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Few discussions of gender inequality in higher education take place without mention of a glass ceiling or a systemic failure in the tenure process to account for a woman’s maternal obligation.

Sharon Block, an associate professor at the University of California at Irvine, doesn’t play down the pay gap and the very real obstacles that women face in moving up the academic ladder. But at a session at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Block said rather than solely focusing on the inequities, women should strive to take more ownership of their careers. One of the biggest problems, according to Block: “Women wind up underselling themselves.”

She knows firsthand. When Block was an assistant professor at Irvine, she missed a pay-raise cycle because she was on maternity leave. The next time an opportunity arose, a colleague in the dean’s office advised her to ask to be bumped up two notches on the pay scale. Block was hesitant. “I was scared. What happens if they say no? At that time, no one above me was saying, this is what you deserve.” So she settled for incremental compensation.

By the time Block was up for tenure, she had taken a negotiating seminar in the university’s business school and had been assigned a faculty mentor who shared with her best practices in landing a deal. “I’m asking for everything,” she said then. The aggresive tactic, she said, was effective. 

Tentativeness in negotiating salary and other benefits still plagues many women in academe, Block and other female professors acknowledged last weekend at the OAH session.

“Part of your maturation as a professional woman is learning how to ask for more things,” said Katherine Benton-Cohen, an assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. “There’s plenty of data showing women don’t ask for as much as men.”

Research conducted by Lisa Barron, an assistant professor at UC Irvine’s graduate school of management, shows that men made “significantly larger salary requests” than women during simulated negotiations. Block said she tells women in academe to ask for 10 percent more than they would originally think.

In some cases, Block said women are hamstrung by a self-perception that they are not qualified for a job or that they aren’t ready for a promotion. “The thinking can be, I’ll work hard and earn my way up, so I won’t ask for a high salary at first." Some agree to serve on committees or teach during the summer, which takes time away from research. “The pressure to be a good team player often hurts women,” she said. “At many institutions, you don’t get rewarded for being a good citizen.”

Block said some women simply don't get into the running for jobs out of a fear of being  passed over. Alice Taylor-Colbert, chair of the history, geography and political science department at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, said she recently posted a job opening for a faculty member whose duties would include teaching history and training future teachers. Of the nearly 50 applications received, only three were from women.

“It was a logical position, I thought, for women,” Taylor-Colbert said. “I’d love to hire a young woman.” But the numbers are stacked against her, and the university only allows her a limited number of recruiting trips. She said she isn't sure why women were hesitatnt to apply for the position.

Block said women need to do a better job of promoting themselves and their research. “There’s often a tendency when describing a woman in higher ed to say, ‘She is a brilliant teacher,’ rather than ‘She is brilliant.’ It’s often ‘she’s a teacher’ and ‘he’s a researcher.’ ”

Benton-Cohen, the LSU assistant professor, said it’s important not to let the discussion degenerate into a “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus” scenario. There are plenty of women who have no problem asking for what they want and don’t fit the mold of the female academic described by some during the weekend session. She called for more mentoring by tenured female professors and more diligence by department chairs in requiring that all professors report what they have accomplished.

Christine Stansell, a history professor at Princeton University, said it’s important for mid-career women in higher education to emphasize the positives of the field -- such as independence -- when speaking to women looking to break into academe.  “We aren’t where we want to be, but we have more flexibility than our counterparts in law and business,” she said.

Added Block: “We should absolutely change the system. But every woman who sets precedent in the current climate makes it easier for the next person.”

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