Stress and the Female Faculty Member

New study says that women in academe are justified in feeling more pressure than their male colleagues.
August 23, 2005

Women in the professoriate are more stressed out than men. That's probably not shocking to female professors (or many of their male colleagues). But a new study -- based on both surveys and in-depth interviews and focus groups -- attempts to provide new insights into that stress. And the study says that women are justified in their stress -- answering strongly in the negative the question the study poses: "Are women faculty just worrywarts?"

The education professors who conducted the study -- Jennifer L. Hart of the University of Missouri at Columbia and Christine M. Cress of Portland State University -- write that answering that question is important because many in academe may believe otherwise.

The study -- which has been accepted for publication in the journal Stress, Trauma, and Crisis -- is based at a university whose identity was kept confidential. The researchers started by looking at faculty stress levels by going to the university's data, as reported to a University of California at Los Angeles study on faculty attitudes.

Those data show women having greater stress than men on a range of work related issues:

Percentage Reporting Some or Extensive Stress Related to Certain Job Duties

Duty/Issue Creating Stress Men Women
Teaching load 47.5 57.9
Students 49.7 65.8
Research and publishing 67.1 85.7
Review and promotion 44.8 65.3
Committee work 61.6 74.7

Such data could, of course, be read as a comment on how women experience stress, not whether they are justified in feeling more of it. But the authors of the study then went to examine university records on teaching loads, and they found that women there, on average, are doing more teaching than are men.

The data found that female full professors taught more courses and independent study units than did their male counterparts. At the associate professor level, men taught more regular courses, but far fewer independent units. And at the assistant level, men and women were equal in teaching regular courses, but women taught more independent units.

In interviews, the researchers found that women cited a variety of reasons for their increased workloads and stress associated with students, and many women attributed much of the problem to sexist patterns or attitudes -- from their colleagues or students.

One woman interviewed said, "I taught 500 students my first semester. I taught the core courses. I carried 90 percent of the load of core courses for my whole department. Why? Because if women wanted to introduce a new course in their research and scholarly interests it was usually turned down. They’re there to serve and teach those core courses but men were able to fairly easily introduce the so-called vanity courses with the small enrollments."

Another woman, commenting on how students treat female and male faculty members, said, "Students treat the women differently than the men. They’re more critical of the women than they are of the men. I’ve seen it even among the grad students in our department. More criticism is directed toward the female faculty than toward the male faculty because there are certain expectations about power and who’s wielding power. I didn’t come into this profession with those opinions. I have reached them painfully over the years because it’s impossible not to see it after a certain period of time in the profession."

Summing up the problems female faculty members face with students, the authors wrote that "women felt students expected them to balance authority and nurturance in the classroom in ways that their male colleagues were not. Having to consider this balance while trying to deliver a course that is meaningful certainly contributes to stress related to teaching and students."

What should colleges do about these problems with stress and with disparate treatment? The authors of the study recommended that colleges:

  • Create "critical mass" programs to hire more women in departments that have relatively few. The research suggested that stress levels went down when critical mass was achieved, and that after that, "the stupid, snide comments from male colleagues" diminished, in the words of one of those interviewed.
  • Educate review and search committees about new areas of research. One problem many women face is that their research areas, especially if they relate to issues of gender and race, are devalued, the report said.
  • Establish an annual review process to compare, by gender, teaching and service responsibilities, including independent academic work that appears to fall more heavily on female faculty members.
  • Provide extra release time and support for those with "extraordinary teaching and service responsibilities."
  • Create a fund to provide extra research dollars to those who take on extra teaching duties.


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