Gender Matters in the Academy?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Carla Freeman and Kim Wallen

The first CMBC lunch talk of the spring semester brought together Dr. Carla Freeman (Anthropology; Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Emory University) and Dr. Kim Wallen (Psychology, Emory University) to discuss the issue of gender and the academy. The (intentionally) ambiguously titled talk gave rise to a fruitful conversation on a variety of topics.

To highlight the differential representation between men and women in the academy, Dr. Freeman shared data from a recent two-volume diversity report conducted by Emory from 1998-2008. The report shows that while the number of women on the faculty at Emory has increased, a greater concentration of women is found in lower rank positions, such as non-tenure track, lecturer, part-time, etc. By contrast, there are fewer women in tenure-track, tenured, and full professorship positions. Additionally, the study found that women’s representation clusters around certain fields, such as dance and women’s studies, while men appear in greater numbers in physics, and computer and political science. The latter fields are, of course, much better remunerated and hold a different status.

Meanwhile, the general trend at Emory, as at other universities—both nationally and internationally—indicates that education is becoming feminized. For example, 57 percent of incoming undergraduate freshman at Emory are female. In light of this development, Freeman chose to focus her remarks on the interesting implications surrounding the feminization of education and the academy. For Freeman, the issue concerns not just the statistical breakdown among men and women and the fields into which they fall, but more importantly how certain cultural attributes of femininity get mapped onto higher education itself. That is, how do genres of academic work and knowledge production become imbued with gender and what are the implications of this process? Moreover, how does value get ascribed to certain kinds of gendered attributes?

Freeman noted that the feminization of certain fields within academia parallels a similar development in the global economy, where many industries have moved from manual production to knowledge production. As an example of this shift, Freeman cited the progression of clerical work and teaching, which began in the 19th century as largely masculine vocations. Over time, however, these professions became more populated by women and, as a result, became lower paid and lower status. Freeman therefore encouraged us to think about the academy as a workplace in which the labor we perform is increasingly feminized. This involves not only parsing out the difficulties facing women vis-à-vis men, but also questioning what it means to understand the work itself as “feminine.” According to Freeman, “feminized labor” includes a growing emphasis on  “emotional labor,” work that hinges upon qualities thought to be naturally associated withfemininity, such as nurture, care, and consideration. If emotional labor, as opposed to material labor, is traditionally associated with “feminine” skills, how does this affect our perception of teaching and scholarship as areas that include elements of emotional labor? Freeman noted that at just the moment in which service industries are recognizing the critical importance and value of emotional labor, some analysts are arguing that this form of work is becoming de-gendered. Specifically, they seek to reconceptualize emotional labor as being gender-neutral. For her part, Freeman found this move ironic and potentially troubling. She suggested the alternative possibility of simultaneously acknowledging the importance of emotional labor within academic work, especially that of a residential academic campus, and retaining an understanding of the feminine underpinnings of these skills. This position has been adopted, to some extent, by businesses, which increasingly value emotional skills for the rewards they garner in the marketplace. In thinking about gender in the academy, Freeman returned to the question: what are the implications of disavowing the importance of gender as we move to an increasingly immaterial enactment of labor, especially in the academy?

Dr. Wallen opened his remarks with the provocative question: why does the academic pipeline leak women? As a psychologist and educator, he has witnessed a huge rise in female graduate students over the course of his career. Despite the progress made on this front, the increase has not translated into a commensurate number of academic careers, especially in tenure-track positions. For example, of the 11 female Ph.D. recipients Wallen has supervised, most were hired as post-docs, but only 33 percent ended up in academic positions. Why does this happen?

In addressing the question, Wallen suggested that women experience a greater gender load than do men. Gender load, comprised of four factors, affects the likelihood of women leaving academia. First is the issue of gender discrimination, which, while not absent from today’s academic climate, Wallen considered the least substantial factor. The second factor is gender awareness. That is, the cost of being aware of the degree to which one’s gender has consequences. Wallen suggested that whereas men proceed through life without thinking about their gender—or why it may be responsible for this or that outcome—this is a more significant factor for women. Third, the cost of reproduction disproportionately affects women more than men, and academia in general is inflexible when it comes to taking time off to raise children. The fourth factor concerns the range of occupations that each gender regards as viable. Wallen suggested that women often choose not to continue pursuing academic careers, whereas men feel more socially constrained in terms of options and expectations. He viewed this as the most important factor, arguing that the broader range of occupational choices contributes significantly to women leaving the academy. Therefore, the pipeline may be “leaking women” simply because academia is not all that appealing, and while men put up with it, women find it easier to imagine alternative life paths. If so, perhaps the task for the academy is to change how attractive it is to everybody, but especially to women.

A number of issues were raised in the discussion following the talks. Some participants were quick to highlight the progress made by women entering traditionally male-dominated fields, notably in medicine. Conversely, historically feminized professions, such as nursing, are witnessing an increase in men. Yet, even as women’s representation has improved in the field of medicine, there is a further bifurcation along gendered lines, namely between prestigious specialty fields that are overwhelmingly male, and family doctors that are mostly female. Other participants pushed back against the claim that the university is largely free of gender discrimination. They pointed to the gendered politics involved in serving on committees, and even teaching M/W/F classes, as opposed to Tu/Th classes. Still others problematized the very notion of choice when it comes to women “choosing” alternate career tracks.

The conversation shifted to discussing the structure of the academy itself, returning to the issue of how the academic pipeline is designed. There was general agreement that the academy is largely hostile towards work-life balance, and that this circumstance affects both genders. Women (or men) who opt to take time off in order to start a family are not as competitive when they return to apply for jobs. This points to a general flaw in the design of the academic system. While it seems clear that changes are needed to facilitate the successful transition back into the academy after a short leave, it is not obvious what the path forward requires in terms of generating new policies.

Overall, a professorship entails three main spheres of responsibility: teaching, research, and service. Freeman and others pointed out that work related to the service category is valued significantly less than the others, and argued that this situation encumbers women to a greater degree than men. By contrast, research is highly valued and rewarded in the university setting and beyond. Wallen stated that selfishness is a quality that is rewarded in the academic marketplace; to the extent that an individual is service-oriented, he or she will pay a price, regardless of gender. Despite the uncertainty concerning how to effectively address these structural problems, it seems clear that the academy needs to confront the issue of how to better remunerate unseen works of service, such as advising and serving on committees. These remain issues and questions that academia has yet to systematically address in concrete ways.

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