Tuesday, 10 p.m. Today I attended my first promotion-and-tenure committee meeting with four colleagues to prepare the case of a junior colleague. The chair said he did not understand the research -- thus I should write the bulk of the review letter or the candidate might not make it.
Wednesday, 9 p.m. I had lunch with a senior colleague today who told me the service role of graduate program director was typically compensated with a course release or summer month of pay. I was offered neither. He said I should have asked.
Thursday, 9:30 a.m. Got to my office this morning, and three students were waiting, all of whom needed career advice and a letter of recommendation this week. A colleague and office neighbor, whom all three students knew well, smiled as I walked in and said, “Boy, are you popular!” and closed her door.
What do all three entries have in common? They reflect situations where a lack of action on the part of bystanders contributed to workload inequity among faculty members. Many people hear such stories and shrug their shoulders. They might blame bad mentoring or a discourse of individual choice, saying, “Yes, that is hard. But, really, what can be done?” Indeed, many people see workload as a can of worms that shouldn’t be opened and can’t be fixed.
As principal investigators and project leaders of the Faculty Workload and Rewards Project, an action research project funded by the National Science Foundation, we have been trying to answer that question. In previous articles, we've outlined how teaching, mentoring and service work can get taken up, assigned and rewarded unevenly, and we've provided evidence-based strategies that we in academe can employ to redesign the “choice architecture” within which we divide faculty labor. We’ve also presented social science research on the implicit biases that emerge in how faculty share “unpromotable” (to use the term of Linda Babcock and others in the American Economic Review) but important teaching, mentoring and service work. And we’ve described the most promising “nudges” to how we design policies and practices to change our workload allocation default settings, such as automatic rotations, credit systems and differentiated workloads.
Such approaches are crucial if we hope to change perceptions and realities of workload inequity -- especially for women and unrepresented minority faculty members, who report and experience the greatest cumulative disadvantages, according to research by Joya Misra and Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner and their colleagues.
In this essay, however, we want to focus not on the collective system but rather on how individual faculty members and academic leaders can become allies and advocates to help ensure more equitable faculty workloads.
There are three important caveats to our observations. First, no one person can be a perfect ally or advocate in every work setting for themselves or others; it is a learned behavior and we all have work to do. Second, as allies and advocates of equity in workload in our departments, schools, institutions and fields, we come to the role with different starting places and privileges. Third, each of the actions we suggest that allies and advocates take will be easier if department faculty members and chairs agree that we are all accountable for creating fair and equitable workplace. It is everyone’s responsibility, every day.
Five Things You Can Do Now
Encourage transparency and the use of data in how your department allocates teaching, mentoring and service positions. That means working with colleagues to get basic data about faculty workload made into transparent tables or charts and accessible to all the faculty. Encourage the leaders and program directors who make requests of the faculty for service or advising to use such data to help ensure some faculty members are not overburdened relative to others. If any service positions are particularly coveted by virtue of their visibility or compensation, promote policies that allow all faculty members in the department to know how they can obtain those positions.
Be a vigilant bystander in your department, college, research teams, labs and other work-group meetings. If you see people shifting less desirable work to others, engaging in “social loafing” or shirking their way out of doing their fair share, intervene as you would in other cases where bias occurs. For guidance on how to intervene, we recommend the excellent work of Stephanie Goodwin and her colleagues on confronting biases by questioning or inviting clarification, arousing dissonance, challenging respectfully and expressing emotions.
Encourage accountability. If it is clear someone in the department is not doing their share of department work, ask them to do so. They may say no, but at least you’ve tried and reinforced a social norm that people in the department are aware (via data) of who is doing what. Showing that each faculty member is expected to participate helps promote the benefits of sharing the burden for the collective good: satisfaction, retention and productivity. Work with colleagues to create benchmark expectations for key areas of service work and make them public.
Acknowledge differences in contexts and promote flexibility. As part of our project, one exercise lists all the various requests and emails faculty members might receive on any given day and makes faculty members and administrators choose among them. Part of the point of the exercise is that these are constrained choices, and that different kinds of work will show up in people’s in-boxes based on their gender, race, rank, age, commitments and many other factors.
We should recognize that faculty members have different responsibilities and create flexibility approaches and policies in response. A faculty member setting up a new funded research center might receive a teaching release, for example. It is also crucial to recognize that a faculty member from an underrepresented group is disproportionally more likely to be asked to serve on search committees or diversity commissions and advise students of color, which may require adjustments to their other service expectations. Both situations need to be acknowledged in fair and transparent ways.
Ask. Ask colleagues, especially women and underrepresented minority faculty members, how their work is going and if they are challenged in particular areas. Even though all faculty members are pushed to work harder and more hours, there are well-documented differences in the experiences of women and unrepresented minority faculty, who will be asked more often to serve on search committees, chair diversity councils, mentor minority students and clubs, and do a greater share of committee work.
Often these colleagues are told to “just say no” by mentors, but they feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of people whom they will disappoint if they actually do so. And often in departments where there is a lot of goodwill, most people do not even know that some faculty members are being asked to do more mentoring or service than others. We found that to be the case over and over again in the departments with which we have worked. Lisa K. Hanasono and other scholars found that task-oriented forms of service, for example, are more visible than relationally oriented service projects -- such as providing mentoring, career guidance, letters of recommendation and social support to students and colleagues. Not taking into account how much a faculty member is already doing before making a request of them sends a message of not caring or that the faculty member should figure it out on their own. We can do better.
We view the faculty members who feel confident to engage in these behaviors as “action-ready” allies of fair and equitable workloads. That is, such faculty and academic leaders are not only aware of the biases and structural forces causing inequities -- and believe it would be better if things were fairer -- but also apply these strategies in their own departments and workplaces.
As we noted before, the departments, colleges and other workplace settings where there is the greatest perception and reality of workload equity will no doubt be the places that have the most systematized policies, practices and conditions that foster equity. But the faculty members who work in such settings have to create and maintain those conditions and policies.
The chair of my department has asked me to let them know whenever I get requests for service from the dean or college. Several colleagues have pointed out that I am doing too much, and she wants to weigh in and run interference for me. I feel so relieved.
We are confident, after working with many departments, schools and colleges over the last few years, that we need more faculty members and academic leaders who are prepared and ready to act. We need allies and advocates, and we need them now.