Monday, April 27, 2009

The Gender of Tenure

Berkeley Law Professor Mary Ann Mason has written a Chronicle article on some of tenure’s hard-wired biases. It is worth a read.

Based on research that Mason and her colleagues conducted at the Berkeley Law Center on Health, Economic & Family Security, she maintains that “women with children across all disciplines are twice as likely as men with children to work in part-time or non-tenure-track positions.” And this ghettoization, she says, isn’t just happenstance.

How fair, Mason asks, is a promotion system based on the career trajectories and lived experiences of a 19th century academic moment “when only men were professors and their stay-at-home wives cared for the children?”

Mason situates this argument within a larger discussion about the corporatization of academia and the ongoing threats to tenure. Highlighting a decline in the percentage of tenure or tenure-track faculty teaching undergraduates (vs. adjunct faculty with usually little job security or health benefits), Mason doesn’t think it is an arbitrary coincidence that the uptick in part-time/adjunct instruction has coincided with an increase in the number of women getting Ph.D’s. However, this isn’t the result of a sexist conspiracy hatched by some purposeful Patriarchy. According to Mason, it is the substantively gendered byproduct of a formally gender-neutral process.

The current ticking of the academic tenure clock pits child-rearing and professional promotion against one another. “Certainly the timing of tenure is terrible for women,” Mason writes. “Today, the average age at which women can expect to receive a Ph.D. is 34. That puts the five to seven years of racing the tenure clock squarely at the end of the normal reproductive cycle. Those are the ‘make or break’ years for female academics, in terms of both career and childbearing, not to mention the demands of raising young children. Difficult choices must be made.”

Mason doesn’t call for an end to tenure. She would push back against any talk of turning academics into another category of “part-time and contingent employees who could be hired or fired at the will and whim of the full-time corporate administrators.” Instead, she offers suggestions (including, say, extending tenure to excellent part-time faculty) that she believes might further level the tenure playing field and allow it to better foster the success of all faculty members.


The Steel Magnolia said...

This is an important issue. I've long noticed the high number of colleagues who don't have children (or spouses, quite often)in my field that is packed with women. This is fine if it's the result of individual choice, but it's probably not only about personal choice. I just decided that my work, as much as it's important to my identity, isn't the sum total of my life and I moved along with having children when I decided to. Of course, I found out that I was very expendable. Sigh.

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