When colleges and universities release reports about the state of gender equity on their faculties, administrators quickly follow up with a caveat: The numbers may look out of balance over all, they say, but that's because most of the senior professors are all men, and the greater share of women among junior professors provides reassurance that things will get better over time.
That sort of comment reflects a reality that most institutions confront. Many of those at the rank of full professor started their academic careers in an era when the number of women coming out of Ph.D. programs was very small and those who did earn their doctorates weren't necessarily welcomed into the profession.
The University of Texas at Austin this week announced the results of faculty hiring for the coming academic year,  showing notable gains for women. And in the College of Liberal Arts, the results show that -- in addition to making institutions welcoming for young female scholars -- a top research university can change the dynamic at the senior level, too. The college hired six women as full professors -- when the greatest number ever hired previously had been three and the norm in most years has been one or none.
While some educators at Texas have been focused for years on hiring more women as faculty members, the progress followed a detailed analysis that was released in November  and that many credit with drawing wider attention to these issues at Austin. The study found that women made up 19 percent of the full professors, 25 percent of the tenured faculty, and 39 percent of the tenure-track faculty -- percentages that placed UT behind peer institutions that are also leading research universities.
For the first year after the critique was released, 42 percent of the 117 faculty members joining the university are women -- above the percentages of any category to date. In the liberal arts college, the figure is 46 percent -- with a particular focus on attracting senior women. In addition to hiring a record number of six full professors who are women (one of whom has yet to be officially announced), the college made counteroffers to fend off efforts to woo three other full professors who are women.
"What they did is very unusual, because there are more issues with recruiting full professors, who have more complicated lives and who may be very happy where they are," said Philippa Levine, a British historian who will be moving to Austin from the University of Southern California. Levine said she wasn't looking to move, but was swayed by the "dynamism" she found at Texas. And at a time when public universities are complaining that they can't outbid private universities in putting together packages, Texas did so.
Texas "absolutely" offered her more. "It's an entirely appropriate and extremely generous package," she said. "My sense was that UT was very shrewd in understanding the way these politics operate." She added that while she is pleased to see Texas and other institutions hiring more women in the junior ranks, "you don't change the structures" unless you also expand the number of women in the senior ranks.
The university has some advantages this year over its counterparts elsewhere in that while there is belt tightening going on in Texas, as everywhere, the magnitude isn't as great as it is elsewhere. There are no furloughs at the university. There is a merit-based raise pool. And there is money to go after top candidates.
Randy Diehl, dean of liberal arts, said it was important for universities not to simply wait for junior professors to rise through the ranks. He said that the presence of women in the senior ranks is part of what you need to encourage younger women, and that there are issues of bias if an institution doesn't add women as full professors. Diehl noted, for example, that the highest salaries for full professors go to those who didn't come up through the ranks, but who were recruited from one institution to another. Universities that rely on gradual promotion from within will not see a narrowing of average faculty salaries between men and women, he said.
"If you look at the data going back 20 years, universities have been statistically biased for men in the senior ranks," he said.
No searches are limited to women, he said. But by focusing attention (and money), the liberal arts division for the first time ever hired more women than men as full professors by a margin of 6 to 3, the exact opposite of a year ago. And the university made a conscious decision to act on "any good opportunities" even if that meant expanding the hiring plan.
So a job search that started off without the intent to hire a senior scholar in Middle Eastern studies turned into a decision to hire two senior scholars in the field, when the department was able to recruit a wife-and-husband team from Harvard University -- Jo Ann Hackett, former director of graduate studies in Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Harvard, and her husband, John Huehnergard, a former chair of the department.
The other women hired as full professors (whose appointments have been announced) are: Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, an anthropologist who (along with her husband, William Hanks, also an anthropologist in the same department) is leaving the University of California at Berkeley; and two linguists coming from Pennsylvania State University: Barbara Bullock and A. Jacqueline Toribio.
Because these are women who have successful careers at their former institutions and no immediate need to move, Diehl said that the efforts succeeded in part because faculty members at Texas were keeping their ears open. "We seize opportunities where they arise, and when we have a shot at recruiting a distinguished scholar who is a woman, we try to make that happen," he said. "We're looking out there and asking who is movable."
Johnson-Hanks, one of those who was, said that she had great students and colleagues at Berkeley, and wasn't so much looking as "willing to listen" when she and her husband were approached. On the whole, she said she was drawn by "an intellectual vision for where the university was going," and she said that the prime factor in moving was related to scholarship and the sense of vitality she found.
But to the extent money was a role, UT held the upper hand (and the decision was made prior to the most recent round of cuts at the University of California). She said Texas offered more money, and that while Berkeley matched the offer, other financial factors favored Texas. "We could buy a gorgeous house for what we got selling a tiny house in California," she said. "We will be living where there are great public schools, but in California, we couldn't afford a home in the areas with great public schools."
The liberal arts division is not ignoring opportunities outside the full professor ranks -- and the shift is evident there, too. While 46 percent of all tenured and tenure-track women joining the college this year are women, that percentage was 36 percent three years ago, and 32 percent the year before that.
Texas officials said that they could not have made the progress they did at the senior levels without a commitment from the senior administration and a willingness to spend real time on the process. Identifying, recruiting and moving senior faculty members takes longer. "Most of these efforts started two years ago. This is not a one-year thing," said Richard Flores, senior associate dean.
Even as Texas officials are celebrating progress in recruiting senior level women, they are considering other strategies for other parts of the university.
Judith H. Langlois, vice provost of the university, said that given that UT is "very large and very decentralized," the view of the central administration has been to "resist the temptation to come up with one and only one way to promote gender parity."
In the engineering college, for example, officials have decided to tell departments that they have to be "more serious" about identifying women and minority candidates for finalist pools, moving beyond the idea that you just announce an opening "and pick three to come in." Langlois said that particularly in fields like engineering, it was important to find ways to expand the pools. So departments are doing much more outreach to national laboratories and industry laboratories than in the past because these employers have hired plenty of female engineering Ph.D.'s.
Such efforts, she said, need to take place along with recruiting talent from other universities "or else you just have the major universities playing musical chairs."