Career Pipeline (a guest commentary by Katherine Sender)

Katherine Sender, the associate dean of graduate studies and an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, writes:

At a recent meeting of Penn faculty members from across the university, the provost spoke with concern about “the leaky pipeline,” where large numbers of women and minority faculty drop out of the career track as they move towards senior positions. Then followed our president, announcing that Penn was moving from a position of excellence to eminence—in the 21st century university even excellence isn’t good enough anymore. I was struck by the juxtaposition. Was there a relationship between this constant push to greater levels of distinction and the leaky pipeline?

What does this leaky pipeline look like at Penn? A Gender Equity Report in 2007 found that women made up 28 percent of all faculty members. How this plays out across rank is striking: Women made up 42 percent of assistant professors, 30 percent of associate professors, and only 18 percent of full professors. This is not a case of more women coming up through the ranks because the proportion of standing women faculty members had increased by only 4 percent since 1999.

The leaky pipeline for racial minorities is as dramatic. A Minority Equity Report of 2007 found that minorities made up 17 percent of Penn’s faculty. People of color made up 27 percent of assistant professors, 17 percent of associate professors, and only 9 percent of full professors. We may take heart that the proportion of minority faculty has almost doubled since 1999, but of the current 17 percent of minority faculty members, 11 percent are Asian, meaning that the proportions of African American and Latino/a faculty are very small indeed.

Reliable career-track information on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender faculty members is impossible to come by, but my sense is that the tenure and promotion process isn’t especially kind to this group either. Expressly queer faculty — politically irascible, non-heteronormative and even non-homonormative academics — are likely to have an especially hard time.

I’m using Penn’s figures as an example, but Penn isn’t especially bad — or good — compared with its peers. I also know that some people are leaving academic careers for good, self-chosen, life-affirming reasons. But it’s worrisome that these departures are differentially distributed across gender, race, and probably sexuality. The pipeline isn’t leaking, it’s pouring.

At a recent gender-studies conference here at Penn, the leaky pipeline was addressed as a family issue: The tenure clock is hostile to women who want to have children. Indeed, nationally, women with children are half as likely to get tenure as women without. But this is only part of the problem. If it were only a fertility issue, minority men would be doing just fine.

The tenure and promotion process isn’t only inhumane for women who want and have children, it’s inhumane for everyone. Jerry Jacobs, a sociologist here at Penn, found in 2004 that both women and men faculty members work more than 50 hours per week irrespective of rank, and about a third of them work more than 60 hours per week. The expectation of increased working hours is only likely to grow. The MLA found in 2006 that not only research universities but all academic institutions have greatly increased their expectations of tenure-track faculty members to publish articles and books towards their tenure cases without reducing their teaching hours.

While expectations of productivity have increased, so too has the shift to employing more part-time faculty: In the United States, only a third of facultymembers  are now full-time tenured or tenure track, down from 55 percent in 1970. This puts increasing pressure on those full-timers to do additional service work — work that more often falls to women and  that gets little credit in terms of promotions and merit pay. As we are increasingly asked to account for our productivity, I wonder how much of the intellectual and pastoral labor more often done by female and minority faculty members are recognized as productive?

These increased pressures are on everybody, but they are experienced unequally by women and minority facultymembers because of how resources are differently distributed:

Pay: In the United States, women faculty members earn 85 cents to every male dollar, this rate goes down at the higher ranks. [Couldn’t find comparable figs for minority faculty.]

Time: Women faculty members are much more likely to be partnered with another full-time worker and are more likely to be partnered with another academic – - i.e. someone also working long hours. In heterosexual couples, women are much more likely to carry more responsibilities for childcare and domestic duties.

Emotional resources: Women and minority faculty members are less likely to feel confident about their performance. Educational research suggests that girls consistently rank their sense of their own abilities much lower than do men, even though they perform better in assessments. Students of color constantly have to work against teachers’ expectations of low achievement.

Recognition: Who has a voice in the university and what are they allowed to say? Mark Anthony Neal has mentioned the chastisement of faculty members who dare to “think while Black.” Tenure and promotion discourage speaking while Black, female, and gay.

The demands on all academics escalate, but different groups have varying access to resources that make those demands bearable. This is not only an issue of pressures on junior faculty members to produce for their tenure file. Even those at the top of the ladder continue to work extraordinarily hard.

Senior faculty members and administrators need to recognize that few of their group would have met the standards currently set for tenure and promotion. They need to publicly scale back on expectations of quantity and focus more on quality. This is not only for the well-being of their junior colleagues; it is also likely to foster more careful, intellectually rigorous research. They also need to think imaginatively about different kinds of productivity than written scholarship in a changing multimedia world where monograph contracts are harder to score.

But we also need to consider our own complicity. In my research, I read about a lot of scholarly concern about how reality television shows cultivate the ideal self-governing neoliberal citizen — someone who is adaptable, mobile, always a bit anxious, self-monitoring, and willing to work harder not only to get ahead but to stay in place. While we communication scholars worry about the effects of reality TV on its audiences, we need to look for the beam in our own eye: Academics are the most obligingly self-governing citizens of all. We can work whenever we want as long as we work all the time.

Like many universities, corporations, and governments, Penn has adopted a strategy of “sustainability.” I agree that huge communities like universities have a responsibility to environmental issues. But sustainability can’t only be a matter for nations and institutions — we also have to think about sustainability at a human level. The demand for constant growth means that we extract more and more energy from a limited resource. How do the developing nations in the university world — women, men of color, and part-timers — unequally bear the brunt of overtaxed resources? And looking forward, what kind of labor legacy are we leaving for the generation of scholars we are nurturing into the profession?

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. But I don’t want to do only my job. We need to model livable lives for our students. We need to do more than just work, and not only if we want a family. We need to consider the law of diminishing returns and the possibility that creativity comes from working less. We need to make space for political and community engagements that feed our intellectual work in other ways. We need to think about why universities matter not only for the world but for the people working within them.

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