Guest Commentary

Attitudes, not aptitudes: a local perspective on women in academia

The debate continues over the significance of gender differences in cognitive skills. Harvard President Lawrence Summers recently stoked the debate by publicly questioning female aptitudes for science and engineering. Many women academics, including myself, were outraged and viewed his remarks as an excuse for perpetuating the under-representation of female faculty within such disciplines. For us, the debate is not about aptitudes, but attitudes.

For the past 30 years, women have comprised up to 50 percent of Ph.D. graduates in many areas of science, especially the life sciences. Our aptitudes have been exemplified by our undergraduate GPAs, Graduate Record Examination scores and thesis research, all easily comparable to our male counterparts. Female Ph.D. students are highly visible within UA's Arizona Health Sciences Center. Many of the female faculty members and students I have spoken with have questioned their career decisions--and for good reasons. They note the scarcity of female faculty, the lack of role models and the gender disparities in treatment. Self-doubt and despondency are common over time.

Anecdotes of personal experiences abound. However, today's numbers speak even louder. Last year, I assessed the gender/ranking of Ph.D. faculty affiliated with the UA's Arizona Cancer Center. (Faculty members are hired through departments, but the center can influence hiring.) Overall, the findings reflect those nationally.

Of 108 Ph.D. faculty members, 32 percent were female. Of these, 63 percent were at the lowest ranking (assistant professor) versus only 21 percent of males. Differences in research-track versus tenure-track appointments were equally concerning. (Research-track faculty members are tenure ineligible and expected to fund all of their salary and benefits, usually from research grants.) For females, 37 percent were relegated to this less-prestigious track versus 7 percent of males. Thus, women are more likely to be in subordinate positions and under stress for financing their employment. Due to the national grant-funding crisis, our positions are in particular jeopardy.

President Summers also argued that our dilemma results from choosing children/family over a career. I would argue otherwise. Reams of data collected by the University of Michigan and other academic institutions demonstrate that to succeed, female faculty must prove to be more productive. For example, in blinded reviews of individuals with identical track records, those with traditional male names were more likely to be hired or receive higher performance evaluations. A woman with family responsibilities may face even greater difficulty and accept a lesser faculty status or terminate her career.

Based on my own experiences, and those shared by female colleagues, working harder is not the simple solution. Numerous, compounding influences exist; many are shared by working women.

The faculty "boys' network" remains strong. Less-competent males are given important tasks for promotion/tenure credibility. Sometimes, our issues come down to simply being ignored or derided during group meetings, where we are often viewed as the subordinate minority. Importantly, we are sidelined from vital research collaborations, input and acknowledgements.

Women hired because of, or with, a husband are not generally committed to equity struggles. (Spousal hiring is common in universities.) Our status is even more dire when subtracting out female spousal hires from the statistics.

Academic tenure guarantees a lifetime, state-budgeted salary (no matter the performance). Thus, tenure-track positions are limited in availability, and turnover is slow.

We must act now to begin to gain a "critical mass" of female faculty for our next generation. Under duress, Summers recently committed $25 million to the recruitment and retention of female/minority faculty members in science and engineering. At the country's top university, Princeton President Shirley Tilghman (a well-known Ph.D. biologist) had already proposed $10 million.

UA's President Peter Likins emphasizes the value of diversity as more female/minority students become "consumers." However, our administration and department chairs must demonstrate greater dedication, in both spirit and dollars. We, the public investors, should be outraged by the fate of female faculty. Our talented, young women deserve a brighter future.