Imagine a university hallway. There are six faculty offices: three doors are open and three are closed. The department chair comes down the hall. He’s just learned that the dean needs a faculty member to chair the fellowship committee.
In one of the offices with open doors is Dan, an associate professor considered a good researcher and OK colleague who will probably go up for promotion next year. Dan tends to say no when asked to take on new service roles to protect time for research.
Next is Amanda, a full professor with a strong research profile who is considered an abrasive colleague and committee member. She is difficult to work with but also detail oriented and gets things done.
Then there is Elizabeth, an associate professor with strong research whom everyone likes and who often takes on extra department work and does it well.
Guess who will be asked to chair the fellowship committee? In most of our departments it’s Elizabeth. Research, including my own, has found that women in academe spend more time than men doing necessary, time-consuming and underappreciated service work. Far from being a harmless request or expectation, such an ask has long-lasting consequences. Faculty members who do more service, administrative work and department “housekeeping,” like Elizabeth, will take longer to advance, face lower research productivity and be more likely to withdraw from academe or burn out.
Research has found that faculty members, especially women and members of underrepresented minority groups, are dissatisfied with how work is shared within departments and that the dissatisfaction is warranted. Whether we look at faculty surveys, annual faculty activity reports, interviews or time diaries, we find women faculty spending more time on teaching and service and less on research than men, and faculty of color spending more time on advising and diversity-related service than their white peers.
As our departments fill next year’s committees and assign administrative roles, it is important to reflect on the harm that comes from the inequitable distribution of academic work.
Readers may dismiss this issue as unimportant for a number of reasons. Being a faculty member is a good job with many privileges and opportunities. Some people may see discussion of fair distribution of work, especially among tenure-track faculty, as whining. For certain faculty members, the bigger issue is the overall amount of work, rather than how it is shared with colleagues. To be fair, some aspects of faculty work, such as teaching load, are standardized in most institutions.
But resources and advancement tend to follow those in the academy who produce more research, not service. Research shows Elizabeth’s progress from associate to full professor will take longer, if it happens at all, if she continues to be asked (and agrees) to take on more service than her colleagues. Just as we would not expect the most recently confirmed woman associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to act as the official note taker for the other justices while the court is in session, we need to think about the cost of additional work to academics like Elizabeth. If we want a fairer distribution of labor, and we should, we have to first unpack what happens in the hallway.
First and foremost, this hallway interaction is what researchers Cecilia Ridgeway and Shelley Correll call “unscripted,” in that it occurs outside oversight from administrative structures and procedures. Thus, the interaction is more open to subjective interpretation. This is the perfect place for implicit biases to emerge. Such biases include who is asked to do what, how we react to a colleague saying no, what we volunteer for and how it is viewed by others. Elizabeth is the likely choice because her door is open, she will probably say yes and she is seen as competent, helpful and nice -- the latter being a common social expectation of women. Social biases are often internalized and don’t only shape others’ behavior but also our own.
The hallway ask also appears to occur in a department with a lack of policies and practices to ensure fair distribution of work. The department chair does not have a list of the committees each faculty member is on, nor does Elizabeth know if she is on more or fewer committees than others when she responds. Few explicit benchmarks exist for how many requests she should agree to, how much work she should do on those committees, and whether that work will count in any meaningful way for promotion.
There also appears to be little accountability. No one will know whether the dean approached Dan or Amanda and they refused to serve -- nor would they face significant consequences even if they did. The department chair is only approaching those with open doors, working with who is physically there, to get this done quickly.
The hallway ask therefore occurs in a space of great ambiguity and uncertainty. Such conditions are found in many social-science studies to disadvantage women and underrepresented minority groups if they are not in the majority, whether in hiring, negotiation, promotion and tenure decisions, or professional interactions.
Last but not least, the department chair is most likely to ask Elizabeth to chair the fellowship committee because there is no collective commitment among department leadership and faculty that the allocation of work be fair. Elizabeth may have a mentor behind one of those closed doors who later encourages her not to chair the committee. She may have been protected as an assistant professor and feel it is now her turn to say yes. Yet we can also see how Elizabeth could become a sort of “porter” for the department, carrying a greater weight of the work others don’t want to do, and how Dan, Amanda, those behind closed doors and the department chair are fine with that. Reward systems in most colleges and universities allow for significant autonomy and tend to recognize individualistic rather than collective behavior. Without awareness of the possibility of bias, policies and practices that ensure equity, and department leaders and faculty members committed to and willing to act to ensure fairness, Elizabeth’s door seems the obvious first choice.
Some departments are doing this better. They are making their work activity data more transparent through benchmarks and accountability, as well as developing credit systems, rotations of time-intensive roles and opt-out versus opt-in systems to fairly distribute workloads. In a subsequent article, I will share what colleagues and I learned about policies and practices to change the conditions leading to the hallway ask as part of our research project on workload equity, supported by the National Science Foundation.
However, I’d like to end with a note about the status quo. When I first started working with department teams trying to change these conditions, I received a number of warnings not to “open that can of worms.” People would argue that Elizabeth can always say no, equity is subjective and it is very difficult to orchestrate it. What they and others do not realize is that a can of worms is already open, and pretending there is not a problem only protects the privileged. The status quo structurally disadvantages women and underrepresented minorities, and if we don’t rethink our rules of engagement, we will just continue disadvantaging them. We need to see the can of worms, or what is happening in that hallway, clearly in order to change it.