I apparently attended the same session at the ASA conference as Scott Jaschik yesterday, one on Gender and Work in the Academy. He must have been the guy with press badge who couldn’t wait to fact-check his notes during the Q&A.
The first presenter, Kate Weisshaar from Stanford University, started the session off with a bang with her presentation looking at the glass ceiling in academia, asking whether it was productivity that explained women’s under-representation among the ranks of the tenured (or attrition to lower-ranked programs or out of academia all together). A summary of her findings – and a bit of detail about the session and the session organizer’s response to her presentation – appeared in Inside Higher Ed today.
Of course I understand that the sexy approach to this topic, and one that turns heads and gets website clicks, is to pose the question as a simple one: Is it productivity or sexism that holds women back? But the fact is, it’s not that simple (Sorry, Émile).
(I want pause to note that Weisshaar was impressive. She had a creative research design and showed tremendous attention to detail. One of the reasons that her talk inspired Jaschik and others was because she presented her findings clearly and persuasively and demonstrated a real facility with the relevant literature and methods.)
I was left with a nagging sense that Weisshaar had a particular view – whether related to her program or her status as a student or just being embedded in a particular group of mentors/peers in her department – that caused her to overlook an important additional factor. When I asked her about the potential importance of other mechanisms (e.g., women not going up for tenure or opting to move to a lower-status school for various reasons), she quickly brushed such explanations aside. While she hadn’t interviewed anyone or gotten access to actual tenure attempts or decisions, she was fairly confident that a trajectory that had someone moving from an elite school as an assistant professor to a less-elite school as an associate (or, even as an assistant) professor, or dropping out of academia, a few years later must signal not getting tenure.
The thing is, Mary Ann Mason – who did interview people – found other explanations could also contribute to such a trajectory. For example, a lower percentage of women who begin in tenure-track positions go up for tenure than men and women are more likely to succumb to the forces of the two-body problem by moving in their early career (when they might decide that family formation is a priority) to reunite with their partners than men are. Some might think that this isn’t an issue for Weisshaar’s argument because it’s only unproductive women, perhaps those who have gotten a signal from their department, who decide to make decisions like these. But it’s not! It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was talking about the confidence gap and how a woman is likely to feel like she needs to be even more productive than a man in any position (like, perhaps, an assistant professor going up for tenure) to infer or demonstrate similar levels of ability. Sociological research on double-standards suggests the same. It’s not only that outsiders (the sexist folks in the IHE dichotomy) have double-standards for women, women themselves tend to as well. My own work on impostorism suggests this too. Folks who feel like frauds expend a lot of emotional energy in day to day situations where they fear being discovered as incompetent and sometimes opt to enter situations where they experience fewer feelings of fraudulence. For all kinds of reasons, not everyone who starts as an assistant professor gets to that tenure decision.
All this isn’t to diminish the importance of Weisshaar’s work. Her results could also show – even if it’s not only departments and institutions that are making these decisions, but women faculty as well – that similar levels of productivity are viewed differently depending on whether it comes from a man or a woman. That’s still very important to realize. However, I want to argue that the (IHE) question – “productivity or sexism” – is missing a vitally important piece of the puzzle. It’s one that doesn’t lend itself as well to a soundbite and that is more difficult to address, but one that I would argue is very real. Women, for myriad reasons, are more likely to exit those tenure-track jobs pre-tenure than men and we need to begin to think about what we can do to address this leak in the pipeline. Weisshaar’s work is a step toward enhancing such conversations, letting us set aside the productivity question to move on to other things, but I can’t help but think that there is more to the story. In the academic world I live in, women leave even good jobs pre-tenure for all kinds of reasons. As inconceivable as that might be to some graduate students who would give anything to get such a position, we absolutely must account for these “choices” while doing research in this area.