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'Standing Still' as Associate Profs

'Standing Still' as Associate Profs
April 27, 2009

English and foreign language departments promote male associate professors to full professors on average at least a year -- and in some cases, depending on type of institutions, several years -- more speedily than they promote women, according to a study being released today by the Modern Language Association. Over all, the average time for women as associate professor prior to promotion is 8.2 years, compared to 6.6 years for men.

The study follows years of complaints by academic women that they are left "standing still" -- the title of the report -- after they earn tenure, while male colleagues advance. While the finding may not surprise women, some of the survey results may. For example, many women in academe say that departments are insufficiently supportive of those who must balance career and family obligations -- and tend to reward those without child care duties. But the MLA found that the time gap on promotion (while varying somewhat in size) was evident for women who are single or married, those with children and without.

While the MLA didn't explain gaps in promotion through child-care duties, it did find significant differences in how male and female professors spend their time, with men likely to spend more time on research activities than do women, while the opposite is the case for teaching.

The findings could be significant for the individuals involved (full professors have more clout and earn more, sometimes significantly so) and academe broadly. English and foreign language departments tend to have larger percentages of women as faculty members than do many other parts of higher education, and so -- in theory -- should be contributing to growing ranks of women at the senior levels of the professoriate. The MLA's Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, which prepared the report, also suggests a series of reforms that might shrink the gap in promotion times.

The current system "becomes very discouraging" to many women, said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, in an interview. These women "have made many contributions" to their students, departments and the disciplines, but don't get promoted because they don't fit "a very narrow model."

The Numbers

The MLA data come from a 2006 survey of its members at the associate and full professor level. The 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty is used as a reference point, covering all disciplines and all faculty ranks. The comparisons show that women make up a larger proportion of faculty members in the MLA disciplines, but that the trend explored in the report is by no means unique to English and foreign languages.

Within the MLA disciplines, women make up 67.4 percent of associate professors, but 43.3 percent of full professors. Among all disciplines, women make up 49.0 percent of associate professors but 32.0 percent of full professors.

The data show that in the MLA disciplines, it takes women longer than men to earn full professor status -- across disciplines and types of institution. (A key note: the years referenced here are years working, so this would not count time taken for parental leaves.)

Average Number of Years as Associate Professor Prior to Promotion to Full Professor

Discipline and Sector Men Women
English    
--Doctoral 7.5 9.8
--Master's 5.3 6.1
--Baccalaureate 6.0 6.8
Foreign languages    
--Doctoral 6.7 10.2
--Master's 5.0 9.8
--Baccalaureate 7.0 8.0

A common explanation for the differences in advancement of men and women in academe is the continued unequal division of labor in child care -- with women continuing to shoulder more of the burden, potentially paying a cost professionally. The MLA has data that both strengthen and question this conventional wisdom.

Women in the study spent much more time each week than did men (31.6 hours to 14.2 hours) on child care duties. But the data suggest that the lag to promotion is not unique to women who are married or with children. Women who are married or in marriage-like relationships reported earning full professor promotions after 8.8 years, compared to 6.8 years for men. Single or divorced men or women earned promotion a bit earlier, but still with the gap evident: Single or divorced men earned promotion after an average of 6.0 years, while the figure was 7.7 for women.

Both single men and single women saw their lack of partners as an advantage professionally -- even if this was not their desire personally. The comments that survey participants submitted draw this out. One man said, “Being single and having time to devote myself obsessively to my writing, teaching and service” was the key to his success. A female associate professor said that "the cost of getting ahead professionally has been almost entirely personal. I’m single with no kids; I’ve worked more or less unremittingly for the past six years and my family and friends have not gotten the love and attention from me that they deserve."

Among married survey respondents, the male-female promotion gap was evident both for those with and without dependent children, although promotions took longer for those without children. For those with children, the average time to promotion was 6.3 years for men and 8.2 years for women. For those without children, the averages were 7.0 years for men and 9.4 for women.

One area where the survey found significant gender gap was in the use of time. Women report spending more time than men, on average, on a series of teaching-related duties. Men report more time on research.

Average Hours Per Week on Key Activities, by Gender

Activity Men Women
Course preparation 10.5 10.8
In-class instruction 6.6 7.1
Grading or commenting on student work 6.0 7.5
Research and writing 9.7 7.7

The survey also asked about job satisfaction, and found men to be more satisfied than women on work duties, although women were more likely than were men to think highly of their students.

Percentage of Male and Female Professors 'Very Satisfied' With 9 Measures of Job Satisfaction

Work Condition Men Women
Authority over content of courses 92.3% 85.9%
Authority over what courses you teach 72.1% 61.1%
Time available for class preparation 41.6% 24.0%
Authority over non-teaching duties 42.6% 32.1%
Time available for work as adviser 38.8% 28.1%
Time required for work as adviser 38.5% 26.5%
Quality of undergraduate students 24.5% 31.4%
Quality of graduate students 34.1% 38.7%
Job overall 48.4% 41.8%

So what does this all mean? The report suggests that an accumulation of "microdifferences" in time spent on various activities -- professionally and in academics' personal lives -- create differences in what women and men accomplish. This is especially the case because the activities in academe that women spend more time on (related to teaching and service) are less likely to win them promotion.

This disconnect -- in women are making important contributions but not being recognized -- is commented on by many survey participants quoted in the report. Many women report being punished for performing the parts of their job in which they may take the most pride. One woman is quoted saying that her career had been “helped and hindered by my own propensity continually to propose new courses or substantially revise existing ones" and by "the unusual time/effort I put into grading written work by both undergraduate and graduate students.” Another woman surveyed said she hurt her career because of a "difficulty saying no."

The criticisms of the women in the report mirror those that prompted the MLA in 2006 to recommend substantial changes to the way departments evaluate candidates for tenure. Among the many recommendations were that departments place more value on teaching and that research contributions not be defined solely by production of monographs or traditional scholarship.

And the new report's recommendations are very consistent with the 2006 report. The association urges a focus on clear promoting guidelines, mentoring for women to help them advance, and an "expansive" definition of scholarship.

Feal, the MLA executive director, said that the new report and the 2006 one are both about finding "a happy medium." Different institutions are going to have different standards for tenure and promotion, she said, and research is an appropriate part of that. But departments and colleges and universities need to "balance and value the diverse contributions that professors make to their fields and campuses," Feal said.

Likewise, whatever their promotion procedures, departments need to "encourage and mentor women" to help them meet the standards, Feal said.

The MLA study is several years in the making, having started well before the economic woes that may make promotions and raises less likely on many campuses (for men and women). But Feal said that was no reason not to focus on these issues. "Having the conversations about the disparity is the first step, and there's no reason not to have the conversation."

Feal also noted that the report is intended to help not only women who have been associate professor for a while, but those who have just earned tenure or who are about to -- women who with luck will be considered for full professor in better economic times. "It takes years to be promoted," Feal said, "so for those not getting mentoring and guidance and support, putting those things in place now -- which has no immediate economic impact for colleges and universities -- will help later."

 

 

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