Diversity in Academe 2013

Lady Academe and Labor-Market Segmentation

The narrative of women's success via higher education rests on a house of cards

Dave Cutler for the Chronicle

October 29, 2012

If you've paid any attention to reports of hyperexploitation in Asian manufacturing, you'll have noticed that many of the industries under scrutiny preferentially hire women. Not Rosie the Riveter, either. Rosie's indelible image borrowed tropes of strength from union iconography that typically evoked rough blue-collar masculinity, sleeves rolled up to show her guns. She was loud, rude, mature, fun-loving—Lucille Ball on the assembly line.

By contrast, today's female global manufacturing work force is cowed, silent, compliant, and stressed to the limit. On and off the line, the disproportionately female employees of Asian manufacturing giants are commonly young and transient, employed for five or six years, then kicked back to the provinces or urban slums. The employers—and their generally male network of managers—lock these women into dormitories, herd them into fake unions, and imprison them with debt, sometimes debt taken on by their families.

Scholars of globalization generally attribute a worldwide feminization of the labor force to neoliberal trade policy and a political assault on worker rights. In short: As work anywhere—on the line, behind a counter, at a desk—becomes more unpleasant, less well rewarded, and less dignified, the more likely you are to see men leaving and women entering the field. In the largely authoritarian societies where this happens, some of the departing male workers are absorbed into such expanding realms as the police, military, corrections, and management.

Men working in feminized fields are generally disadvantaged with respect to other male workers, but often retain modest advantages over the female majority in their workplace. They often serve on lower rungs of management as a gendered link to the masculine upper echelons.

The role of gender in the global economy isn't represented particularly well by old-school "pipeline" theories of women entering particular industries, whether it's manufacturing, medicine, or college teaching. The pipeline analogy suggests that if women enter a field in equal or greater numbers to men, they will somehow automatically be "piped" into equal or greater positions of power, influence, and compensation.

The truth is a little different. Under political arrangements featuring a rhetoric of equality, women may flood into previously male-dominated fields of endeavor, but when they do, there's no magical inevitability to improved circumstances. Frequently gender organizes the segmentation of the work forces that women are entering: Women take orders on the line and men surveil them from offices; women serve as nurses and office staff while men serve as doctors; women serve as general practitioners but not specialists; as accountants but not managers; as teachers but less commonly as principals.

Gendered workplace segmentation is by no means limited to modestly educated Chinese manufacturing labor. American college campuses exhibit a markedly gendered distribution of power, prestige, and pay closely related to the feminization of certain disciplines, the assignment of women to contingent positions, and the feminization of both teaching and noncompensated service. (Highly compensated service in upper administration, by contrast, has masculinized, à la 30 Rock's parody of the Six Sigma pillars of leadership culture: "teamwork, insight, brutality, male enhancement, handshakefulness, and play-hard."

This perspective complicates the narrative of women's reversal of the campus gender gap that has unfolded since the 1980s, when women started earning more bachelor's degrees. Shortly after, women were earning the majority of master's degrees, and today they earn more doctorates. Among African-Americans, twice as many women as men hold every kind of advanced degree, from associate on up. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, depending on their race, women earn 55 to 66 percent of B.A.'s, 54 to 71 percent of M.A.'s, and 51 to 65 percent of doctoral and other advanced degrees.

The more a discipline has been permatemped since the 1980s, the more women it has hired.

Since about 2010, those educational attainments have helped a distinct category of American women—those who live in urban centers, are childless, unmarried, and under 30—to outearn male counterparts, yielding, from bastions of the pipeline theory, "At last!" coverage on TV news broadcasts, Time, and The New York Times. In that year, Hanna Rosin's widely celebrated piece in The Atlantic made much of the fact that slightly more women than men had become household "breadwinners" and were for the first time a slight majority of Americans in the ranks of management.

One convenient way of looking at that data is cheerleading for higher education. Certainly many uncritical editorialists and administrators have done so.

Another, chillier way of looking at the numbers is this: Women still have to get a lot of education to outearn men who don't. Women are more often breadwinners because they are far more often the single parent in single-parent households.

The narrative of women's success via higher education rests on a house of cards. Sure, there are more women in business administration, but they are far more common in the dead-end administrative and supervisory ranks of lower management. At graduation, women with new business B.A.'s earned around $15,000 less than men with the same degree. Only about a third of M.B.A.'s are awarded to women, and a longitudinal study of University of Chicago M.B.A. holders found that men with the degree earned 40 percent more than women 10 years later.

Even the rosiest of these fantasy tales of young metropolitan women's income advantage evaporates around age 30, as large numbers of the most educated women in the cohort start to have children. As Mimi Abramovitz and other women in the labor movement have long pointed out, the neoliberal state has withdrawn itself from caregiving roles since 1980, throwing working women outside of the most elite circumstances into "choices" that inevitably penalize their earning power.

In the United States, rearing children represents a significant earnings penalty that can't be separated from social policies such as the availability of preschool, day care, and parental leave, or from the legal and political climates affecting the power of workers to achieve reasonable working hours, family-friendly flexibility, and so on.

Rather than a higher-education-fueled income advantage, women—particularly women with children—typically experience a significantly lower return on their higher-ed investment than men. With the same degrees in law or medicine, decade after decade, many women "choose" (but not exactly freely) those lower-paying "mommy tracks" (pediatrics, probate law) that exchange greater flexibility for lower pay. At the Yale School of Management, the economists Keith Chen and Judith Chevalier recently calculated that most female physicians, having "chosen" lower-paying specialties and positions, would have a higher return on their education investment if they'd become physicians' assistants instead of medical doctors.

The workplace feminizations that we see in the United States, in other words, are a bit more sophisticated and a tad more complicated than they are in some overseas locations. But not much more. Accounting for segmentation is hardly rocket science. All medical doctors aren't feminized, just those in primary care. Women enter "management" but are still clustered in the ladies' lounge of positions that let you go home to your kids in your 30s and 40s. The same factors—reduced support for women, children, and family life—condition the unfree choices of women who become teachers rather than engineers, nurses rather than firefighters, and so on.

Falsely treating those sharply limited selections as entirely personal, private decisions, mainstream commentary somehow manages to find the concentration of women in the lowest-paid workplaces and segments of workplaces simultaneously a complete mystery and an inevitably fair result of "the market."

Of course, here in the well-meaning not-for-profit sector of American higher ed, the last bastion of the women's movement, women are much better off, right? With all of the brilliant feminists enjoying the security of tenure, we've certainly cracked the not-so-challenging code of labor-market segmentation. Yes?

Uh, no. Not really.

Across higher-education disciplines, women tend to be overrepresented in the poorest-paid fields and in the poorest-paid segments within fields. Generally speaking, if the field pays someone with a doctorate less than a bartender, there's going to be a bunch of women in that discipline. If the field pays per-course wages of $2,000 to adjunct labor, you're a lot more likely to find women than in the fields where per-course wages are $20,000. According to the National Education Association: At high-paying doctoral institutions—where the percentage of contingent labor is lowest—male faculty outnumber female two to one. But at low-paying community colleges, where the percentage of contingent appointments is highest, voilà! Women suddenly outnumber men two to one. Similar correlations exist by discipline. In general, the more a discipline has been permatemped since the 1980s, the more women it has hired.

Because of the widespread assignment of female faculty to permanently contingent appointments, many faculty women with doctorates would have a higher return on their education investment if they had taken associate degrees from the colleges where they're faculty and become teacher's aides instead (earning a median wage of $23,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

It is easy enough to find departments, across disciplines and institution types, in which the majority of faculty are women on contingent appointment earning as little as a quarter of the paycheck of the mostly male tenured minority. Not so easy to find it the other way around, though.

Because of the widespread normalization and feminization of contingency, the segmentation of the academic labor market is far worse than in management, law, and clinical medicine. The gap between return on education investment is commonly worse for academic women than for women in other professions.

What's mainstream academic feminism's response to this situation? A cry for "comparable worth" evaluation of paychecks across disciplines, so that faculty positions with similar responsibilities, qualifications, and skill sets are similarly paid? No, most academic feminism subscribes to a version of the pipeline thesis.

Well, is academic feminism at least burning with outraged solidarity at all of the women shunted disproportionately into contingent positions? Again, no: Most female contingent-faculty leaders I know are bitter at the hilariously narrow version of women's solidarity practiced by tenured feminists. "Why should I make common cause with beaker cleaners?" one lecturer quoted a tenured female scientist as saying when asked to support fair evaluation for contract renewal of Ph.D.-holding female lecturers on her campus. Female lecturers teaching lower-division required courses are commonly the targets of sexist evaluation by students and experience discriminatory employment outcomes as a result. According to many female lecturers, all too often the tenured feminists have nothing to say. At nearly every college I've ever visited, the women's faculty group was a more comfortable home for female administrators than for female faculty serving contingently.

In some ways, of course, the influx of women into higher education is a feminist achievement to be celebrated. It is obviously better to have lots of women in college rather than, say, prison. But in the steadily more gendered exploitation of graduate assistants, undergraduate workers, outsourcing, debt peonage, and so on, higher education is deserving of critical scrutiny.

In an increasingly authoritarian national, corporate, and educational culture—producing ever more feminized workplace cultures and ever more masculinized leadership cultures—what sort of leadership should we ask from academic feminists?

On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with the fact that many academic feminists hope to place more women in campus administration. It is common for organizational-sociology studies to find that more women in senior administration tends to have a modest impact on gender equity, particularly in terms of hiring more female assistant professors.

On the other hand, it may be even more urgent to remedy the low involvement of academic feminists in AAUP, the labor movement, academic unionism, and solidarity movements with female faculty (not to mention female staff). While women in academic leadership positions have on balance done little for women in super-exploited segments of academic labor, many studies (most notably the rigorous 2008 contribution by Ann Mari May, Elizabeth A. Moorhouse, and Jennifer A. Bossard) have found that unionization has a significant impact on gender equity both within and across disciplines, in both contingent and tenure-track ranks.

The academy is one of the few places where an other-than-bourgeois feminism survives and, in some places, thrives. The best traditions of intersectional analysis and of socialist, materialist, working-class, anarchist, and radical feminisms live in academe and through it. But as in the sociologist Johanna Brenner's apt characterization of the labor movement itself, that bigger-picture feminism is today a "survivor project," a figure of trauma and mourning, and not generally a vital mode of opposition and change.

I believe in academic feminism. I think it will have more impact on campus when it does more to articulate and remedy the relationship between the most and least privileged women in its own steadily more feminized workplace.

Marc Bousquet is director of college writing and an associate professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008).