Saturday, July 24, 2010

Higher Ed's Missing Women (and why we all need to care)

There was a recent post on The Washington Post's website, Why Women Leaders are MIA from Academic Life. I wrote a similar post, A Women's Work in Higher Ed, a few months ago. Blogs like UVenus exist because an entire generation of women academics feel like academia has little place for them. Reading the comments on The Washington Post article, you'd think that it's more whiny women who can't cut it and want special treatment over men, who clearly deserve it or want it more. It when so far that when I tweeted the MIA article, it was retweeted with the comment, "feminist propaganda."

What I think many people outside of academia don't understand is how late in the game, compared to just about any other profession, academics actually start their careers. You need your undergrad (min. four years), masters (one-two years), and then PhD (four years plus). In the sciences, you are also expected to complete one or more postdoctoral fellowships (another three plus years). And then, if you are lucky, you might land a tenure-track job, which means another seven years of breaking your back in order to win tenure. The rest of us labor as casual, low-paid, contingent faculty.

Do that math. A woman must wait until she is in her mid- to late-30s in order to have kids if she wants to go the path of the academic. Or, she lacks insurance in order to pay to have a kid.

Men, on the other hand, can have babies until, well, forever. Which is why the system doesn't punish men in the same way.

Let's look at other, high-demand professions where women have also historically lagged behind: business, law, medicine. These professions typically demand some post-undergrad education. But the length of those programs is nothing compared to getting a PhD, almost half the time. In business, the MBA typically comes once the person has some experience in the business world. While residencies in order to specialize in medicine are long and grueling, the doctor is paid a fair amount of money during this period. Not a king's ransom, but fair. And there are a number of choices a new doctor can select in order to specialize in a program that suits their lifestyle and life goals. As a lawyer, even if someone chooses to only practice law part-time, they are still paid the going rate for lawyers, not paralegals.

For a woman getting a PhD, there is no less-demanding specialty, no part-time option, no flex-time, nothing. You either ride the tenure-track or you get paid next to nothing as an adjunct. 

But at the end of the day, if you believe in the innate, natural, biological differences between men and women, and you care about the future of higher ed, then you should be screaming for more women to rise the leadership ladder. Much of the criticism of the current direction (and rapid regression) of higher ed is directed at the top-down, business-like leadership. Universities, the criticism says, are being run like corporations and less like institutions where collaboration and share governance are prized. Universities, in other words, are being run by men like a stereotypical man: dictatorial, ruthless, and profit/prestige driven. If the university is to survive, it needs a stereotypical women's touch: collaboration, cooperation, and compassion. 

If these are the values and skills we want our undergraduates to have in order to succeed in the 21st Century, we need leadership at the universities that reflect those values and practice those skills. The university needs more women leaders.


  1. I agree, higher education needs more women leaders.

    Not sure, though, if I would blame the decline of higher education on men. There are plenty of women leading with the corporate touch, and even transforming more collegial institutions into business-like operations (Because that's the definition of a successful leader, of course. Women buy into this too.). And, the move towards corporatization of higher education is centuries-old. Higher education, in fact, was a major player in creating the corporate mentality and structure, eclipsed only by the church. I think what we are seeing is a much larger, more complex movement that, in attempting to reconcile exorbitant tuition, unemployable graduates, declining US competitiveness, the shifting nature of the nation-state and its obligation to educate its citizens, etc., has defaulted to imposing not just a corporate solution, but an old-school corporate solution. I actually think the higher education institution of the future will look nothing like the grand old institutions of today or the immediate yesterday, but more like the loose unincorporated communities that came to be the first University of Bologna, which were not unlike tech. start-ups or wikis.

    If you don't mind, I may cross-post this on my blog at a later date. Thanks for your engaging posts!

  2. I don't mind at all. I want people to share and I want people to engage in the conversation!

    And I agree about what the university of the future will (or, more accurately, will not) look like. On Twitter, I've started a hashtag, #higheredapocalypse. I really think that there will be a breaking up of the mega-university. Perhaps not all (I think the "brand" of the Ivies and a few others will survive, or at least last way longer than everyone else) but a large majority.

    I think that they might not even be institutions, either. I think the tutor, or some variation thereof, will make a comeback. There are too many talented and smart people who are now excluded and lots of people who are dissatisfied with the education they are receiving. When this generation, about to graduate and without work, start really reflecting on their education and start looking at options for their kids, we will see a big, big shift.

  3. Thanks for putting your blog address up on the Post article. The comments following these kinds of articles are always so depressing, I am glad I can send this link to other people instead.


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