IHE: “Relying on Women, Not Rewarding Them”


An article in Inside Higher Ed by Colleen Flaherty points out something all of us in academic should already know but that many of us conveniently ignore: women, to put it bluntly, are the dogsbodies of most academic departments. Not only that, but I suspect that they teach a disproportionate percentage of lower-level courses—probably for much the same reasons. Flaherty is writing about a new study by Casssandra Guarino and Victor Borden, “Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?” She says:

In a first, basic crack at the data, the authors determined that women in the national sample performed 30 more minutes per week of service than men and 1.5 more service activities per year than men in the local sample, and that the difference was statistically significant in both cases.

That does not surprise me; it has long frustrated me to see women colleagues devoting time to their service duties far beyond what men are doing and taking time away from their own research agendas. When I have advised them to pull back from service commitments in favor of their own advancement, I’ve gotten pained looks and replies like, “I just can’t. I’ve committed to this work and have to complete it” though it has grown in scope and demand since it was taken on. According to Flaherty:

The authors assert that service is an area of inequity that can be addressed relatively easily, via careful monitoring of service requests and allocations. Female faculty members, it says, “could be mentored to show more selectivity in their service-related choices and cultivate their ability to say no to requests.” Department chairs and deans, meanwhile, “could be made to be more fully aware of how service assignments are being meted out. A simple increase in overall awareness of this issue may improve overall attitudes toward service loads, remove traces of gender bias from service expectations and enable both women and men to accept or decline service requests with equal ease and impunity.”

This should extend beyond simple questions of service but to how release time for scholarship is administered. In a meeting I attended recently, a female department chair suggested that teachers taking maternity leave could round out the semester by using release time. I objected, saying that’s an inappropriate use of valuable research time. The rejoinder was that parents can do their research at home while caring for an infant, killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. This attitude needs changing.

Flaherty quotes Joya Misra of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst: the “daily grind of service and leadership rarely carries the respect and reputational benefits of disciplinary service, while it actively limits women’s research time.” I have even heard of many cases where faculty have been told to use release time for research for service obligations; only once have I heard of this being said to a man (many of the speakers have been women).

Another way of addressing this problem is working to elevate the status of service within the academic community—just as we should be elevating the prestige of teaching lower-level courses (something more challenging, I find, than teaching upper-level courses, and actually more gratifying—but you wouldn’t know it from the way people scramble for ‘the top’). Institutional reward for service excellence—including in decisions on retention, promotion and tenure—would be a start. Most schools have an annual award for a top scholar; how many have one for service? In peer-review meetings for promotion, service is often passed over briefly, the vast majority of the discussion centering on scholarship, yet service has at least as great an institutional value as does scholarship. We’re even told, however, that the rule of thumb is 40% teaching, 40% scholarship and 20% service in looking at promotion possibilities.

What I have seen some people do is combine their service activities with the scholarship. In many cases, this can be hard to do but, for some, it is possible. It shouldn’t be necessary, but it does alleviate some of the pressure to perform service duties at the expense of scholarship (these things, after all, have to get done).

What I hate seeing is people bowing to pressure to fulfill service obligations when they should be conducting research or writing—to their own detriment. That it happens shows little institutional respect for scholarship and a bowing to corporate ‘need’ instead of taking individual advancement also into consideration. People—and it is primarily women this happens to—take on service responsibilities (or, more accurately, have them thrust upon them) and are then punished for them at times of reappointment, tenure and promotion—because they have not published enough.

Flaherty ends by quoting Laura Perna of the University of Pennsylvania:

More broadly, the study raises important questions about “what it is we are valuing in our reward system,” she said. Service, not always rewarded like other kinds of faculty work, “is really oriented toward advancing [an institution’s] collective mission.”

Those very institutions need to rethink how they value those people who, by their actions, support them most.

One thought on “IHE: “Relying on Women, Not Rewarding Them”

  1. Even more interesting would be to include support staff (department secretaries et al.) who are mostly women. Full disclosure: my partner is one such.

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