Flip the Script

Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh suggests some structural tactics for ending gender inequity in service work.

February 22, 2018

This may come as a surprise to a few people, but the evidence is clear: whether it’s the number of activities or amount of time devoted, women faculty of color and their white counterparts regularly outperform men in the day-to-day service work that keeps our colleges and universities functioning. Still, faculty women’s work is more likely to be unrecognized and uncompensated. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to be tapped for paid administrative work or highly prized leadership in disciplinary associations and societies.

In response, people in academe often encourage faculty women to be more selective with service requests and cultivate their ability to say no. While effective, that doesn’t resolve the underlying structures and power inequities that render so many women faculty members overworked and underrecognized.

As it turns out, this issue is not as intractable as we often think. But to address it, we will have to flip the script and think differently about the structural framework of service. Rather than focusing only on the people we ask to engage in service responsibilities, we need to assess our need for it, why we value it and who should be accountable for making sure that it is facilitated in ways that meet the larger purposes and goals of our colleges and universities. At the end of the day, service work is crucial to the mission of our institutions, and we must find a way to value it and those who perform it.

I recommend that senior academic administrators:

  • Conduct a service inventory. Provosts and deans should inventory what the service requests are and who is responding to those requests across all their schools and colleges. In addition, they should ask faculty members to report annually the kinds of service in which they are engaged and to document, where possible, the amount of the time they’ve spent carrying it out. That process will most likely reveal duplication across units and antiquated committees, as well as provide a better understanding of who is doing what work and possible opportunities for collaboration and efficiency across the institution. In so doing, provosts will not only create more of an opportunity for gender equity in service requests but also more time for research and teaching.
  • Train the leaders. Plenty of anecdotal evidence shows that women faculty members receive more service requests than men, regardless of who is in charge. That suggests the inequity is based on the gendered structures we in higher education have built around service. In response, we don’t just need to teach leaders about the issues, but we must also put accountability measures in place that compel those leaders to consider such gendered structures when making requests and dispensing rewards. In addition, how department heads, deans and provosts deal with the issues related to service should be incorporated into their annual review processes.
  • Position and protect. When academic leaders call on women to serve, they should also invite them to do so in ways that position them for subsequent leadership inside and outside the university. That means giving them experience serving on the budget, governance and other influential committees. Deans and department heads should consider such opportunities when approving the makeup of committee structures, as well. And they should also protect women from inequitable demands on their time by ensuring that everyone takes a turn teaching the large service classes and serving on the burdensome committees that, while thankless, are absolutely necessary.
  • Hire with service in mind. When designing faculty positions in the first place, academic leaders should think about the need for diverse representation when it comes to mentoring students, teaching large service classes, participating in diverse committees and the like. And in hiring, more institutions should offer opportunities for job candidates to discuss not only their research and teaching but also their service contributions in written application materials.
  • Reward service in ways that are valued. Provosts, deans and other senior administrators should institutionalize course reductions, summer stipends and salary increases that adequately reward women faculty members, being clear to understand how diversity factors in, for fulfilling important service obligations in the academy. While a few universities are already recognizing the value of service as an option for promotion to full professor, more universities should reward exemplary service and strong research records with promotion from associate to full professor. In this way, universities are signaling that exemplary service, linked with very good research and teaching, are sincerely valued by the academy.

These issues matter. Overloading our women faculty members with service obligations is not only unfair but also stymies such women’s ability to conduct more research, create new knowledge and engage more effectively in teaching. And women faculty members aren’t the only ones to lose out. Their colleagues and, perhaps most important, the students who look to them for guidance and support are disadvantaged, as well.

Going forward, we must encourage academic leaders to adjust the structures in which these inequities take place. We can start by demonstrating how much we value not only the service but also our colleagues who are performing it. Our campuses are their strongest when everyone in our academic communities has the ability to contribute all they have to offer.


Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh is professor of political science and vice president for equity and inclusion at the University of Oregon.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top