Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Balance, Schmalance and Why the Ivory Tower is not really a Tower...

Someone recently forwarded me an article from the New York Times about women professors at MIT:see  Gains, Drawbacks for Women Professors. And almost immediately I started noticing that everyone and their sister was sharing it on Facebook and on their blogs, so of course now I want to comment too. 

Some have suggested that this story uncovers a broad, general problem in academia as a whole: that women professors everywhere are feeling this kind of bias. Indeed, the article suggests that MIT is a "national model for addressing gender inequity" on campuses.

I have to say, calling MIT a model in this area is rather a stretch.  MIT's questions about women's participation have come after other institutions have looked at and attempted to fix structural issues.   Note, for example, Duke University's Women's Initiative. There, women faculty noted (in 2003, four years after MIT's initial report uncovering disparities among faculty salaries, office space and percentage of faculty, and only a year after MIT completed its initial study of women at its engineering school) that women's salaries had parity with men's salaries, relative to research, experience in the field, and rank.   On that point, Duke and other schools (including both the institutions for which I have worked) did better than MIT at the point when MIT was just beginning to uncover the difficulties mentioned in the article.

More troubling in the Duke report, is that women continue to have lower numbers of people at rank (associate and full professor).  This is, indeed a nationwide trend that was found at MIT as well.  My own university sees those same kinds of numbers (though it has relatively more women at associate professor level than Duke appears to have had in that report).  The presumption is that reaching full professor necessarily has fewer women because the people who could make full professor now came to the university at a time when the ratios between men and women were much more disparate. The big question for schools now will be how to give women the resources they need to receive tenure and promotion.  Office space, lab space, time for writing, are all at issue and MIT is correct to focus on that. 

So it would seem that there are a couple of factors to consider in all this.  One is the institutional culture of the school and the ways specific schools have to respond to the unique difficulties women at those institutions experience.  It does not really surprise me that MIT should have found such radical disparities between male and female faculty in the late 90s, after many other schools had already noted such things and worked to correct them.  MIT's focus on scientific and technological fields, fields that have difficulty retaining women even in private sector jobs, would make the gender question an issue along different lines than it would be at other institutions. 

Consider for example, the unique gender questions I had when I went to teach at an all-male school: teaching all male students was sometimes a real difficulty, and posed concerns that MIT faculty would not likely have encountered in 1999 when they did their survey.  On the other hand, my colleagues were terrific and close knit, partly because the school was in a small town.  This was also a school that had/has one of the best maternity leave policies in the country, something that spurs envy among friends at other institutions.  The maternity leave policy did not magically appear, of course; it took a lot of hard work by a lot of good people (men and women both) but it was created by, and itself created, an overall distinctive atmosphere from the one evidenced at MIT.

But the second consideration is cultural awareness of women as a whole, and this is what MIT faculty commentators get exactly right:  “The more fundamental issues are societal,” Professor Kastner said, “and M.I.T. can’t solve them on its own.”  The so-called Ivory Tower is, in fact, affected by so-called "real life."

I don't know if it is more fundamental, but the whole question of balance is one that women ask, academic or not.   For example, it does seem ubiquitous that a woman is always asked about work/life balance, as the MIT professors discuss in the article.  Consider my own blog: what is it supposedly about, but a balance between work and motherhood?  Have I implicitly complied with patriarchal structures by even considering the question?  Another group of women say that this is just the problem that working mothers have: they are, de facto, the ones who have to think about child care and home economics alongside work and are therefore the ones who need to find that mythical balance.

But as I have said in other posts, I do think that "balance" is a myth: having to negotiate parenthood and work is part of life itself and places of work need to recognize this.  Work does not exist for its own sake; it is part of community building as a whole.  I do not think it is the case that women have to do this more than men, I just think men are the ones who have had to be more silent about it and who also think about that balance in different ways.  Real life is work and family combined; how we go about doing that in good ways is something that we all (including our places of work) need to consider.


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  2. Ah, yes, the supposed "balance" question. I agree that basically there is none, and that both work and family are life and for building the community. Both are also opportunities to serve God - to transform work into something more supernatural, as it were.

    It makes sense to me that women are the ones always asking these questions as they navigate the practical world of trying to combine work and kids. But I sometimes wonder at men NOT asking that same question (at least, not as much - I have several excellent male classmates who have been full-time caretakers while doing their doctoral program and I have heard them reflect on it).

    My husband DOES think about the work/family stuff. After he was "invited" (read, "required to attend") to a schmoozing dinner with university trustees on Wednesday night after having left for work before 7:00 a.m., he decided he would take all of Thursday off. He missed his family. He took the girls to the magician/dentist show. He took me to lunch (my parents watched the kids). He did a little work in the afternoon and after the kids were asleep.

    Men, sometimes even good Christian men, implicitly comply with patriarchal structures that somehow absolve them of parenting/homemaking duties. My husband, on the other hand, is constantly frustrated with the practices of a university (especially a seminary) that sees faculty members as isolated individuals without family responsibilities and concerns.

  3. Theologian Mom - Yup. I think we've seriously forgotten what it means to be a human recently.