As colleges have adopted "family friendly" tenure policies, many female academics have feared that using these benefits may not actually help them. Taking leaves or extending the tenure clock ends up being used against you by faculty members who don't understand the need for such policies, they say, explaining their reluctance to take advantage of these benefits.
A ruling this month by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may reinforce those fears. The EEOC found "reasonable cause" to believe that Laurie Anne Freeman was a victim of sex discrimination when she was turned down for tenure by the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2003. Freeman's claim was that the gender bias was related to two leaves she took, one when each of her daughters was born.
The EEOC rarely backs faculty members charging bias in the tenure process. And Freeman's lawyer, Charlotte Fishman, said that she did not know of another case where a professor had been able to demonstrate to a government body that taking advantage of "family friendly" policies ended up a costing her a tenure bid.
"We now have a government agency saying that these 'family friendly' policies really need to be followed," Fishman said.
A UCSB spokeswoman said that the university could not comment on the case because it is a personnel matter.
The University of California is generally considered to be a leader in helping academic parents balance work and family obligations. And Fishman said that, on paper, the university's policies look good. "They have to be enforced," she said, "and that has to take place at the department level."
Freeman's complaint, now backed by the EEOC, states that her department gave her work rave reviews -- until she took her leaves. Then, she said, other faculty members raised "doubts" about how productive she would be, doubts that she argued were a pretext for discrimination based on her decision to take time off to be with her children. Freeman offered evidence to compare her productivity with that of scholars more favorably treated, but who did not take family leaves.
"She was a productive scholar with a great reputation, and all of the sudden, her work was not appreciated," Fishman said.
An expert on the politics of Japan, Freeman has won a Fulbright Fellowship, published a book with Princeton University Press, and obtained support for another book.
In a statement, Freeman said, "I fought the tenure denial not only because I thought it was unfair, but because I felt it important to set an example that will help other women who are engaged in the difficult dance of trying to balance work and family, or who are contemplating having a family and an academic career."
Earlier this year, Freeman did win tenure from Santa Barbara, following a lengthy appeals process.
Fishman said, however, that Freeman was entitled to legal fees and back pay from when she should have been awarded tenure. More broadly, Fishman said it was important for the case to be pursued to draw attention to "gender-plus" forms of discrimination that women face in academe. Professors these days are not going to make overtly sexist statements, Fishman said, but they do engage in discrimination against new parents who take leaves, and the vast majority of such professors are women.
Following an EEOC finding of cause for a complaint, the agency typically tries to work with parties to resolve the complaint. Fishman said no meetings have been scheduled yet.