28 percent of academic women say they’ve been passed over

About three in 10 female faculty and staff members say they’ve been passed over for a promotion or other opportunity for advancement at work because of their gender. That’s compared to 11 percent of male workers, according to a new Gallup survey of some 10,500 US academics at a two- and four-year institutions.

Some 33 percent of Hispanic women and 30 percent of Asian women surveyed said they’d been professionally passed over due to their gender, compared to 28 percent of white women (and 28 percent of women over all). Black women were the least likely group of female workers to say they’d lost out on a professional opportunity or advancement due to their gender, at 24 percent; Gallup attributes this more to a sample size issue than any major challenge what’s known about how gender and race intersect in the workplace.

The last time Gallup asked this question of working women in general, in 2013, some 15 percent of respondents said they’d been passed over professionally due to their gender. That’s a much smaller share of women than in the academic sample.

In this most recent survey, female faculty and staff members were also less likely than their male counterparts to strongly agree that they have the same opportunities for advancement at their institution as do other employees, at 23 percent of women versus 32 percent of men. Undercutting the earlier finding about Black women being least likely to report being held back due to gender, Black, Asian and Hispanic women were all less likely than white women to say that they’d had the same opportunities as other employees: compared to 25 percent of white women, just 15 percent of Black women, 16 percent of Asian women and 18 percent of Hispanic women generally agreed that their workplace were equitable in this sense.

Asked about pay, some 35 percent of female faculty and staff members agreed or generally agreed that they were paid fairly for the work they do, compared to 47 percent of men. These rates didn’t differ much by racial group.

Stephanie Marken, executive director of education research at Gallup, wrote in an analysis that the findings have particular implications for all COVID-19-era academic workers, for whom burnout is a real threat—and for women most of all.

Call to Action

“Working women have experienced higher levels of burnout than their male colleagues (even when controlling for having children at home), and women are leaving the workforce at a staggering rate compared with their male peers,” Marken said. “A series of policy changes are required to ensure employers give women a reason to stay—and to return.”

Among these recommended changes is access to remote and hybrid work environments and flexible work schedules “that provide all women, particularly working mothers, with a chance to balance work and personal responsibilities.” Yet even meaningful policy changes will amount to “window dressing” if workplaces are otherwise inequitable and appear to favor men, Marken said.

“The 28 percent of women working in higher education who feel they have been passed over because of their gender is a call to action for higher ed institutions that have been silent on pay and advancement equity,” Marken said. “There are many factors pushing women from the workforce—the promise of an inclusive workplace is an important way to pull them back toward it.”

Marken said in an interview that while the top-line three-in-10-women finding is concerning its own, many more women have probably seen or know of female colleagues passed up for opportunities based on gender. Some women also may have been passed up for opportunities or promotions multiple times, even at different institutions, with cumulative effects on their career arcs and perceptions the academic workplace, she said.

All this “has a huge impact on the culture and the long-term challenges that we’ll have in creating an equitable workplace,” Marken continued. “So much of the conversation nationally about women in the workplace is, ‘How do you create a really flexible work schedule? How do you give working mothers an opportunity to balance their personal and professional lives given the impact of the pandemic?’ And those are all important conversations—I don’t want to diminish them. But if the cultures they were already within were always inequitable places, that is not going to be a culture for which people make great sacrifices to return.”

What will inspire people to return to or stay in an academic workplace? Marken suggested “transparency around things like pay and opportunities so that people don’t have to wonder if they’re at an organization in which their gender will become a barrier to advancement and opportunity.”

On pay transparency, one recent study on that subject and the productivity of 100,000 US academics found that the gender pay gap tended to shrink when institutions adopted pay-transparency measures. The same study suggests that the link between performance and pay becomes weaker as transparency increases, but that this may be an important trade-off.

The new survey asked respondents to describe their experiences in detail or otherwise show proof of being passed over based on gender, so these findings are of course open to some interpretation. But numerous studies of different kinds have looked into gender bias in promotions in academe, and many support the experiences that women reported to Gallup. A 2021 qualitative study of 52 women at 16 medical schools in the US found that participants experienced academic promotion and tenure processes to be “poorly defined and inconsistently executed” and lacking recognition of or reward for women’s measurable accomplishments, as compared to men’s.

Leah Hakkola, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Maine, recently published a study in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education Exploring how faculty search chairs’ status and social identities impacted interpersonal committee dynamics and decisions about hiring diverse candidates. Citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Hakkola said Wednesday that the US professoriate remains largely homogeneous, at 53 percent white men, 27 percent white women, 10 percent men of color combined and 5 percent women of color. Hakkola said this overrepresentation of white men becomes even more obvious when examining the faculty by rank, with white men being especially concentrated in senior faculty positions.

In her own study, Hakkola found that search committees—regardless of whom the actual chair was—tended to adopt or defer to traditional faculty hierarchies, and that this resulted in the perpetuation of the “status quo” with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion . Hakkola also found that search chairs who didn’t center DEI in their process expected other institutional actors, not themselves, to ensure a fair process.

“Ultimately, faculty status aided in supporting biased hiring practices,” she said. “A more centralized and transparent accountability system needs to be operationalized in order to fracture the current institutional power structure that implicitly supports these outcomes.”

Asked if these findings would apply to tenure and promotion committees, Hakkola said that faculty review committees don’t have the same job as hiring committees, but that their functions—and their quirks—certainly overlap.

Both are “subjective and variable, and review criteria can often be vague, inviting implicit biases to seep in,” she said. “The review process is rife with deeply embedded assumptions and beliefs about what it means to be a collegial colleague, a productive scholar and an excellent instructor.”

Beyond bias, many studies have documented how women and people of color outperform their white male colleagues in terms of internal service work, even though this service work isn’t rewarded like research is in the tenure and promotion process. Victor Borden, professor of higher education and student affairs at Indiana University at Bloomington, co-wrote one such study in 2017, finding large, significant differences in the service loads of women versus men, even when controlling for various “cultural” factors within departments .

Borden said the Gallup findings paralleled his own in that “generally, women faculty are relied on for the more mundane and less glorious service activities required to keep program running,” such as program-, school- or campus-level service. He took an issue, however, with Gallup’s comparison of promotion processes within academe to outside, as “there is no other promotion process quite like tenure or promotion [in academe]so making a comparison to promotion in the corporate world does not ring well for me.”

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