is less comfortable than the status quo.
  5. Affirmative action gets equated with dumbing down.
  6. Believers in meritocracy deny there’s a problem.
  7. Some scapegoat the pipeline, childcare or inherent gender differences.
  8. Diversity is the responsibility of some other office or program.
  9. Actions don’t always live up to words.
  10. Diversity is measured by counting heads: “We got your green alligators and long-necked geese . . .”
  11. Schools try to force-fit a program that worked somewhere else.
  12. It’s hard to see old problems in new ways and come up with inventive solutions.
  13. People make excuses: it’s too big; I’m only one person; we don’t have the budget.
  14. Underlying norms and assumptions go unexamined. What do we assume is good? – Competition or collaboration? – Independence or interdependence? – Objectivity or subjectivity? – Discipline or community? – All work or work/life balance? – Basic research or applied research?
  15. Underlying culture is hard to change. Internal politics get in the way. Some think, “It isn’t so bad. I survived it, why can’t they?”
  16. Shared vision is lacking. It would take sustained leadership from top administrators and senior faculty, who are already pressed for time. “We haven’t felt the heat, even if some may have seen the light,” Trower said.

What now?

She divided participants into groups to discuss where to go from here. Each group was expected to frame the issue, identify challenges and share solutions or promising practices.

Excerpts from their reports:

Mentoring. Develop a voluntary mentoring relationship with clear expectations on both sides. Train both mentors and mentees; St. Norbert’s provides lists for both. Have multiple mentors, inside and outside your school.

Leadership development. Develop a formalized leadership program sponsored and funded by the school. Partner with the local chamber of commerce or other organizations. Several schools have received grants for innovative leadership programs.

Fostering collaboration and collegiality. Use technology to connect and overcome time constraints. Reward group efforts by giving them time to collaborate. Celebrate successes with chocolate and dancing.

Achieving and ensuring equity. Set system-wide benchmarks for accountability. Increase transparency. Grow your own: offer internships, encourage new skills and develop internal programs to address identified needs.

Fostering a culture that supports work/life balance. Know the school’s expectations and what you expect of yourself. Clarify your priorities. Set boundaries and learn to say no; to support your limits, keep a diary that documents what you do. Tell people about your life outside of your job. Leave your laptop and cell phone home when you go on vacation. Get a wife! Or get a housekeeper and pay her/him well.


Dr. Cathy A. Trower at trowerca@gse.harvard.edu  or 617.496.9344.

COACHE website: www.coache.org  

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