Women, Men and Service

Research released in new book argues that a set of nuanced issues -- such as assignments that take female professors away from scholarly inquiry -- limit their advancement.
July 17, 2008

By many measures, women are advancing at a significant pace in academe. While there are differences by discipline, the percentages of women entering fields is rising across the board, and women have in recent years assumed some of the most prominent presidencies in higher education.

At the same time, in discipline after discipline, there is evidence that the careers of many women in academe stall -- and considerable debate about why in fields where 50 percent of new Ph.D.'s are women, far smaller shares of women are becoming senior professors or reshaping their disciplines.

A new collection of essays -- some with new research findings -- explores these contradictions. Unfinished Agendas: New and Continuing Gender Challenges in Higher Education, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press, features many essays that suggest that the barriers to women's advancement today are less in the form of overt sexism (although that remains) than in assumptions, and larger patterns of the way colleges are organized.

"Some people say, 'You've got the numbers up. You are there,' but we still have many of the same issues. They aren't as obvious because there are many more women and the issues are more subtle," said Judith Glazer-Raymo, editor of the volume and a professor at Teachers College of Columbia University.

One example of that is a chapter in the book, "Shattering Plexiglas," in which three scholars conducted an in-depth study of what happened to 20 male and 20 female professors in the three years after winning tenure (in a range of disciplines) at major American research universities. They found a series of "pulls" of women away from the scholarly research that first drew them to the academy -- and did not find comparable pulls for men. Following tenure, 16 of the women studied and only 5 of the men experienced significant increases in their service obligations at their universities.

The study didn't suggest that these service duties didn't represent important work. Many of the assignments were valuable for the professors' departments or institutions. The newly tenured women -- much more so than the men -- became academic program coordinators or were appointed to lead institutional committees with real clout. In a number of cases, the assignments also reflected values that were especially important to the women involved, such as playing a role in work to remove gender bias from the institution.

While these assignments may well help these women's careers over time if they go an administrative route, and while these assignments may accomplish good, they take women more than men away from scholarship. The women reported feeling unprepared for some of their assignments and unsure about how they fit into their careers -- but many did not feel they could turn down this role.

"[S]ome forms of service, if not thoughtfully selected and designed, may draw women away from their scholarly learning and from their knowledge construction in the university and society," the chapter says. "In some settings, women may be positioned to shoulder an inequitable burden of service that is unrelated to their scholarly learning and that may detract from it." (The chapter was written by Aimee Terosky, Tamsyn Phifer and Anna Newmann -- all of Teachers College.)

To the extent that many forms of advancement in universities go to those most immersed in the creation of knowledge, the authors express concern that these service patterns help to create a "Plexiglas ceiling" that women will have difficulty breaking.

Glazer-Raymo, the editor of the volume, said that the point of raising these issues was not to suggest that women should not be involved in service. Rather she said, universities should reward service or -- if they don't -- should be sure that it does not fall disproportionately on women. "There needs to be a greater awareness of the imbalance," she said. Likewise, she said, universities need to look at men. "Men are finding ways to get around those responsibilities. They are more able to say, 'look this is my priority,'" about their research and have that view respected, Glazer-Raymo said.

The new study joins a growing emphasis by experts on gender equity in academe on service-related issues. A recent study of women at the University of California at Irvine found that many women feel that their service assignments hold them back and that roles that go to women are then devalued by others at the university.

Michelle Massé, director of women's and gender studies at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, is co-editing a forthcoming book that also looks at the service issue, Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces. Massé said that women face a "double whammy" in that many of them want to help students and colleagues, but can have their careers held back as a result. Massé said that the results in Unfinished Agenda are very consistent with what she has found in her studies of the issue.

There is a conflict and a problem, Massé said, whenever women end up with significant duties that are "part of our job but not what we are paid for." The impact -- even on women who have tenure and whose careers are launched -- is real, Massé said. "You might move to a new job with your third book. You don't move with your third university commission report."


Back to Top