Avatar harassment and sexual assault remain controversial issues because institutions hosting virtual worlds are not accustomed to dealing with — or even discussing — digital forms of these distressing behaviors.
Harassment and assault are frequent infractions in virtual environs, including those frequented by students and professors. London journalist Tim Guest, author of Second Lives: a Journey Through Virtual Worlds, estimated that "about 6.5 percent of logged-in residents" have filed one or more abuse reports in Second Life. By the end of 2006, he writes, Linden Lab, creator of Second Life, "was receiving close to 2,000 abuse reports a day."
Current statistics are unavailable. But you can monitor the types of offenses and where they occurred in Second Life by accessing its community incident report chronicling the 25 most recent infractions and resulting penalties. On Dec. 28, 2009, five of the 25 infractions concerned "indecency: broadly offensive content or conduct"; three, sexual harassment; and two, intolerance. Most penalties included warnings with four one-day suspensions and one three-day suspension. (In fairness, Linden Lab has tried to crack down on these community infractions, hosting guides such as this to inform users about abuse and how to file reports about repeat offenders.)
Educational institutions with a presence in or that introduced students to virtual worlds might want to analyze the phenomenon of avatar rape, which presents a unique challenge to traditional jurisprudence. Rape is assumed to be both physical and geographical, as in a crime scene. Both dimensions are missing on the Web. Nevertheless, avatars are symbols of the self. As such, it behooves us to investigate:
How avatar rape happens in virtual worlds.
What concepts and theories apply when the act is neither physical nor geographical.
Why the discussion is even necessary.
Before delving into avatar rape, I should note that such a discussion could have the unintended consequence of desensitizing the topic of real rape, whose ramifications, physical and psychological, are extreme. However, silence about virtual assault also has consequences in that many colleges and universities view virtual worlds as learning environments and may not know how to resolve issues when infractions occur.
Those unfamiliar with virtual worlds may wonder how avatar rape even happens. (You can access a short bibliography of online content devoted in part or in whole to issues involving virtual assault.) Typically, users encounter the act through three scenarios: You can lure others or be lured into it yourself. You can purchase or role-play it. You can “grief” it — a term that means to cause grief — or suffer it because of a griefer.
I became interested in avatar rape after I read an account in Gawker Media, titled “Second Life: Rape for Sale.” The post noted how users could indulge in rape fantasies (options: Rape victim, Get raped, or Hold victim) "for a trifling 220 Linden dollar things." Diana Allandale (not her real name) shared her experience with avatar rape in response to an online article, “How exactly does ‘virtual rape’ even occur in Second Life?” Her incident happened on a beach — a typical landscape as avatars interact with each other on "islands" — when another avatar invited her to go skinny-dipping.
"Being the newbie I was, I didn’t understand that the word ‘love’ hovering over the top meant ‘intercourse.’ "
When the rape began, she recalled, "my first thought was — ‘Hey! I didn’t consent to this!’ " Allandale rebuffed her attacker, dressed her avatar and left, "feeling ticked off that someone would take advantage of my newbie-ness, but having learned a little about human nature."
Allandale is no prude, by the way. She’s a high school teacher and author of erotic novels under the byline of Diana Hunter.
Then there are griefers who have haunted multiuser domains for years. In 1993, Julian Dibble published “A Rape in Cyberspace” in the Village Voice, narrating the deeds of one Mr. Bungle in the text-based virtual world, LambdaMOO:
They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies.
Like many in academe, all I knew about avatar rape was what I had read about it. Then I witnessed an online sexual assault — and had a witness, too.
Tom Beell, a journalism professor at Iowa State, asked me about Second Life, knowing I had researched and written about it. He had never heard of the virtual world, so I opted to show rather than explain it to him using my office desktop.
I logged on and teleported to a beach. Within the first few minutes, we observed one nude male avatar violently rape another clothed male avatar drinking a pixelated martini at a boardwalk bar.
"What’s going on?" Beell asked. He looked startled. Thankfully, he couldn’t read the chat in the text bar of my monitor. In 30 years in academe, I have encountered homophobia in an inappropriate joke or offhand remark about lesbians, gays or transsexuals. Now I was reading hate speech so vile that I cannot summarize it here.
The incident occurred in 2007. I was thankful that audio was not available on my desktop at the time. If a student or staff member walked into my office and heard what I read that day on the chat bar, that person would have been exposed to hate speech in addition to avatar rape.
In researching the phenomenon, I sought viewpoints from directors of information technology and women’s studies at Big XII and other peer institutions. My research assistant Sam Berbano and I spent two months working with our Institutional Review Board, seeking approval to post our survey online.
Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the IRB asked us to warn survey participants about possible harm to their reputations should their responses be published. To lessen risk, the IRB also required signed copies of consent to anyone responding to our survey. So we opted for a snail mail version with a disclaimer: “A risk of participation in this survey may arise if some may find your opinions in the free-response section at variance with their own.”
My research assistant wondered how a survey measuring opinion about avatar rape could have more potential for harm than participation in a virtual environment in which such a digital act could occur.
As it turned out, only one respondent out of 43 provided comments for this essay. Jean Van Delinder at the time was chair of the Faculty Council at Oklahoma State University, where she is an associate professor of sociology. Van Delinder believed discussions like this raise awareness. "Since as a sociologist I view rape as an act of dominance and power," she states, "virtual reality would be a setting conducive to this type of attack and students need to be made aware of it."
Van Delinder also believed that "assault, even virtual assault, has a psychological and emotional component. It is more than just physical because the victim or target continuously replays in the mind what has happened and, in a sense, experiences it over and over again."
One of the best articles citing material affirming that view is “Virtual Rape,” published by Richard MacKinnon in the March 1997 issue of Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. In one section, MacKinnon introduces a feminist definition of rape that involves damage to the self that may be physical, emotional, psychological or material. "In this way," he writes, "rape becomes an assault not against a persona, but against the person behind the persona."
Tim Guest, author of Second Lives, believes sexual assault in virtual worlds is real and imaginary. "As the saying goes, the thought is written in water, and the deed is written in stone. Events that take place in virtual worlds seem to lie somewhere in between, a kind of water with memory."
He compares rape in a virtual realm to flashing in a real one.
Second Life advocates often note that avatar assault is easily avoided; you can teleport away, they say. Linden Lab recommends muting voice during verbal assaults. "Click! Problem solved," it states.
Walking away from hate speech on campus doesn't mean damage was circumvented or an epithet excusable or that charges cannot be filed against a person making slurs. Why should virtual reality be different when users assume liability for what happens there?
Guest agrees. Verbal assaults are just that, no matter where they happen. "The only difference being again no threat of violent escalation. Being able to teleport away is of little relevance, just another way to say you can't be trapped or hurt."
In most cases, he is correct. Many assume that crossover violence from virtual to real environs is unlikely because operators of avatars are in different locales. That is not always the case when people on residential campuses meet on an island operated by their residential institution.
The Lantern, campus newspaper at the Ohio State University, reported in a 2008 crime summary that a staff member contacted police about harassing phone calls at work. The harasser purportedly "knew the staff member through the Web site Second Life, and was under the impression they had been corresponding through the site for six months. … The staff member told the caller to stop calling after the caller said she had a package for the staff member and knew her address."
Guest believes cases like this may constitute harassment and recommends that institutions transfer any existing policies in student handbooks to the virtual world. "The only danger," he warns, "is to over-legislate the territory of sexuality, which needs a kind of animalistic disregard for propriety in order to thrive.
"Universities are probably not the place for this in SL, however."
Some legal counsels have told me if institutions support or fund virtual worlds, they also have an obligation to inform learners through curriculums or workshops about virtual rape, harassment and other assaults on the psyche.
Diana Allendale aka Diana Hunter, who wrote about being lured into avatar rape, reminded me that online harassment happens daily to students in all manner of new media venues, not just virtual worlds. Text messages insult, she says. MySpace comments intimidate. Institutions not only need policies to deal with the fallout of these incidents, she says, but also have to educate students on how to handle them.
"It's not a case of ‘if you are attacked,’ " she adds, "but ‘when you are attacked.’ "
Unlike harassing text messages or intimidating chat on social networks, the concern here involves terms of service that transfer liability to users — yet another reason that educators need to raise awareness about avatar rape and other forms of harassment in virtual worlds used as learning environments.
Michael Bugeja is author of the Oxford University Press books Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age and Living Ethics across Media Platforms. He directs the journalism school at Iowa State University.
Fiction writers were not yet using the term “stream of consciousness” when Charlotte Perkins Gilman published “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in 1892. The phrase itself first appeared in print that same year, when William James used it while preparing an abridged edition of his Principles of Psychology (1890), where he’d coined a similar expression, “stream of thought.” I do not know if Gilman ever studied James’s work. It’s clear from Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Wild Unrest, published by Oxford University Press, that Gilman was as voracious and au courant a reader as any American thinker of her day. And she certainly took exception to the unflattering portrait of the suffragists drawn by the philosopher’s brother Henry in The Bostonians, which she read as it was being serialized in 1885. (By 1898, Gilman’s internationally famous book Women and Economics made her not just one of the most prominent adherents of that movement, but arguably its most tough-minded public intellectual.)
Either way, Gilman had her own reasons for wanting to convey the flow of awareness in a piece of fiction. Her narrator is a woman who, following childbirth, has been prescribed bed rest and virtual isolation by her husband, who is a physician. Her sister-in-law keeps an eye on the new baby, and she also seems charged with task of making sure the narrator stays in her room. Even jotting down a few lines in her diary feels like a violation of her husband’s commands. With nothing else to occupy her attention, the narrator stares at the ugly, crumbling wallpaper in her room. Her attention sinks into the pattern of swirls. She begins to notice the image of a woman who is trapped in the design, but who is somehow able to sneak out into the real world without others noticing. Boredom and depression give way to psychosis.
“Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it,” writes William James. “With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead.” The image Gilman’s narrator finds in the shabby yellow wallpaper is “steeped and dyed” in the well-meaning oppressiveness of her circumstances. Trapped in domesticity and then rendered completely passive, her stream of consciousness turns brackish. But it’s the social norms that are deranged, at least as much as her mind.
The value of Horowitz’s book -- subtitled “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ ” -- is not that it reveals an autobiographical element in the story. The author herself made that clear in an essay from 1913. Gilman indicated that she had been subjected to a similar course of treatment following a period of postpartum depression. In 1887, a doctor gave her “solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to ‘have but two hours' intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’ as long as I lived.” For a woman who had earned a modest living by painting and writing in her 20s, this must have felt like a kind of death sentence.
But Horowitz, a professor emerita of history at Smith College, has excavated parts of the record that go far beyond Gilman’s account of patriarchal malpractice. The doctor in question was one S. Weir Mitchell, then at the height of his fame; his reputation had been secured during the Civil War when he published a book on the neurological effect of gunshot wounds. He claimed great success in treating what were thought of then as female nervous conditions – though it’s not as if Mitchell made that sharp a distinction between mental health and mental illness with women. Horowitz quotes him commenting on “how near to disorder and how close to misfortune [a woman] is brought by the very peculiarities of her nature.”
So, yes, a sexist pig, pretty much. But Horowitz determines from the available evidence that the treatment Mitchell prescribed for his female patients wasn’t quite the nightmare of sensory deprivation portrayed in “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” While known for his “rest cure,” this didn't involve putting them under the command of their husbands. Indeed, he wanted his patients to recuperate away from their families, just to get them away from influences that might be wearing them down. Mitchell believed in the therapeutic effects of exercise, and he also encouraged women to open up to him about their unhappiness – a Yankee approximation of the “talking cure” later associated with Vienna.
The feeling of being trapped and helpless evoked by “The Yellow Wall-Paper” must be traced back to other sources, then. Horowitz suggests that the story embodies “its author’s experiences of love, ambition, and depression in her 20s.” They can be reconstructed from both Gilman’s own writings and the extensive diary kept by Charles Walter Stetson, her first husband. (They divorced in the 1890s.)
“In the late 19th century,” Horowitz writes, “a time when roughly 10 percent of American women did not marry, almost half of all women with a B.A. remained single.” While Gilman was largely self-educated, her situation was comparable. She took it as a given that having a career would mean forgoing wedlock. And vice versa, as far as Stetson was concerned. A painter of some promise if no great worldly success, he seems to have thought Charlotte ought to be content with serving as his own personal Pre-Raphaelite muse. Her desire to have any other career baffled him.
The possibility that these two people might make each other happy was not great. But that’s not to say that the husband, rather than the doctor, was the real villain. This isn’t a melodrama. Stetson wasn’t brutal or vicious, just obtuse. In Gilman's autobiography, notes Horowitz, she "lavished praise on her first husband," and seems to have directed any lingering rage at the figure of Dr. Mitchell.
Someone more imaginative and less conventional than Stetson might have made her a good spouse, though New England in the 1880s was not full of such men. Reading about their courtship is like watching a tragedy. You want to intervene and warn her, but it’s too late, of course. The feeling is especially painful as you watch Gilman persuade herself to ignore her own misgivings. The most extreme case comes when, after meeting Stetson and beginning to pitch woo with him, Gilman sat down to read Herbert Spencer’s opus The Data of Ethics. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and he remained an immensely influential thinker well into the early 20th century. (From my perspective, here in the 21st, this is quite an enigma, since Spencer's writings often seem like something Thomas Friedman might produce after being hit on the head and deciding that he was Hegel.)
“The instincts and sentiments which so overpoweringly prompt marriage,” wrote Spencer, “and those which find their gratification in the fostering of offspring, work out an immense surplus of benefit after deducting all evils.” Gilman took this to heart, and in an unpublished poem she vowed to follow the Spencerian injunction to marry and so become "a perfect woman / worth the gladness superhuman." It did not work out that way. She ended up like the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” -- a prisoner of social expectations that left no room for argument.
But Wild Unrest, by contrast, has a happy ending. Gilman managed to escape. She reinvented herself as a writer and speaker. And then, in 1900, she married a man (her cousin George Houghton Gilman) who, Horowitz says, “relished her professional attainments and growing reputation.” I’d like to think that she found in life what Spencer had advertised: “an immense surplus of benefit after deducting all evils.”
Sometime in March, an e-mail went viral among University of Southern California undergraduates. The e-mail outlined a series of guidelines for tallying and scoring sexual conquests. While engaged in the expected language of misogyny, the e-mail was also rampant with racism, suggestions to incapacitate "targets" with alcohol, and most disturbingly of all, an assertion that "Non-consent and rape are two different things." As one of a string of Internet-related sex(ism) scandals that have emerged at major universities around the world, this e-mail proved a catalyst for considering the ways that such overtly troubling language reverberates in the university and how a university community can best balance a commitment to free speech against the need to curtail hate speech and sexual violence.
I am an assistant lecturer in the Writing Program at USC as well as a student in the English Ph.D. program, and so I felt doubly frustrated with the proliferation of such language, both on behalf of my students, and perhaps selfishly, for myself. The class I am currently teaching is affiliated with a course in Studies of Women and Men in Society (SWMS), so it was pertinent to the work we'd been doing, particularly as we had been having an extended conversation about the power and effectiveness of parody. We had been interested in the critical distance between an argument as it is literally presented and as it is meant to be understood as required for ironic understanding. If this e-mail, so clearly engaged with the language of hate, was written as a parody of the cartoonishly predatory college male, at what point can the content of it be considered dangerous, particularly considering the non-consent/rape passage? Couldn’t seeing the e-mail as hate speech displace the original purpose? How much does it matter what the author’s intention was, I asked, if a reader sees it as hate speech?
These questions seemed particularly pertinent considering the fact that the Daily Trojan’s report on the e-mail included nearly a dozen comments pointing out that it had been written as a joke and that those reacting negatively were taking it far too seriously. Perhaps much of the fixation on this point of the alleged humor was due to possible connections between the e-mail and the university’s powerful and popular Greek system. The email was initially attributed to Kappa Sigma fraternity members, but Intrafraternity Council investigations have now attributed authorship to a non-fraternity member who, in turn, has identified the origin of the email as from another university entirely. Elsewhere, students claiming to have been witness to the early drafting stages of the email attribute it to a named USC student. Despite it being the primary focus of much of the response to the e-mail, the authorship and origin of the email are ultimately of little consequence.
Instead of attributing blame for the e-mail to a particular fraternity or student, we should be talking about the power and influence of such rhetoric as it reverberates within a campus and in the greater public consciousness that defines a university’s reputation. This is a conversation we’ve had before and it’s one we will have again, but in making the conversation more public and more explicit in its goals, we at least allow it to develop. Indeed, troubling scandals pop up fairly consistently in national and international media, aided by the proliferating influence of the Internet.
A very similar series of e-mails circulated through University of Oxford’s Penguin Club, an all-male drinking club, in Spring 2010, though in this case, specific female students from Hertford College were named, ranked, and again referred to as "targets." All 15 members of the Penguin Club were suspended, though the administration did not acknowledge a connection between the suspension and the emails.
In my class discussion regarding the USC e-mail, students’ reactions were varied, though almost consistently negative. Some were colorful ("It made me vomit in my mouth"); some had been sent the e-mail a full week before I had; and some were hearing of it for the first time and clustered around their laptops to read snippets of it to each other. The conversation was lively, and students who are normally quiet chimed in, including one who noted that she was not upset at all by the e-mail because she already knew this was exactly how college students talked all the time. While it is not entirely surprising to encounter an apathetic college freshman, the fact that her apathy stemmed from desensitization to racist, misogynistic, and, most disturbingly, rape-apologetic rhetoric was disheartening.
This apathy, more than the content of the e-mail, is indicative of a larger systemic problem. Universities are not unique in their isolation, and such language certainly proliferates in other communities, but never has it been more essential to have an open dialogue about the stakes of such rhetoric. The aftermath of such publicly sexist and racist language needs to include forums more open than an Internet comment board for conversation. Panel discussions with representatives from student groups, administration, and faculty would allow a space for conversation and would celebrate the intelligence and responsibility of the students implicated by association with those perpetuating such rhetoric. When a university administration fails to respond openly and promptly to a now-public comment invalidating consent as a defining difference between consensual sex and rape, even one that was written for a private audience, it becomes complicit in a culture that refuses to examine the complexities of rape and consent and, as a result, perpetuates silence and fear. The university policies and procedures, as well as local laws and avenues for reporting and responding to sexual assault, should be reiterated publicly and frequently, not just as instigated by such an event.
Of course the weight of response cannot be expected exclusively from the administration. Not only do students need to be actively responsible for a greater community of respect and communication, but also to recognize that such language of disrespect is not limited to these well-publicized moment -- and that when they are put to public scrutiny, they reflect as much on those who are completely uninvolved as on those who directly formulated the rhetoric, as well as reflecting on the educational environment of the university. By examining the responses I’ve witnessed, I do not mean to suggest that a university is responsible for policing its students’ language or holds the exclusive responsibility for responding, but that ignoring the opportunity to perform outreach at such moments is a disservice to its students, particularly when the size of the community discourages them from organizing independently.
Samantha Carrick is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of English at the University of Southern California.
Once again, Richard Whitmire believes that he has the inside scoop on the American Association of University Women and other groups that won't join him in crying wolf on gender discrimination in college admissions. Apparently, we're keeping mum to keep our jobs or, as Whitmire puts it, "If women dominate colleges, what's the point of having an AAUW?"
Color us unimpressed with this attempt at mind reading. AAUW would be the first organization to turn off the lights, lock the doors, and throw a rockin' party if women and girls ever achieved true equity in education and the workforce. And while we celebrate the many gains that women and girls have made in education in recent decades, we also know that not all girls and boys are well served by our schools -- a fact that drives our work. These positions are not contradictory.
But are colleges really discriminating in their admissions processes? The numbers say no. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2003 and 2008 women were admitted to college at a rate that is, on average, two percentage points higher than that for men.
These facts don't look anything like an admissions-gap crisis to us, in part because, despite the fact that women now make up roughly 50 percent of the workforce, men continue to outearn them. Of course, AAUW's ambivalence toward the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' study on gender and college admissions goes much deeper than any statistic or priority list. Whitmire notes that some have questioned the intentions of this study, calling it a possible Title IX Trojan horse. On this we can agree.
That horse is filled with assumptions about what might cause this imaginary bias in college admissions. Title IX naysayers, who supported the study proposed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, believe college men aren't given enough athletic opportunities. Their crabbed logic goes like this: the potential study's results would support changing the rules governing Title IX in athletics. Then colleges could justify having more sports programs for men, who would presumably be lining up at the gate to take calculus just so they could play basketball. And women haven't proven they like sports, so fewer of them might apply and, therefore, fewer sports opportunities would be needed. Or something like that. Confused? So are we.
Some key facts from AAUW's report "Where the Girls Are: The Facts about Gender Equity in Education" also fly in the face of Whitmire's gloom and doom. A gender gap in college attendance is quite small among those entering college right out of high school, somewhere around half a percent. Yes, women have made more rapid gains than men in earning college degrees, but the disparity in demographics comes in later, among the older cohort of students, where women outnumber men by a ratio of almost two to one.
We wouldn't be the American Association of University Women if we weren't interested in college issues. That's why we continue to fight for college students and athletes alike and the protections afforded to them by Title IX, as well as to provide women with leadership programs to help them exceed during and after college. Sexism doesn't end once women get into college, and a college degree does not guarantee a discrimination-free career. As long as campuses and workplaces fall short of equity, AAUW will be there to cry foul -- and to do something about it.
Lisa M. Maatz
Lisa M. Maatz is director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I find myself feeling thankful for the many gifts I have as a working mother in academe: two healthy daughters who teach me lessons in patience and learning on a daily basis; a wonderful partner who supports my career and takes on his share of responsibilities; and a highly coveted tenure-track job at a prestigious liberal arts institution.
You could say that I am living the dream that my own mother had for me. While I was growing up in the 1970s, she told me that, with hard work and perseverance, I could be or do anything that I wanted. As we know, this was not true for her generation of young women; they were expected to marry young, stay home, or work a traditionally “female” job, if the family needed the extra money. Employers did not offer flex time, nursing rooms or telecommuting to help women succeed as working mothers. But women then could see what would make work environments better places for women, and by extension for their families, and after decades of demands, laws passed and workplaces changed.
So, here I am -- my generation’s version of a “supermom,” complete with an employer that offers a family-friendly support structure. My academic department mentors me and works around the hours I need to be home with my family. The provost hosts dinners where families are invited and child care is provided. My tenure clock was stopped for one year when my daughter was born, and the college has an arrangement with affordable day care close to campus.
Still, throughout higher education a gender gap persists, and like the generation before me, I can see a vision for an even better work environment for all parents. As most working mothers will tell you, when we look beyond the appearance of the so-called “supermom,” there are some serious doubts about how far the feminist movement actually went. I am acutely aware that every minute I spend researching and writing is a minute away from my young children. On the other hand, I fret that every faculty and committee meeting I miss because my kids are sick is an invisible strike on my tenure packet. I dash from meeting to teaching to grading to home. And I often ask myself: Is all of this scurrying worth it? What will I tell my own daughters when I talk to them about their professional options? Can they have it all working in higher education?
I contend that the answer is yes, but only if several changes take place.
1. Eliminate the university system’s glass ceiling: Though at least 50 percent of Ph.D. recipients in the United States are female, fewer women than men are employed in the top of the academic hierarchy. A 2008 report by the American Council of Education stated that only 37 percent of chief academic officers are female.
Women are also paid less and are less likely to gain tenure. AAUP Director of Research and Public Policy John Curtis reports in his article, “Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment,” that, “After four decades of efforts to fully involve women in the academic workforce, only 42% of all full-time faculty are women.” Fifty-five percent of all part-time faculty are female; fewer full-time women faculty have tenure (34.6 percent) than men (48.6 percent). What’s more, only 28 percent of full professors are female. As these women age, they will live on less and have fewer health care options than the male students with whom they studied in graduate school.
If a woman wants to have children, things will get even harder. A study that looked at a National Science Foundation survey of doctoral recipients found that women with children were 38 percent less likely than men to achieve tenure. At the same time, women with children are the majority in non-tenure-track and part-time positions, perhaps because women think the demands of raising young children preclude full-time employment. It is hardly surprising that female professors are less likely to have children than are male professors.
The reasons for these outcomes are many and complex. To understand the factors and to get at a real solution, we need to start a real and sustained conversation about discrimination, diversity and gender stereotypes in the profession. We must confront what is wrong and develop new industry guidelines for judging and tracking performance.
The benefactors of an equitable and flexible promotion system will be not only future female professors, but also future students and faculty of both genders. All will enjoy a more engaging and dynamic environment of higher learning, because the best minds — men and women alike — will have equal access to tenure and promotion.
2. Develop better family-leave policies as the standard in higher education. Whether a faculty member gives birth or adopts a child, it is a joyous but hectic occasion. It is only natural and humane for family life to come first. Yet family-leave policies vary widely among institutions of higher learning, and recent research notes that when leave policies do exist, they are often under-used. This is partly because policies can be confusing and women fear being “mommy-tracked.”
The Committee on the Status of Women in Political Science argues that parental leave should mirror any and all benefits given to people facing illness and injury and that “[t]here should be little disagreement about this leave being paid leave.” These policies would be available to both mothers and fathers, though women would perhaps benefit more as research shows that women on average bear a greater share of child rearing and household responsibilities.
In addition to extending the tenure clock, many institutions, reduce teaching loads and give a professor additional, or “modified” administrative duties such as extra student advising or conference planning, the semester after giving birth. But this particular policy — i.e., reduced teaching expectations and added service requirements — is not always effective. Anecdotal sources suggest that these policies might exist to prevent allegations that women are getting special treatment. What is less understood is that these duties can be burdensome and overwhelming during a period that is already exhausting and stressful. If they are absolutely needed, policies on modified duties need to be flexible, equitable and understood by senior administrators, as well as by deans, department chairs and faculty members to avoid mixed signals. If we want women to succeed in this profession, it is essential to continuously examine and re-examine these policies.
3. Offer on-site accessible and affordable child care. Few studies exist about child care availability to the professoriate. A 2008 report by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education states that after visiting six top universities, “One looming issue on all campuses we visited was child care — the lack of affordable, quality, on-campus child care. Many want it; few have it.” In addition, day care centers that are university supported may have long wait lists and are, therefore, not universally available to all faculty members at the institution.
I think this partly explains why many women decide to take lower-paying, more-flexible jobs in the short term. What we fail to recognize is that, in the long term, women will probably not make up those lost years in publishing and scholarship. Colleges and universities must ensure that all professors and staff in higher education know that their children are in good hands while they are working. To attract and maintain the top professors, universities must commit even more funds to high-quality and affordable day care on site.
As Mother’s Day approaches, working mothers are thankful for the progress that previous generations have made on our behalf. But we must challenge the status quo and address the gender gap in higher education. We owe it to the next generation of families.
Stephanie McNulty is assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Voice and Vote: Decentralization and Participation in Post-Fujimori Peru, forthcoming from Stanford University Press.