Why Are There So Few Women Full Professors?

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Image: Dave Cutler for The Chronicle

By Kimberly A. Hamlin

On February 26, I was promoted to full professor. This was, of course, welcome news, especially after a year of many personal disappointments and global tragedies. But how to mark a promotion that says more about the gender and racial disparities of the academy than it does about any one person’s accomplishments? As a historian of women and gender, I felt compelled to try to understand my own experiences in a broader context.

Women comprise the majority of college students, graduate students, and assistant professors, but just 36 percent of full professors in the U.S. are women. For women of color and for mothers, the odds of becoming full professor are significantly lower, and in many STEM fields, including medical schools, women comprise less than 30 percent of full professors. In addition to the disparity in numbers, research by Alisa Hicklin Fryar at the University of Oklahoma shows a substantial pay gap as well: Male full professors at research-intensive schools earn on average $10,000 more a year than their female peers.

To help me think through what it means for women to be full professors, I posted a query on Twitter, asking for other women’s experiences with the promotion process. I was overwhelmed with replies. The most common response was from women reporting that they are the first, or even the only, female full professors in their departments. Women have been earning Ph.D.s since the 1870s; how it is possible for so many women to still be the “firsts” or “onlys” in their departments?

In response to my Twitter query, women reported a host of challenges — from the incursion of caregiving duties that disproportionately impact women to the compounding oppressions of racism and sexism to the adjunctification of teaching. Their replies fleshed out the countless studies documenting gender bias embedded in the academy. And they offered glimpses of the scholarship lost because of our failure to promote and support research by women, a research gap further exacerbated by the pandemic.

Even in the Before Times, when working mothers did not also have to oversee their own children’s education at home, parenthood significantly impacted a woman’s chances of advancing to full professor. A recent study shows that just 27 percent of academics who are mothers, compared with 48 percent of fathers, achieve tenure — to say nothing of promotion to full professor. In fact, according to the American Association of University Women, while 70 percent of tenured male professors have children, only 44 percent of tenured women do. Worse still, policies intended to benefit mothers, such as maternity leave, tend instead to benefit new fathers, who use the break from teaching to advance their research. Many mothers replied to my Twitter post that they had given up on becoming full professors, understanding that this goal remains out of reach for most mothers.

The lack of gender parity among full professors is not primarily a pipeline problem (women comprise 45 percent of associate professors); it’s a timing problem. While women earn tenure at nearly the same rate as men, there is a significant divide in research productivity post-tenure. It is one thing to hold on to one’s ambitious research agenda for six years in one’s 30s. It is quite another to sustain an ambitious research agenda into one’s 40s when care for growing children often collides with care for elders. Within the academy — perhaps more so than other fields requiring an advanced degree such as law, medicine, or business — the burden of caregiving falls on women who generally do not have the financial means to hire additional help.

Meanwhile, at work, too many men, consciously or otherwise, expect their female colleagues to perform more than our fair share of university service. Whose job is it to take the minutes at faculty meetings? Who serves on the Committee on Committees? The same people who do the preponderance of thankless tasks at home: women. In the great irony of diversity work, women and people of color tend to be the ones called to serve on the time-consuming committees to fix the structural problems that we encounter. Several women told me of having to be put on “every committee under the sun” so that each could have a senior woman or person of color.

Several “stalled associates” (a regrettable term perhaps better renamed “overburdened and underappreciated associates”) thought that they would return to their research once their caregiving responsibilities had lessened, only to find no clear path back. In large part this is due to the differential workload policies many universities have adopted in recent years. Such policies tie a faculty member’s teaching load to their research output, but, once you are teaching a 3-3 or a 4-4, it is nearly impossible to publish enough to earn a course reduction.

Gender bias also underscores key components of the promotion to full professor. “National reputation,” a common requirement for a promotion to full professor, is a rather nebulous category that can obscure gendered (and racial) bias. In history, for example, men who write about other men tend to sell more books and receive more speaking invitations, enhancing their national reputations and thus their opportunities to write more books and give more talks. Furthermore, the ability to travel about the country giving talks (and going to conferences) is predicated on having either no caregiving responsibilities or plenty of help. Studies also document widespread bias in citing research done by women and in student evaluations of female professors, especially women of color.

The lack of diversity among full professors compounds other systemic problems facing universities. Full professors populate the applicant pool for high-paying, decision-making positions. Full professors also have the institutional clout to speak out on campus issues without fear of reprisal and to serve as role models for junior colleagues and students.

The obstacle to parity is not a lack of solutions; it is a lack of institutional will. What if instead of saddling female associate professors with a disproportionate amount of committee service, women were given more flexibility in the timing of our research? What if universities rewarded administrators and departments for not only hiring diverse faculty members but also retaining and promoting them?

Is lack of diversity among full professors the biggest problem facing the academy? Surely not. But diversifying full professors is a relatively low-cost fix with high-impact reverberations across all other aspects of university life, including overall diversity and more robust, representative research.

Kimberly A. Hamlin, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Miami University, in Ohio, and the author of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener (W.W. Norton & Company, 2020). She tweets at @ProfessorHamlin.

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