reader request: gender inequality in academic service work


Happy Earth Day! Happy March for Science Day! Today’s Earth day is a bit grim, what with the climate and science being under various forms of attack. Still, as we march and protest and fight back, we must also attend to our own internal problems. Science may not be partisan (or may not have always been partisan), but it’s always been political, which is to say it’s always been about power, who has it, who wields it, what ends it serves, and who gains. One of the more commonplace, everyday kinds of inequality produced by and through science is gender inequality within the academic workplace. For example, a recent study in Research in Higher Education (covered by Bustle here) finds that “women faculty perform significantly more service than men, controlling for rank, race/ethnicity, and field or department” and that this service burden is driven primarily by internal service (to the department or university). A reader asked if scatterplot might do a thread on possible solution to this gendered inequality:

Since this article has been making the rounds, it would be nice to hear about potential solutions above and beyond individual women faculty saying “no.” Do we force unwilling faculty members to do important service functions–even if that means it’s half-assed work that hurts students and other faculty?

I don’t have any great ideas, but I was hoping that some of you all might! My quick thoughts are below the cut, and please add your ideas in the comments.

It seems to me that there are basically three ways to attack the problem of inequality in service work: change who’s doing the work, change what work is to be done, or change the value of that work. The last seems the most implausible, at least for TT faculty at research universities. It seems very unlikely that departments and deans and provosts at those institutions are going to start valuing service work more in their hiring and promotion decisions. But, most faculty don’t work in R1s, and lots of service work is done by non-TT faculty. So one angle here might be working to more formally recognize and reward the service work done by contingent faculty, who are disproportionately women. Non-TT instructors at the University of Michigan unionized in the mid-2000s and created four tiers of lecturer positions; part of the distinctions between those ranks were the amount of kind of service work expected (planning new courses, advising students, etc.). Partly in exchange for engaging in more of this curricular planning and advising work, Lecturers III and IV earn “mini-tenure” (3 and 5 year contract guarantees).

Changing what work is to be done might help reduce the size of the problem, though not directly tackle the inequality. That is, if departments can find ways to be more efficient about service work, then the absolute gaps between men and women may be reduced. As my first year as faculty draws to a close, I am beginning to see the wisdom of Fabio Rojas’s love of the no/low-meetings department (which I thought he’d written a post about, but I can’t find it now). Departments may also be able to rethink the structure of undergraduate or graduate advising and program requirements to become more efficient – something academics seem prone not to think about, but which would likely be of special benefit to those faculty who face disproportionate service burdens now.

Finally, the most straightforward solution: change who is doing the work. Beyond women saying no, how can we increase the balance in the service workload? One route, in line with a large body of research on gender equality in organizations, would suggest standardization, formalization, and even quantification. Especially for junior faculty, it can be very difficult to tell how much work there is to be done in total, and what would count as pulling our share. Processes of formalization can help to fix this. For example, departments can keep track of graduate and undergraduate advising burdens, examine those burdens by race and gender, and at least notify those faculty who have taken on more than their share (and those who have not). Just last night, I listened as three first-year women faculty members attempted to assess how many undergrad theses they were expected to advise – there was no consensus, and no indication from on high of what was a normal burden.

This formalization could also be combined with some revaluation – if not in tenure or promotion, at least in terms of research funds or perhaps partial course credits. Partial course credits would be particularly effective currency, I think, as they would substitute one form of gendered, de-value labor with another and thus would not require convincing tenure committees to care about teaching or service. My understanding is that the economics department here at Brown has a points system of some sort for various service tasks. It would be an interesting question to see if the implementation of such a system has produced greater gender equality. At a minimum, formalization might make it easier for women to say no (and harder for men to shirk the same tasks) when armed with ammunition about their ongoing disproportionate contributions.

That’s what I’ve got! What do you all think?

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

11 thoughts on “reader request: gender inequality in academic service work”

  1. When I chair committees, I always break the job down into tasks and assign a number based on how much work it takes. Then I always try to make sure that each person gets equal points, except for juniors who get less work. Small, but it is my way to try to make sure people aren’t getting an unfair burden.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My views: (1) Overtly name and acknowledge ALL the work people are doing. List it, publicize it. Regularly list the numbers of advisees each faculty member has. Regularly list and discuss who is on what committees, who has done what. Make sure it is in internal c.v.s or annual reports. Compile and organize the information so that everyone can see who is doing what. Of course, this will not change the fact that at R1 schools, publications will “count” more, but there is a ton of social science to support the idea that even getting overt feedback will affect behavior and perceptions. If you measure it, people will respond to it. Individuals who are concerned about inequitable service burdens should advocate strongly for openness and publicity about who is doing what. (2) Those who feel overburdened should ask hard questions about whether the work they are doing really needs to be done. It is not just a matter of not having meetings, although that helps. (e.g. can you make a decision or craft a document via email rather than meetings?) It is a question of whether the product of the work is worth the effort it will take to do it. If you are doing a job that nobody else seems to think is important enough to be worth their time, ask whether it really is worth your time. Is the way you are doing things excessively time-consuming? Many activities follow the 80-20 rule: 80% of the benefit comes from 20% of the effort. Can you find the 20% that really makes a difference and try to cut out as much as possible of the other 80%? (3) Also worth asking other people these hard questions, or testing the importance of your work by going on strike. If you don’t do the job, does anybody notice that it isn’t done? If not, don’t do it. If it is about caring for others below you in the pecking order, e.g. student advising, pay attention to the factors leading to the maldistribution of advising loads, or willingness to actively adivse. Maybe the grad program should just be smaller so there are fewer students to advise, if people don’t want to do their share. Maybe undergrad advising could be organized in a different way.

    Having said all this, I fit the distribution: female who does too much service. My thoughts above are about how to change that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In addition to keeping track of activities at the departmental level, as suggested above, it’s also important to track our individual time. I tried this for a couple of months, because even though I felt like I had too much service (I’m on more department committees than any other faculty member [and I’m an assistant]) I wasn’t sure if my perception matched reality. Turned out I was spending almost double the amount of time on service as what my faculty profile says I should be. Quantifying it helped me be honest with myself about having too much service and needing to do something about it. But it also helped me have a conversation about reducing my service load with my colleagues who, it turns out, were shocked that I had that much service.

      Now I track all my time spent on service, including student committees, department committees and events, and professional service. Seeing it in black and white is helping me know when I can say yes and when I absolutely must say no.

      Some advice I wish I’d gotten when I started the tenure track: 1) When asked/invited to serve on a committee ask how long you’ll be on the committee and make sure there is an end date!; 2) Make a time bank for service. If service is 10% of your profile then you shouldn’t be spending more than 4 hours a week on it. If you’re exceeding that then you may need to make changes because every hour beyond that four is eating into time for other activities, like writing – or sleep; 3) People always say to just say no to things, but I haven’t found it to be so easy. So I’d say don’t be afraid to say no, but have a rationale. When my Dean asked me to be on the hiring committee one year I didn’t feel like I could say no because it was the Dean. But if I’d been tracking my time at that point I might have told him I was already spending x% of my time on service and that if he needed me on the hiring committee then I’d need to be let off of other service.

      It would be great if we had more transparency in service in line with what olderwoman suggests. Or if there was an incentive/reward structure for service like what Dan is referring to. I’m not optimistic things will change on those fronts, and if they do it won’t be quickly, so in the meantime I’m going to keep tracking my time and trying to do a better job defending my time bank.


  3. The incentives are just all wrong. It’s obvious that ignoring emails and being obnoxious in meetings gets you out of assignments, at minimal cost. The gender pattern there is not hard to see.

    Anyway, I think the lesson on diversity in hiring and promotion might work here: accountability. Departments could set gender equality in service as a goal, formalize a counting system to document workload, and then complain if the chair doesn’t get it back into whack. Hard to imagine, now that I describe it. Oh well.


  4. As a current department chair, I am going to come to this discussion from a very different perspective. Obviously, the gender inequality here is a very big issue and we need real solutions to it. But most of the solutions people propose are about reducing the amount of service work that both men and women do. As beneficial as such a solution may be to the careers of individual women, this solution is bad for departments, institutions, and the future of academe.

    Obviously, some service work is busywork that need not be done, and there is no need to have meetings for the sake of meetings. But there are myriads of tasks which departments need to accomplish which do not have benefits for individual faculty members but which are nonetheless essential. To take one of the most mundane examples: twice a year, my institution has an afternoon-long event on a Saturday for prospective students. For 2-3 hours, departments are asked to send representatives to staff a table so students can ask questions. If we do not send a representative, we are likely to lose students who want to major in the programs housed in our department. Giving up a Saturday afternoon at a busy point in the semester is pretty thankless, though of course it does count as service to the department. If every faculty member says no to such a task because they are protecting their time for more important things, what happens to the department?

    On a more fundamental level, the more that faculty seek to avoid service, the more that institutions must hire administrative staff to take on those responsibilities–thus reducing both the faculty role in shared governance and the budget available for hiring faculty. For example, my institution is currently considering a shift away from faculty academic advising for undergraduates. Given the limited budget and a state-imposed FTE cap, hiring a team of professional advisers directly prevents hiring full-time faculty–in a situation in which 70% of courses in some departments are taught by adjuncts. Or consider the impact of a move from faculty oversight of academic misconduct cases to housing such tribunals within the purview of the student life office.

    So I see this discussion as a tragedy of the commons. For each of us, individually–especially junior women–it makes sense to limit and constrain our service commitments. But our departments and institutions depend on such service, and will have to find ways to get it done if we don’t do it ourselves–ways that are likely to further erode the faculty role in governance and the number of tenure-track faculty on our campuses. So, I would argue, it is in our collective interest to find ways to encourage an equal distribution of service and to properly reward that service at the time of tenure, promotion, and merit raises. Luckily, my institutions does value service, so I can highlight the incredible work my departments’ junior faculty do when I write their annual evaluations. Department chairs and tenure and promotion committees should take the responsibility to value service seriously, even in locations where it has not historically been valued. Actual record-keeping of the type suggested above might help assess and document such service.


  5. Thank you for posting this. I am a neuroscience graduate student and have definitely experienced gender inequality and harassment just because I am a woman. Something needs to change. Thank you for bringing attention to this.


  6. I’m no means an expert on the area – but I think when it comes to equality and diversity, the key thing is to delve deeper into the function of what is going on. For example do people interact or have different expectations of women, do they have different expectations of themselves. Furthermore functional solutions do not always need to be in direct link to the cause, for example lets say teachers colleges don’t market well to men, but an effective solution may be to train career counselors differently.

    Not just in this topic but the world over we (liberals conservatives everybody) observe ‘problems’ but then frenetically leap to solutions based on what seems to be applicable rather than what evidence suggests.

    Just a brief rant – glad I found this blog, looks great!


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