Harvard sees drop in female profs

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Harvard University faces a decline in the number of non-tenured women humanities professors, Harvard Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby said recently in a letter to the university’s community.

Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said while the representation of women is always a concern, there was no recent indication that Yale faces a situation similar to the one at Harvard. This year, women comprise only 35 percent of Harvard’s non-tenured ranks while in the mid-1990s they comprised half of all assistant and associate professors, the letter said.

Harvard Dean for the Humanities Maria Tatar said the pressures facing working women could explain the decrease at Harvard. The university is currently working to address the low numbers by recruiting more female applicants, Tatar said.

“We’re always alert to the gender question,” Tatar said. “We are monitoring the searches very carefully to make sure departments cast a very broad net in the search.”

Recently, Harvard has seen an increase in its number of female tenured humanities professors. There are 39 such professors this year, Tatar said.

While Yale officials said they could not provide comparable Yale statistics Monday afternoon, they said the University has seen encouraging progress with respect to the number of female professors.

The number of total tenured women faculty at Yale has increased during Yale President Richard Levin’s tenure: in 1993-1994, there were 81 tenured women, and in 2002-2003, there were 157, University spokesman Tom Conroy said. Many of Yale’s top administration positions are currently held by women, Klasky said.

“I think it’s a priority for the administration to have women in senior positions and [to have] a female provost who plays an integral role in hiring,” she said.

But Klasky and Tatar said women in all professions have the challenge of balancing their work lives with their families. This task can be especially difficult for women professors because the time in a woman’s life when she would decide to start a family coincides with the time a junior or associate professor generally decides to pursue a tenured position, Tatar said.

Some women may be less likely to take a position at a university like Harvard, Yale or another Ivy League institution where tenure processes are more rigorous, Tatar said.

“These are tough years to put off having children to focus on work because they want tenure,” Klasky said.

Women’s and Gender Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Naomi Rogers, a mother of two, said female professors have two options with respect to tenure. Women can either delay having children until they achieve tenure, she said, or they can choose to have children and not pursue tenure.

Klasky said many female professors at Yale choose to abandon their opportunity for tenure — or relinquish their tenure — because of family concerns.

“You can get off the tenure track and still be respected,” Klasky said.

Rogers said the environment at Yale is welcoming and accommodating to women.

“I think as a result of a combination of [mothers who are] activists, there’s a much greater awareness of the need for services and information so that a difficult job is made somewhat easier,” Rogers said.

Tatar said while she cannot draw conclusions from the recent numbers at Harvard, she hopes the decrease in female professors is not indicative of a trend toward complacency surrounding women’s issues.

“One always worries it could be traced to a decreased vigilance,” Tatar said.

Jennifer Wood, Ezra Stiles dean and professor, sits at her desk. Harvard’s tenured female faculty has decreased; Yale’s has not shown a similar trend.
Lauren Fine
Jennifer Wood, Ezra Stiles dean and professor, sits at her desk. Harvard’s tenured female faculty has decreased; Yale’s has not shown a similar trend.

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