Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Gender Equality in Academia: Bad News from the Trenches, and Some Possible Solutions

Kristen Monroea1, Saba Ozyurta1, Ted Wrigleya1 and Amy Alexandera1

a1 University of California at Irvine


Is there gender discrimination in academia? Analysis of interviews with 80 female faculty at a large Research One university—the most comprehensive qualitative data set generated to date—suggests both individual and institutional discrimination persists. Overt discrimination has largely given way to less obvious but still deeply entrenched inequities. Despite apparent increases in women in positions of authority, discrimination continues to manifest itself through gender devaluation, a process whereby the status and power of an authoritative position is downplayed when that position is held by a woman, and through penalties for those agitating for political change. Female faculty find legal mechanisms and direct political action of limited utility, and increasingly turn to more subtle forms of incremental collective action, revealing an adaptive response to discrimination and a keen sense of the power dynamics within the university. Women attributed the persistence of gender inequality not to biology but to a professional environment in which university administrators care more about the appearance than the reality of gender equality and a professional culture based on a traditional, linear male model. Respondents described heart-wrenching choices between career and family responsibilities, with tensions especially intractable in the bench sciences. They advocated alternative models of professional life but also offered very specific interim suggestions for institutions genuinely interested in alleviating gender inequality and discrimination.


Kristen Monroe is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at the University of California at Irvine and the Director of UCI's Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality. Saba Ozyurt, Ted Wrigley, and Amy Alexander are graduate students in the Department of Political Science at the University of California at Irvine. Any large, multi-year project involves many people, and space limitations require us to thank only those who provided the most significant assistance here. Our main debt is to the many kind female scholars at UCI who so graciously offered us their time, candor, trust, feedback, and stories. The Spencer Foundation and the UCI NSF ADVANCE grant provided generous financial assistance. The Directors and staff of the UCI NSF Advance provided names of female faculty, with the cooperation of the Executive Vice Chancellor's Office. Dean Barbara Dosher donated space and technical support for the project. Sandrine Zerbib and Lina Kreidie helped with survey design and conducted interviews early in the project. Casey Dzuong, Wendy Yang, Carolyn Dang, and Eunice Kim transcribed interviews. Joanna Scott, Lisa Frehill, Judith Baer, and the anonymous referees at Perspectives on Politics provided extremely helpful comments, as did participants in seminars on this topic at the meetings of the American Political Science Association and the International Society of Political Psychology. The ongoing controversial nature of gender equality is attested to by the fact that the first journal to which we submitted this manuscript refused even to send it out for review because the topic was not deemed sufficiently political.

List of Figures

Figure 1

Figure 1 Percent female employed by status levelNote: Compilation of data in the Professional Women and Minorities book (CPST). The “Top 50” category is based on research expenditures as reported by the NSF.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Salary trends, 1960–2006. Female-to-male earnings ratio and median earnings of full-time, year-round workers.Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 1961 to 2007 Annual Social and Economic Supplements.

Despite numerous scholarly discussions of gender politics, there is little work on the situation of women within the Academy itself. Several recent reports and the brouhaha surrounding public comments about innate limitations on women's scientific abilities by the former president of Harvard only highlight the need for those concerned with gender equity to look to their own houses.1 This article thus considers the issue of gender equality and discrimination within academia. It asks whether gender equity exists in academia, whether female faculty experience discrimination—overt, subtle, or institutional—and what specific recommendations might alleviate existing cultures and practices of discrimination. It does so through a narrative analysis of in-depth interviews conducted with 80 women faculty teaching at the University of California at Irvine (UCI), a major Research One (R1) university, from 2002 to 2006.

Analysis consists of five parts. First we clarify that there is, in fact, a problem. We present statistics on salary and employment data for men and women within academia, since job and salary differentials are obvious indicators of inequality. Overall, these data suggest academia mirrors the rest of society; gender inequity still exists in academic settings. We then describe the data and narrative methodology we used to provide a more nuanced portrait, designed to reveal perceptions of subtler forms of discrimination. We ask how female faculty assess the situation. Do they see improvements? Do they define gender discrimination as a political problem, requiring intervention through legal or political processes?2 Do they believe existing legal mechanisms help counteract discriminatory practices? Do these women trust university attempts to improve the situation, or do they find the university gives mere lip service to equality, hoping that doing so will quiet demands for real change? Responses to such questions then are presented. Analysis suggests that discrimination persists; it is both overt and subtle, and evident at the individual and institutional levels. In part, discrimination occurs through a process of gender devaluation, whereby the status and power of an authoritative position is downplayed when that position is held by a woman. The UCI women find legal mechanisms and overt, direct political action of limited utility. As a result, they increasingly turn to more understated forms of incremental collective action, revealing an adaptive response to discrimination and a keen sense of the power dynamics within the university. Similar reactions inform these female academics' attempts to ameliorate the major ongoing tension between career and family, a tension evaluated through complex appraisals of university life, in which speakers fluctuate between emphasizing institutional accountability and individual responsibility. We next ask what our analysis of responses to gender discrimination in academia can reveal about broader issues of politics, from our understanding of the nature of political power itself to insights on organizational ethics and collective action in large organizations. Finally we present some specific suggestions for change offered by the UCI female faculty.

Is There a Problem?

Statistics on Gender Inequity and Discrimination in the Workplace and in Academia

Statistical works using employment and salary figures to measure gender discrimination suggest academia is no different from the rest of society; both groups continue to demonstrate significant differences in the way professional women and men are treated. Among both academics and professionals, there is apparent equity at the lower rungs and in broad aggregate statistics; nonetheless, we find strong evidence of gender disparity among positions with higher salaries and greater powers. Recent American Political Science Association studies suggest this general conclusion also holds for political science as a discipline.3

The professional and academic worlds hire men and women at roughly equal rates.4 Men have a 7 percent margin over women in employment in the general workforce, 8 percent in managerial and executive positions, and 12 percent in college and university teaching positions. In the general workforce, gender often correlates highly with occupation type, but it is often assumed that gender distinctions of this type can be overcome in the professional world. However, the numerical equality among professionals is belied by differences in status. Women make strong showings in managerial positions, particularly in human resources, health care organizations, and education administration (60 percent to 70 percent), yet women fill only 26 percent of general manager and operations manager positions, and less than 19 percent of chief executive positions.5 Similarly, only 29 percent of lawyers, 28 percent of physicians and surgeons, and 22 percent of dentists are female.6 Higher status jobs, with better pay, go disproportionately to men.

Employment patterns in the academy reflect the pattern in the larger professional world; positions with higher status, power, and remuneration are generally dominated by males. While graduate enrollment in degree-granting institutions (figure 1) has been over 50 percent female for more than a decade (moving from 56 percent in 1996 to 58 percent in 2001), women accounted for only 44–45 percent of the recent Ph.D.s awarded, only 38 percent of the fulltime faculty in all institutions of higher education, and slightly more than 15 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty in “top” departments.7 In general, tenured professors are four times more likely to be male (80 percent of tenured faculty in 2001 were male), while tenure-track (65 percent male) and non-tenure-track (61 percent) employment move somewhat closer to the average.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Percent female employed by status level

Note: Compilation of data in the Professional Women and Minorities book (CPST). The “Top 50” category is based on research expenditures as reported by the NSF.

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Some evidence suggests a generational effect. Professors holding Ph.D.s for less than ten years match the gender distribution in employment (60 percent male), while those with Ph.D.s for more than 10 years are by and large male (78 percent). But this generational split is itself gendered across rank. Among those with over ten years in their field, full professors are overwhelmingly male (85 percent), while the difference is negligible—or even slightly biased towards women—for assistant professors and instructors. Further, since the Department of Labor reported similar splits according to gender almost a generation ago, in a series of reports on employment trends from 1980–87, this differential effect cannot be attributed solely to a passing age cohort.8

With respect to salary, women in the general workforce have made slow but steady gains with respect to men over the last quarter century. As of 2003, median income for women was three-fourths the income of men, up from a low of roughly 56 percent in the 1970s. For the most part, this is due to a ceiling in median income for men: median male income has remained constant at roughly $40,000 since 1975, while median female income has steadily increased (figure 2). Academia is only marginally more equitable; the average salary for female faculty is roughly 80 percent of their male counterparts'.9 This division correlates with rank; salary rates for instructors and lecturers are roughly equal by gender, whereas clear differences between genders are evident at higher ranks, regardless of the type of institution or contract.10

Figure 2

Figure 2

Salary trends, 1960–2006. Female-to-male earnings ratio and median earnings of full-time, year-round workers.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 1961 to 2007 Annual Social and Economic Supplements.

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The aggregate statistical data thus suggest academia as a whole fares no better than the general workforce at large in terms of gender equity. Women are still underrepresented in almost all disciplines, and men are more likely than women to hold tenure track positions, be promoted to tenure, achieve full professorships, and be paid more than women of equal rank.11

Statistics provide one view of the situation for women; anecdotal data and biographies offer further insight.12 The more detailed qualitative work on women in academia suggests a dismal picture: a rigid system of rewards that makes scant allowance for deviation from the traditional male model, high levels of isolation, stress and fatigue among female faculty, continuing unconscious and deep-seated discrimination and stereotyping by male colleagues, and a remarkably unbreakable glass ceiling.13 The MIT Report—based on a small sample of 22 female faculty—found young women begin by believing gender discrimination will not happen to them. Many initially felt well supported within their departments; they soon discovered, however, that working situations actually worsen with tenure.14 Tenured MIT women faculty described feeling marginalized and excluded from significant roles in their departments. This sense of marginalization increased as they moved up the ladder, with MIT faculty women receiving less despite comparable professional accomplishments. Female faculty reported critical differences in salary, space, awards, resources, and responses to outside offers. This pattern repeated itself in successive generations and the MIT Reports found little evidence that the situation for female faculty at MIT will improve much in the future.15

Existing qualitative work thus suggests the subtlety of discrimination cannot be detected using more traditional aggregate statistics. We therefore turned to interview data for a first-hand assessment of conditions for women in universities, to provide a more nuanced portrait of the situation than is available using cruder methods.

Data and Methodology


With support from an NSF Advance grant, interviews were collected at the University of California at Irvine, a relatively new (circa 1965) but otherwise typical, R1 university.16 NSF Advance grants are designed both to investigate gender inequities and to change institutional cultures that reinforce these inequities. The data pool consisted of all 220 female faculty in the Academic Senate as of December 2002, women at all levels—untenured to chaired professors and top administrators, deans, and other key administrators—and women in all faculties, from Humanities to Computer Science and Medicine to Fine Arts. We wrote to all 220 of these faculty members; 80 faculty agreed to be interviewed on the record. An additional twelve faculty agreed to be interviewed privately by the lead researcher, but asked that no one else on the project have access to their names. These 12 faculty said they wanted to give information about gender equity at UCI but were concerned with reprisals if they spoke frankly and openly.17 Their information thus is used “off the record” except when they specifically approved quotes for publication. While many of the other 80 female faculty agreed to speak using their full or first names, we decided to give pseudonyms to all our speakers, to further cloak the identities of the speakers. Hence, none of the names assigned a particular quote is the actual name of the speaker.

The Interview

We developed a semi-structured narrative interview composed of two parts. During the first part, we got to know the speakers better by asking them to tell us something about themselves, their upbringing, background, and personal lives. This allowed participants to select items they deemed critical to their success and kept the interview focused on topics judged important by the speakers.18 In the second part of the interview, we ask more specific questions about academia and the situation for women at UCI. The specific questions posed grew out of our reading of the literature on academic success and were designed to capture how our interviewees perceive themselves, what kind of gender roles they were socialized into while young, their relations with parents and siblings, whether or not they had mentors who shaped their future career decisions, etc. We also developed questions to capture how women in academia balance their responsibilities at work and at home and how they cope with structural problems, personal prejudices, and systemic discrimination. We treated all questions as prompts that guide the interview rather than working through questions mechanically. We emphasized taking the time to get to know the people with whom we were talking so they could express themselves in their own words and raise issues they found most relevant. These women were all extremely articulate, which proved a boon to interviewers. Most interviews ran between 1–2 hours, though a few lasted as long as 5 hours. All interviews were taped, transcribed, and shown to the speakers for approval. Once approval was received the original tapes were destroyed and interviews were entered into N-Vivo, a computer program for qualitative analysis.19 Data were coded by four independent coders. We coded for a number of different categories, from socioeconomic/family background, relations with the community, educational background, and socialization to gender roles, role models/mentors, gender discrimination in academia, culture for women at the university, etc. Only quotes on which there was uniform coder agreement are included in the analysis, which focuses here primarily on questions concerning gender discrimination.20

Finally, how representative are our findings? Our respondents insist that their experiences reflect those of their friends and colleagues in other academic settings and their own experiences elsewhere. Assuming this is the case, then, the narrative interviews analyzed in this article provide important information about the subtle but institutionalized forms of gender discrimination and inequitable institutional structures within academia. It is the largest and most comprehensive study to analyze gender equity in academia, using narrative interviews.

A More Nuanced Perspective on Discrimination and Gender Equity

Subtle Institutional and Cultural Patterns of Discrimination

UCI faculty women drew clear distinctions between isolated incidents of discrimination on the part of individuals and the broader, more pervasive subtle institutional or cultural forms of discrimination. They noted the importance of how the university responds to both individual and institutional forms of discrimination. Few chose to engage in overt political responses that would actively challenge the structure of the Academy and university policy. Younger faculty tended to employ a more positive narrative about gender and academia, eschewing the paradigms of “oppression” and “victimhood” used by an older generation of feminist academics.21 But most of our respondents rejected overt and confrontational political responses to perceived discrimination in favor of a more adaptive discourse that both revealed a keen sense of the power dynamics in the university and prioritized incremental progress over cultural overhaul. These initially surprising responses become understandable when set in the context of comments about insidious institutional or cultural forms of discrimination operating through less visible dimensions of power relations, where the conflict over preferences is not observable and openly engaged and where power's oppressive aspects are minimally visible. Perhaps because of this, the reactions of the women we interviewed initially struck us as lacking politicization of individual discrimination. Once we located their responses in the broader context of their personal and professional narratives, however, the complexity of their political appraisals of university life became evident.

Our women echoed the MIT faculty in describing a legacy of male chauvinism, much of it sub-conscious or pre-conscious on the part of well-meaning men who simply did not realize they were being patronizing or sexist. One woman told of a job interview in a top department, where an African American scholar took her aside and told her, “This is a great place for people like you and me, if you know what I mean, honey.” The woman felt the man meant well, and was not offended. She noted, with some irony, that he simply did not realize it might be as inappropriate to call a 26-year-old woman “honey” as it would be to jovially slap a black man on the back and call him “boy.” This lack of both male malevolence and sensitivity in this story are reflected in comments about the “old boy network,” a system still alive and well in academia, according to our respondents.

This speaker links the cultural legacy of the old boy network to the institution's failure to care enough to set up institutional constraints to correct it. This link was noted in other interviews that suggested bias which is subtle but nonetheless reflected in very tangible differences in advancement, promotion and tenure.22

A critical part of this phenomenon was internal. In general, women are less assertive than their male counterparts, seldom asking for an accelerated merit increase (from Step 1 to Step 3 instead of Step 2).23 Since incremental increases accumulate into serious money over time, it is not in the university's interest to encourage accelerations.

Gender Devaluation and Holding Positions of Power

One common solution to discrimination is to increase the number of power holders who are members of the discriminated group. Our interviews suggest a more complex relationship of women to power, status, and office holding. Just holding office is not always enough to ensure change.

Our speakers agreed that being a dean or a chair provides the office holder more discretion to do “good” things for other women, but having women in positions of power cut both ways.

Women were delighted about the increase in female chairs, deans, or central administrators; some considered that these increases signaled genuine improvement. Too often, however, a woman's holding of this position would devalue or minimize it somewhat, casting it into the service mode, not the power mode. We heard this comment so frequently across all disciplines that we finally named it gender devaluation. Gender devaluation refers to the subtle process by which administrative positions lose their aura of status, power, and authority when held by women. These positions often become treated as service or support roles until they are reoccupied by men. So, for example, being a department chair could be viewed as a position of power or one of service. When a man is department chair, the position confers status, respect, and power. When a woman becomes department chair, the power and status seem diminished, and the service dimension becomes stressed.

How lasting is this phenomenon of gender devaluation? Because this is an area in flux, and one heavily mixed into university politics, it is difficult to say. Several women, speaking off the record, suggested recent increases in female deans had facilitated a power grab by central administration. The suggestion was that (1) women were weaker and (2) that the Provost/Executive Vice Chancellor had “put his people in the office” so they would owe their loyalty to him, and hence would not fight against decisions by the central administration. While some female deans were viewed as independent, then, others were seen as “yes (wo)men,” who owed their position to the Provost, or were simply ignored by the Provost. Female faculty felt this both illustrated the extent to which merely installing female deans does not necessarily increase power for women and underlines both the subtlety of political power in the university and the difficulties of effecting meaningful change.

Other women told how their accomplishments—being elected to a scholarly academy, an office in the professional association or international society, even receiving outside job offers—were routinely written off by their male colleagues as simply reflections of affirmative action, not the woman's own accomplishments.

This story was repeated, in diverse variants, in all Schools in the university. Our respondents were not naïve. Most acknowledged the politics in a university setting. They recognized that if having a woman in a position of power—or one who once had power—is not a guarantee of equity, a critical mass is at least a help. In this regard, the Faculty Women's Association and formal mentoring programs were cited as important venues for change.

Service Is for Women

However defined, service was complained about by a majority of women; everyone commented that women do far more than their share of the service and suggested that this work is uniformly lower status, and not rewarded or appreciated by the system.

Other women echoed this complaint, noting the acuity of the problem for senior women.

Service differentials often resulted from subtle forms of discrimination. Some instances centered on different expectations of men and women and differences in the way the same behavior was evaluated, depending on the gender of the person performing the act. Women take on these service tasks, despite knowing the disadvantages of spending their time on duties for which they will not be rewarded, because they also recognize that such positions enabled them to open things up for other women.

Vicki's dedication and creativity stand in stark contrast to the entrenched mindset among male faculty who view requests for reimbursement for childcare as an inappropriate “perk.” Vicki viewed child care as a natural part of the job, and hence something the university should reimburse, as it would cab fare.

Perceptions of Overt Discrimination

The pattern of working around discrimination rather than engaging in coordinated but frustrating political efforts to change an entrenched institutional culture is also evident in the way individuals react to what they perceive as explicit discrimination. We note that in these quotes, the “problem” is seen as the woman's, not the man's or the university's responsibility for allowing discrimination to continue.

Jane's distinction between discrimination and harassment is striking since, at least logically, sexual harassment seems an important subset of discrimination, involving a power inequality in favor of the man. Further, Jane's assumption of responsibility meant that she did not take any legal action. But part of this calculus also involved Jane's assessment of the person's political importance, that it simply would be potentially damaging to her career to confront him. The power equation was not in Jane's favor.

Our speakers were careful to distinguish between discrimination and harassment, and to make further distinctions between overt and subtle forms of each. They also distinguished between individual actors and institutional bias. We heard stories of all types; the consensus was that the institutional climate was too complacent about discrimination and harassment, preferring to keep things under wraps by discouraging official reports of discrimination or harassment. For example, Leyla reported that one male colleague was widely known as someone who “put the moves” on women. One of Leyla's students—we will call her Claire—came to Leyla, reporting that Professor X had grabbed Claire and given her a kiss, had patted Claire's bottom several times, and engaged in similar activities that upset Claire. Claire was afraid to file a complaint for fear her husband would be so upset he would make Claire leave graduate school. Claire allowed Leyla to talk with the dean (a man), but not to use Claire's name in describing the situation. The dean was sympathetic and, after Leyla conveyed this information to Claire, the student agreed to meet with the dean to discuss the issue. The dean expressed concern at the inappropriate behavior, and made some suggestions on how Claire could deal with this problem in the future, arguing that Claire herself needed to take the action here, not report it. The dean stressed his hope that Claire feel empowered, not weak. While the dean gave Claire a sense of sympathy from someone in the power structure, the bottom line was that the dean effectively protected the institution by indirectly discouraging Claire from filing a complaint, thus leaving the offender in place to harass other young women.

This was but one example of how discrimination endures through the subtle closing of ranks to safeguard the institution against potential legal remedies. It illustrates how entrenched bureaucracies shield an in-group rather than protecting the victims of overt discrimination.

Career, Family, and Need for Alternative Models of Professional Success

One of the most striking findings from our interviews was the intractable tension between professional success and family duties. For the laboratory or bench sciences, Larry Summers properly identified a real problem but missed the critical explanatory variable.24 It is not gender that imposes limits on women's professional success. It is children, family, and domestic duties. The relationship between familial responsibilities and gender discrimination is a subtle one, in part because the gender role models that society imposes are so deeply ingrained they often become confounded with biology. Childbirth and breast-feeding are, of course, biologically based, but they occupy relatively short periods in the overall span of a woman's professional life. Child-rearing and child-care, by contrast, represent vast investments of time and effort that have no biological requirements, but are traditionally constructed as responsibilities of women. Further, there is no clear biological reason why care of elderly family members is a female responsibility. In this regard, then, the conflict of family and career is centrally a social issue, potentially as constraining on men as on women, but in practice resting largely on female shoulders. Not one woman in our sample said gender in and of itself limits women's potential to do top work in science and academia; the “problem” is socially constructed.

This leads us to a consideration of gender role models. What is the traditional male model? Does it discriminate against women? How does it limit men? What would an alternative model look like? What factors would it consider? We heard interesting comments when we broached this topic.

This statement captures a widespread belief among UCI faculty women that the academic success model needs to be more flexible. The speaker recognizes that not everyone can do everything. What was unusual in Samantha's comment, however, is the politicization of her experience. Samantha was one of the few speakers who explicitly noted an alternative model, in this case the Scandinavian model. Samantha's comment that the American feminist movement made a mistake in emphasizing equality suggests she believes individuals are not equal and that the key is to provide equal access to opportunities and then let individuals judge best what works for them.

Many women noted the need for a new model of professional life, one that accommodates both women and men who want to be more involved with their families. As part of that model, Gale suggests we need to kill off “Super Woman,” that elusive and mythical ideal who can excel simultaneously in both the male and female models.

She continued, speaking of her own difficulties in giving up the Super Woman role.

Gale was not alone in yearning for more flexible models of professional life. She raises an important question: do some jobs better lend themselves to this kind of flexibility? This topic is closely related to conversations about women in science. Our interviews suggest that the laboratory or bench sciences impose high demands on anyone holding them, regardless of gender. Research that does not require a laboratory—where the scholar can work at home, as many women said they did—makes it far easier to combine career and family. But the women we spoke with recognized the non-gendered aspect of this: it's tough for men, too. If the Academy wants to provide the opportunity for academics to combine these roles, we need more flexibility for both men and women.

Virtually every woman with children noted the difficulties in balancing career and family. Mary and Gale remind us that family versus career is a human problem, not just one with which women wrestle. Is society responding to this challenge, trying to develop more flexible work models so both the men and women who want more family time can have it and still pursue a career? Our interviews suggest little evidence of such a move.

Is the Personal Political?

The Nature of the Political. The Complexity of Responses to the Situation

Politicizing the personal is an ongoing struggle for professional women.25 Our speakers are no exception, and their interviews reveal both a cautious optimism and diminished expectations for change. They note three distinct strategies for navigating the complex shoals of institutional and cultural bias: legal and administrative mechanisms, collective action, and individual coping. Each of these strategies represents a different type of political response for coping with the complexities of gender bias in professional academic life.

Legal and Formal Administrative Mechanisms Offer Insufficient Solutions

How effective are existing legal mechanisms in protecting women? If women use these mechanisms, are they stigmatized for doing so? Our speakers suggest that the benefit of legal mechanisms is unclear but the costs associated with pursuing legal remedies are real and high.

Statements like the above suggest that women who opt for legal remedies, including formal university policies and institutional equity rules, are often subjected to informal sanctions and ostracism. Perhaps because of this, the majority of our speakers were disenchanted with legal remedies and preferred less openly confrontational forms of change through collective action.

Collective Action

Our speakers were extremely adept at detecting the Academy's cultural cues. Most feared backlash and retribution if they agitated openly for change, so they rejected overt collective activism in favor of more subtle, non-threatening collective actions. Whereas overt activism tries to directly change power and institutional structures, collective action—as we conceptualize it—refers to organized efforts to improve women's conditions in the university through more proactive interpersonal processes. The most uniform and enthusiastic recommendation of this type was to expand and reconceptualize mentoring programs. Women especially valued mentoring from women, which provide both role modeling and concrete illustrations of alternative life choices to the traditional male model.

Leticia captures the importance of mentoring in attacking gender discrimination directly. Her comments also reveal a widespread view: women have shared experiences that heighten sensitivity to the plight of other women. But female mentoring also aids professional success by providing general encouragement and direction in areas that are new, puzzling, and unanticipated, a role filled by traditional mentoring.

The UCI faculty women distinguished between informal mentoring and institutional mentoring. Informal mentoring evokes either the image of a senior scholar selecting a talented junior to be groomed or the image of an unskilled junior who requires the protection and assistance of a more professional colleague. Institutionalized mentoring—involving formal structures, universally defined goals, and relationships developed with some form of assistance or intervention from the organization—carries more egalitarian implications. The UCI faculty felt that institutionalized mentoring works best as a mandatory program, for both male and female faculty, at all levels and ranks, to best aid all faculty and remove any stigma of mentoring as remedial. The UCI women knew informal mentoring always will exist but they wanted it supplemented with formal programs organized by universities. They felt organizational support for institutional mentoring could provide critical incentives for mentors and protégés to maintain their relationship and their obligations to one another. As part of the NSF Advance, some schools instituted mentoring programs that provided funding for senior faculty to take junior faculty out to lunch. The program involved all faculty, not just women, and had an equity advisor who reminded senior faculty of this responsibility. Uniformly, this program was judged successful, even when small.

University support for such formal mentoring could make a critical difference for women and was strongly recommended.

Individual Coping: Working Harder and the Cult of Individual Responsibility

Finding that women reject legal and administrative mechanisms in favor of the subtler collective action proposals noted here reflects other findings in the literature. A more surprising result is the extent to which UCI faculty women fell back on a model of individual responsibility for their situation. Ironically, if not surprisingly, several of our women noted one important and insidious aspect of discrimination; they felt they had to do more to succeed than their male counterparts. While many lamented this, few seemed angered. This was closely related to the fact that these women demonstrated acute understanding of the authority of the university in considerations of family obligation and therefore adapted their experience of inequality to an individual model of responsibility. In this way, most did not relate their own experience with discrimination in broader political terms so much as they deemed it an individual problem they had to address on their own. They held themselves to high standards and interpreted their failures less to gender discrimination and more to their own shortcomings.

We were surprised, for instance, at the number of the women we spoke with who did not judge childcare issues as relevant for the university. (Samantha was unusual in this regard.) Instead, such issues were frequently held as solely the province of the individual. Beyond this, a surprising number of the women were much more likely to appraise discriminatory experiences in ways that assigned no blame to the institution or its structures. They ignored the possibility of political solutions that might result in more just alternatives and placed the responsibility for change on the respondents themselves. As examples, consider excerpts from several interviews about the individual's responsibility for balancing work and family.

This lack of sleep, in the face of dual responsibilities, ran like a constant refrain in our interviews.

Several respondents voiced this view that the tension between children and professional life was simply a fact to be accepted, a tension endemic to all professional life, not simply academics.

Many other respondents told of the incredible pain felt as they were torn between children and the job. The emotional exhaustion and the sense of desperation, as they had to choose between what felt like irreconcilable conflicts, left women drained emotionally and unsatisfied with whatever solutions were crafted.

When describing conditions associated with balancing academic work and family, woman after woman recounts an environment in which they are surviving—some just barely—rather than thriving. Exhaustion, struggle, uncertainty, incompatible tensions between professionalism and motherhood, the need to make difficult choices: these are the watchwords, at least until the children leave for college. The poignancy of this situation, while widespread, is perhaps best captured in the story of a woman who had to leave her baby unattended in the apartment while she took her language examination. It was her only remaining requirement for the Ph.D., her husband was working, and they had no family or money for a babysitter.

Two points are striking, as we listen to the sense of quiet desperation in the choices faced by these women. First, uniformly the UCI women believed the tension between career and family/children is a fact of life for all professional women. It is not unique to UCI, or to academia. Second, we heard a surprising lack of anger. Few women asked for institutional intervention toward a more just reconciliation between the commitment to family and the commitment to career. From the standpoint of institutional reform, then, these are not efficacious voices. These are voices of struggle, denial, and helplessness, ultimately lacking the empowering strategies to handle or change their seemingly intractable circumstances. They are not voices that see the personal as political. This process of internalizing responsibility also occurred in descriptions of both the subtle forms of discrimination and descriptions of overt ones. Stories of both types of discrimination, however, were closely linked to an institutional climate more concerned with bureaucracy and what several speakers called “window dressing” than with ethics. This linkage suggested the lack of political demands may represent a shrewd and knowing calculus on the part of policy savvy women who realize such politicization is doomed to fail in eliciting a positive institutional response.

The dominant view of the situation was one where women had to take the responsibility to fit into the man's world. The male model itself was seldom questioned. Many women even felt they had to “dress for success,” thereby denying their feminine personality to succeed.

A surprising number of women echoed this view, noting they are careful not to dress in too feminine a manner or have too many family photos in their offices. This adaptation to the male model is evident in comments suggesting the current model for advancement within academia privileges research and downgrades teaching and service, two areas in which women tend to do more. Interestingly, the speaker seems to object to this but then backs off and suggests that the system is this way and that people who want to do more teaching should go to a community or liberal arts college. Statements such as this one reinforced our conclusion that women are reluctant to place the blame on the institutional culture; instead, they take it on their own backs.

Vicki's interview is insightful at many levels. First, she voices the widespread view that the university has no responsibility to be concerned with issues it considers personal. Further, Vicki echoes other UCI women in feeling the university defines as “personal”—and thus the responsibility of individual faculty—many obvious constraints on professional involvement, such as childcare, overt acts of discrimination, and other “women's issues.” Vicki—like others in our sample—may be reading the cultural cues properly, but beyond this knowledge of cultural limitations Vicki remained extremely sensitive to women's issues, and noted instances when she had definitely perceived discrimination as an institutional problem/responsibility. (For example, she fought to get the department pay for a junior faculty's childcare during a conference.) This sophistication reveals the extent to which feminist issues are shifting on campuses, and findings are not black and white.

Vicki was not alone in this nuanced perception of reality for women. We heard many instances of university authorities telling women that “it” was not the university's problem and they would have to deal with it on their own.

While it was certainly not uniform—some women did feel the university was genuinely trying to change, and we should note that Josie herself does comment on how things are now improved in her department—the more common view was summed up by one senior woman:

This recognition that there are negative repercussions for women who push for change was noted by others, one of whom (Beulah) told of losing long-time male friends in her department who interpreted her demands for pay equity as criticisms of them, not as attempts to achieve a more just working environment for women. She felt it was a difficult balancing act, to work for reform without making men feel threatened by change. Sometimes, women decided it simply wasn't worth the effort.26

Overall, then, the women we interviewed characterized the university's commitment to gender equality as lukewarm, a low priority, motivated as much—or more—by the desire to protect itself legally as by a genuine concern to improve the situation for women on campus. Women claimed the lack of enthusiasm for change was evident at all levels, from a female dean (Marina) who identifies gender bias in personnel decisions but who never gets around to filing a complaint to Tricia's comment about central administration's failure to create and publicize rules on how to achieve individual gender equity.

Tricia broadened this complaint.

This lack of guidelines over how to correct discrimination was part of a broader problem concerning how the institution should deal with women having babies and families. Marta captures both the good aspect and the downside of adjusting to new realities.

Comments such as these on the lack of established procedures reflect an institution in flux, not one that is biased so much as unfamiliar with the needs of women and struggling hard to catch up to a new institutional reality and culture.

Is this phenomenon particular to UCI? Overwhelmingly, our interviewees said no, that their friends and colleagues at other institutions reported similar experiences.

Our respondents suggested discrimination is not restricted to the one university we surveyed. Many of the women had similar experiences at other universities, and many corroborated Isabelle's statement that their female colleagues elsewhere were similarly treated. Furthermore, discrimination is not something restricted to the vulnerable. Assistant professors actually appear happier than the senior faculty, who carry a disproportionate share of administrative work and service. Our findings thus echo the MIT Report, suggesting subtle forms of gender discrimination continue after tenure and worsen as one progresses higher in the academic hierarchy.

Another form of discrimination that continued after tenure, and which was especially visible in disciplines requiring external funding for laboratories or equipment, testified to the strength of the old-boy network in terms of collaborative research projects or professional leadership.

Subtle, cultural cues on what is appropriate are another form of this discrimination, one that results in women denying who they are, as witness women who say they do not keep family photographs in their offices, for fear of being stereotyped as “family” people, not serious scholars. This seems surprising, given that the interviews we conducted all came from successful women, many full professors and top scholars. Yet the cultural cues tell women to minimize or ignore their own needs and personalities and twist themselves to fit another's model for them, or endure subtle forms of harassment and denigration. One woman told of being given a cup by a female colleague that summarized the secret for female success in professional life: Dress like a lady. Act like a man. Work like a dog.

Specific Insights and Possible Solutions

How do the women on the front lines of the battle for equality suggest we can find ways out of this situation? What kind of policies can tackle the difficult political aspects of gender discrimination? The UCI women offered suggestions for a wide variety of issues, ranging from individual instances of harassment and overt discrimination that go unchecked by the system to more subtle institutionalized forms of inequity that favor men. Reforms were important to these women, since many of them found gender discrimination evident in systematic arrangements that hinder female advancement, from promotion criteria based on a traditional male model that assumes a full-time professional with a spouse at home providing familial support to a process of gender devaluation by which work is classified as male or female and, once classed as female, becomes less valued.

Redefine Success, Allow Alternate Paths to Tenure

The UCI women pointed to the need to reconceptualize the model for professional life if we want to move toward achieving equality of opportunity for women in academia. The need to redefine success as an academic, moving from what is the traditional, linear male model in favor of one that allows both men and women to flourish as individuals and professionals, runs like a leitmotif through the literature on gender equality. We asked the UCI women to offer more specific recommendations as part of this general restructuring. Their responses were interesting, with many women advocating longer time, and more detours, on the road to tenure.

Many women raised this issue, and many suggested that universities allow longer time before tenure.

Mitra articulates a view expressed by many female faculty, who want to redefine what is included in professional success, broadening and humanizing it.

This comment about privileging sciences, with their larger external funding and generous overhead, often from the NSF, reflected the view that this trend itself contributed to gender devaluation, a devaluing of areas—action research, social science and humanities—in which women had made important inroads, and a favoring of the fields that remain male dominated (physics, engineering, math). More than one woman commented that the NSF Advance itself—with its emphasis on improving the situation for women in science—was actually a contributor to this problem. Certainly, the UCI administration was faulted for an emphasis on the male scientific model.

Reward Service and Build Community

Redefining professional success so it included those people who worked hard to create a sense of community in the university, whether male or female, was another recommendation to change the institutional culture.

The recommendation to reward service more highly as a way to combat gender devaluation was wide-spread. Most women felt service work was definitely sex-typed.

Again, this was a criticism of the NSF Advance itself. Several women, speaking on condition that they were not quoted directly, complained that the NSF-sponsored Advance took some of the best women on campus, women who really care about UCI as an institution, and asked them to serve as School Equity Advisors. As Equity Advisors, they had to sign off on all external hiring searches, to ensure that women and other minorities were adequately represented on the search committee and in the pool of candidates interviewed. While women agreed this was good for the schools, and acknowledged it may have helped avoid gender bias and cut down on the impact of old boy network, they nonetheless complained that the effect on the women who did it was to take them away from their research, which will hurt them when they come up for review next time. To paraphrase one participant who wished anonymity: “They'll not get the next promotion, or the next raise. And it also made them lightning rods for all the frustration on campus that women are getting special treatment. So it was a perfect example of service that helps the institution but really hurts the individual.” Others added to this, noting that women are more community-spirited and thus get taken advantage of more in the competitive world of the male professional model.

Offer Spousal Hiring and Daycare

Another recommendation was to continue and expand university programs for spousal hiring and daycare. The first proposal recognized that professional women tend to marry other professionals, and hence need jobs for spouses in order to move. Because fewer men are married to other professionals, this problem is more acute for women than for men, although the general policy affects any professional couple. The second recommendation recognizes that good childcare is hard to find.


We have addressed a problem too frequently overlooked in discussions of gender politics: the situation of women within the Academy, an entity somewhere between a medieval guild, Byzantine fiefdom, and corporate bureaucracy, but reflecting many of the same issues as in the society at large. Aggregate statistical data suggested gender discrimination continues to exist in the form of pay differentials and differences in employment status, but we knew that much of the important aspects of equality cannot always be detected with aggregate data. We thus considered gender equality within academia through a narrative analysis of in-depth interviews with 80+ women faculty at UCI, a large Research I University, to determine what their perceptions of the situation could reveal. This is the largest systematic set of interview data on this topic.

The UCI faculty women told us that while things have improved, they still find academia retains both overt discrimination (including sexual harassment) and subtle institutional and cultural forms of discrimination. In particular, female faculty identified a process we call gender devaluation, the subtle process by which women's work is devalued or minimized, so that work or positions once deemed powerful and conferring high status frequently become devalued as women increasingly take on these roles. Service tends to be thought of as a female job, and service within the university is undervalued, as is teaching. The status hierarchy rewards research.

One surprising finding was the political responses to gender discrimination. When women discussed discrimination—overt or subtle and institutional—they did not define it as a legal or political problem so much as a personal one for which they had to take on individual responsibility. Was this a subtle psychological response to depersonalize the sting of discrimination or to take back control, since it could be argued that taking responsibility confers control? Or was it simply a reaction to the also-noted fact that women who made an issue of discrimination were punished by their colleagues for their acts? The speakers' complex appraisals suggest they employed a highly nuanced engagement with power and discrimination. They had tried the legal route, and found it produced little. Similarly, the UCI women quickly learned that overt forms of political action evoke stern reprisals for the agitator. They thus turned to more subtle forms of collective action to change gender discrimination. This phenomenon lends insight into the nature of political power in universities. Where power operates behind the scenes, subtly shaping structures of daily life and political beliefs, the assessments of those subject to its oppressive impact are adaptive and their responses challenge it indirectly. Our speakers, for instance, show a keen understanding of where the Academy stands relative to the necessary sacrifices all its participants must make in terms of family life. Our speakers' appraisals of academia's rigid treatment of the tension between career and family conform to the Academy's value structure, demonstrating our speakers' careful attention to the Academy's political cues. As a result, the responses of the women we interviewed fluctuate between calls for action and inaction, leaving the overall vision of change severely underdeveloped. We are exploring this question in on-going work but this phenomenon raises the difficult issue of whether subtle discrimination can be alleviated through processes of adaptation and incremental political change.

The most intractable problem came in the tension between career and family. It was noteworthy that almost every woman who had children lamented the difficulty in balancing these two roles. Most women juggled by working at home, often late at night or while watching children. All told stories of exhaustion, stress, and constant anxiety. The tension for those in the bench or laboratory sciences, where scholars have to supervise laboratories on a 24-hour basis, seemed so acute as to suggest it may be irresolvable and we note with poignancy the obdurate nature of this problem for women in the laboratory sciences.

Finally, we asked about how to improve the situation for women. Here, our interviews suggested specific findings relevant for reform and pointed to several strategies useful in dealing with gender inequity in society at large, not just academia. First, having more women and minorities in positions of power helps sometimes but is not enough. As a general reform, the concept of professional success needs to be redefined so it allows for alternative models, not simply the traditional, linear male model in which the professional is full time and focused on a career, with few family duties. An important aspect of this issue concerns the extent to which the male model also traps men into stereotypes, making it difficult for individual men to break out of traditional roles, if they so desire. We find the human dimension of this issue largely ignored in the feminist literature and believe a new model, which displaces both the traditional male model and the exploited female model, would be greatly welcomed. Second, as part of this general reform, specific policies can help. Institute longer tracks to tenure and allow for maternity and family leave time. Ensure that legal mechanisms are in place and that they actually work since our interviews suggested such policies that do exist are in place but unobserved in reality. Third, as part of this general re-shifting in the professional model, recognize that women who are professional frequently have husbands who also are professionals, and institute career partner-hiring policies. Finally, institute a comprehensive and reconceptualized mentoring program, so that all faculty—not just women—are automatically entered into it. This will help remove the stigma of participating in formal mentoring. Mentoring also should be extended beyond tenure. Doing so would recognize that the requirements for professional growth are on-going and existing career models make it difficult to conceptualize one's way out of situations often held irreconcilable, such as the tension between children and career. Such reforms recognize the difficulties of progressing up the academic ladder and respond to the need for continuing institutional efforts to help crack what remains a glass ceiling for women in academia.



1 The MIT Reports are among the few analyses drawing on extensive qualitative interviews. They suggest discrimination is more pervasive and entrenched than many analysts—and young female scholars—had been aware of, particularly for women in the hard sciences; see MIT Faculty Newsletter, XI (4): March 1999. The 2005 APSA Report from the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession suggests the problem also exists within political science as a discipline.

In a 2005 event on diversification in science and engineering, Lawrence Summers claimed the low numbers of women in science and engineering positions was not primarily due to discrimination or exclusion. Instead, he offered two alternative explanations: (1) Personal and familial distractions may make women unwilling or unable to commit themselves to the strenuous time commitments of professional research; (2) Genetic differences between men and women might make women less interested in science and engineering (even when controlling for socialization) and less likely to succeed at the highest levels by virtue of a smaller standard deviation in intelligence. Sharply criticized for these remarks, Summers later published a public apology but the incident played a manor factor in his eventually leaving the presidency of Harvard.

2 By “legal” we do not specifically mean only legal actions, such as filing lawsuits, though there were women in our sample who discussed that response to discrimination. We use the term more broadly to refer to the use of federal/state laws or established university policies—specifically “Equal Opportunity” or “Affirmative Action” laws and policies—to insist on equity within a school or department.

3 The report was “prompted by an alarming stall in the number of women entering the discipline and persisting through early years of faculty service to achieve tenure.” At the March 2004 Workshop that resulted in this report, the APSA “found a mixed picture for women political scientists,” with “the proportion of women entering graduate school show[ing] no steady growth, and the proportion of junior and mid-career faculty women has stalled.” The “broad problem is under-representation of women in the academic ranks” of political scientists, with women constituting roughly 24 percent of all full-time faculty in 2001. Nonetheless, “within the leaking pipeline, there are promising trends as well, such as the proportion of women receiving undergraduate degrees in the discipline, the parity between men's and women's success in the job market, the steady growth in numbers of senior women faculty, and the disappearance of a salary gap”; from the Executive Summary, iii). See, Ad Hoc and Special Committee Reports, Women's Advancement in Political Science Report (2005) for a fuller description.

4 Non-academic and non-managerial workers show broad divisions along gender lines. Women are five times as likely to be administrative or clerical staff as men; men are three times as likely to be machine operators or laborers, and ten times as likely to be in technical crafts or precision production work.

5 Bureau of Labor Statistics 2002.

6 As opposed to dental hygienists, physicians' assistants, nurses, health-care practitioners, legal aides and assistants, and other professionals in secondary or support roles, positions which are largely staffed by women (from a minimum of 60 percent to over 97 percent in the case of dental hygienists).

7 These statistics are rated by research expenditures; Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, CPST, 2004.

8 Naff 1994.

9 Salaries of $76,198 (male) to $61,835 (female) for faculty with year-long contracts and $67,509 versus $55,425 for those with nine-month contracts; Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003–4.

10 NCES 2004.

11 Koshland 1988, Oakes 1990; Isaacs 1995.

12 The anecdotal/biographical data are too vast and too mixed to provide a systematic view, and thus are not discussed here, for reasons of space.

13 McCoy and DiGeorgio-Lutz 1999, Acker and Armenti 2004, Aisenberg and Harrington 1988, Bagihole 2002, Bell and Gordon 1999. The 1996 MIT Report (commissioned in 1995 and updated in 1997 and 1998) reported that, as of 1994 only 8 percent of the faculty in the School of Science were women (22 out of 272).

14 MIT 1999. The sample initially included 22 female faculty in the school of sciences; an additional 14 interviews with tenured faculty women were later conducted.

15 The percent of women faculty in the MIT School of Science (8 percent) had not changed significantly for at least 10–20 years, and the report found no evidence to suggest this would improve in the future.

16 R1 universities are defined by the Carnegie Foundation as those giving high priority to research and offering a full range of baccalaureate programs, and to graduate education through the doctorate. Hiring, tenure, and movement through faculty ranks are based on research accomplishments.

17 When they gave their permission, we include a few of their general comments in summary form or by paraphrasing their opinions. Nowhere in our files are these speakers identified by discipline, rank, or name. Nor do we include them in the final count for our sample (N=80) since their responses were usually not formally recorded and we want to respect both their wishes and their privacy.

18 Monroe 1996.

19 QSR International. NVivo: research software for analysis and insights. http://www.qsrinternational. retrieved June 17, 2007.

20 Fuller analysis of the data, including results from a smaller but comparable survey of male faculty, is on-going and will be published later.

21 Luke 1999.

22 According to university rules in operation during most of our survey period, all merits and promotions are open, decided by all members of the department, and then go to the dean and the Committee on Academic Personnel before being finalized by the Executive Vice Chancellor/Provost. There is an elaborate system of steps, wherein a faculty enters as (for example) an Assistant Professor Step 1, 2, 3, etc. A professor who comes in at a lower level (Assistant Step 1) will ordinarily earn less than a professor who comes in at a higher step (Assistant Step 3), and has more time to pass before consideration for tenure, except for unusual circumstances, such as an outside offer.

23 Babcock and Laschever 2003.

24 See n. 1 for details on comments by Summers.

25 This struggle was first brought to public awareness in 1963 by Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and has remained a central issue for feminist writers since then.

26 We are still completing interviews with male faculty, to explore male responses to affirmative action policies to determine how the decision-making dynamic changed as more women came into departments.