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2018-04-13 / News

What Women Really Think of Their Shifting Status in Higher Education

BY CARA AUNGST
Regional Contributor

It was fitting that when I started writing this article, I was reading Dorothy Sayers’ “Gaudy Night,” a mystery set in a women’s college at Oxford in the 1930s. Woven through Sayers’ intricate mystery is the theme of women in academe, their personal lives — or lack thereof — and the challenges of being a great woman in a sometimes mediocre world.

Sayers spoke of women in education from her perspective as an early 20th century feminist. “...The rule seemed to be that a great woman must either die unwed, or find a still greater man to marry her. And that limited the great woman’s choice considerably, since, though the world of course abounded in great men, it contained a very much larger number of middling and commonplace men. The great man, on the other hand, could marry where he liked, not being restricted to great women.” It made me wonder what she would think of the status of women in education today.

To answer Sayers: it’s complicated. At a macro level, the statistics are not great. A research team at University of California at Berkeley spent 10 years studying why women did not make it to the top of the ivory tower after years of trying. The answer turned out to be babies. Women professors tended to pay a ‘baby tax’ over the course of their careers. And what may cause a slight disadvantage for their male counterparts could often be a career killer for women in the same role. In fact, they found that women in high faculty ranks were there at a steep personal price: they were far less likely to be married with children than their male counterparts. It was the early years that seemed to matter the most. When compared, women who become mothers as graduate students or postdoctoral fellows were two times more likely to turn away from advancement than their male counterparts.

And the women who do push forward to achieve tenure outperform their male counterparts, but often to their detriment. While women are balancing their homes, families and personal lives, they also tend to take care of their academic family in the same way, taking on a disproportionate work load. It’s unclear if it’s in an effort to achieve greater equality within academe, or if it’s just the drive to get it all done and a need to be able to say, “No.” In the article Relying on Women, not Rewarding Them on InsideHigherEd.com, Sociology professor Joya Misra says, “It may seem like women simply need to become more protective of their research time, as men are, but they face grave consequences if they are not perceived as team players, while men usually don’t.”

To compound the issues of balancing personal life with professional life and the disparity of workload, compensation has gone up little within the past 15 years. In 2001, women in higher ed administration earned 77 cents on the dollar in comparison to their male counterparts. By 2016, this number had only crept up to 80 cents on the dollar. Additionally, less than 30 percent of all top executive higher education positions are held by women.

While the macro-level research seems discouraging, things are much different at the ground floor. Beverly Romberger, PhD, can attest to that. She has taught at Susquehanna University for 30 years as a tenured professor of Communications. “I love my job,” she says. “I know you must hear a lot of people say that, but I genuinely do. I am paid to keep learning. I get to listen to students – their concerns and their ideas. I have the ideal job.” She saw the disparity between working mothers and fathers in the 1980s, but has seen a dramatic shift in more recent years. “It used to be that there was no discussion of personal life at workplace sessions, but now I have male coworkers who say they can’t meet a certain day because they are caring for their children that day.”

She chaired the tenure and promotion board for 15 years and can personally attest that gender played no role in their hiring or compensation decisions. “It’s based on criteria. First, it’s how well a person teaches. Secondly, it’s their scholarship. Are they active scholars and/or artists? Would other colleagues in their fields respect their scholarship? Finally, it’s their service. Are they putting in time to assisting their school and their department’s mission? Are they advising students, or just vanishing after class? That’s what determines tenure and promotion at Susquehanna.”

Decades ago, her female provost said that when she imagines the female faculty at home, she pictures the professor standing in front of the stove, stirring a pot, lecture notes scattered on the counter, a baby playing at her feet – a caretaker for everyone in her life.

She does agree that women tend to take on a high workload. “I am not sure if it’s a gender difference, but I find that students tend to go to a woman professor about problems, especially if it’s problems with a male professor. Women have a sense of wanting to be there for students. It creates stress levels by trying to do it all.”

“The criteria for academe hasn’t changed,” Romberger says. “You have to know your own goals, do the research and work really hard. Sometimes that means sacrificing your personal life, but the payoff is tenure and promotion.”

Maria Yoder, MSN, RN, CNE, teaches at Penn State’s college of nursing. In addition to her class load and starting her doctorate, she balances life with her husband, a self-employed farmer, and their four school-aged children. She has chosen not to be on a tenure track because it works best for family. “For me, teaching at Penn State is a great fit for the rest of my life. My husband is self- employed, so the health insurance and retirement benefits are something that really benefit our family and are the best that I’ve ever had in my career. I could make more money working full-time as a nurse, but my schedule is better than I would ever get working in practice. I’m off on weekends and holidays and have the summer off with my kids. I have a lot of flexibility, which is really great for this stage.”

The nursing profession still tends to be primarily female — approximately 90 percent of all nurses are women — so her college features mainly female leaders, with only a handful of male faculty. So, while most other branches of academe are having discussions about women in leadership, her department talks about ways to attract and retain men.

Currently, her biggest challenge is finding the time to obtain a doctoral degree. “Taking classes in addition to working full-time and being with my family feels like a daunting task,” she says. “Because I love what I do and it’s a great fit for my family, I believe it’s worth making an attempt.”

She also puts a different spin on “the baby tax,” hypothesizing whether it’s a tax at all, but the freedom for women to choose their own work/life balance. “I’m not personally interested in pursuing a tenure-track position once I have a doctorate. If I didn’t have young children, it might be a possibility, but I know my own limits and that’s more stress and pressure than I personally want to take on. I believe women can have it all, but I’ve never regretted any of my decisions to put my family first. It is certainly altering my career, but I don’t think it’s because society treats me unfairly because I’m a woman. I see it as a personal choice, not a choice that’s been dictated by society. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, I just choose not to.” .

Cara Aungst is a writer and editor living in Belleville with her husband and five kids. You can find her work in Common Ground Magazine, HappyValley.com and the Centre Daily Times.

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