Mirroring trends at Yale, the percentage of female professors reaching the top echelons of higher education has remained low despite a marked increase in the number of women in academia over the last two decades, according to a national report released last week.
The American Association of University Women report, titled “Tenure Denied: Cases of Sex Discrimination in Academia,” detailed 19 lawsuits filed by female professors claiming they were denied tenure unfairly. Though women now comprise more than half of instructors and lecturers and nearly half of assistant professors nationwide, only 33 percent of associate professors and 20 percent of full professors are women, the report said. Despite the University’s record number of female tenures last year — eight of its 14 tenure appointments were to women — a Women’s Faculty Forum study from 2002 reported that 19 percent of Yale’s tenured faculty were women.
“Yale has made excellent progress over the last five years in increasing the number of women in the faculty,” Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said. “We would like to make even more progress and we work very hard to do so.”
AAUW spokesperson Jean-Marie Navetta said the report aimed to highlight gender-related problems with the tenure process. Women, she said, are often held to a higher standard than men, and the fields of interest to women, such as Women’s Studies, are frequently considered less valuable than other fields.
The study recommends ways to prevent tenure disputes from reaching the courts, which include designing university policies that comply with anti-discrimination laws and requiring annual written evaluations with explicit performance measures to address the candidate’s progress in research, service and teaching. The Legal Advocacy Fund, which monetarily supported the cases cited in the report, was created by the AAUW in 1981 to help promote gender equity for women who were battling tenure decisions in court, Navetta said.
Sex discrimination cases are often difficult to win because of the complicated nature of the tenure process and their lack of transparency, Navetta said. Of the 19 AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund-supported cases described in the report, eight plaintiffs lost, seven settled, two won, and two cases are ongoing.
“We’re not disputing that tenure cases are extremely complicated,” she said. “We’re not encouraging lawsuits. There are a number of other things women can do before going to court.”
Yale has made strides toward gender equity over the last decade, but there is still room for improvement, said political science professor and Women’s Faculty Forum council member Seyla Benhabib.
“Our system is not perfect. I have seen cases in my own department, the fairness of which I would question,” Benhabib said. “Some aspects of the tenure process are disadvantageous to junior women faculty in particular.”
But Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the tenure appointment cases he has sat on have been “unbiased.”
“In each, careful and thoughtful attention was paid to the candidate’s scholarship, the impact of that scholarship, teaching, and university service,” Salovey wrote in an e-mail. “I never observed any behavior that I would characterize as biased or discriminatory.”
Benhabib said prospects for qualified women have improved considerably since she attended Yale as a graduate student during the 1970s, when there were only about two senior women faculty.
“There’s more discourse across divisions, and good policy discussion about childcare issues,” Benhabib said. “I just think we have to work harder, go further. We shouldn’t go back to the old Yale.”
Ricky Hirschhorn, a biology professor cited by the report who was denied tenure by the University of Kentucky in 1990, said the university’s lengthy appeals process focused on procedural errors, and was therefore ill-equipped to address discrimination concerns. After her appeal was denied in 1991, Hirshhorn sued the university for “disparate treatment” — differential treatment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Although Hirschhorn ultimately lost her case, she said women should continue to challenge tenure decisions to promote understanding of sexual discrimination.
“In order to battle gender discrimination, you have to aggressively challenge by litigating,” Hirschhorn said.
Navetta said she hopes universities take the report into account when reviewing tenure candidates.