The Challenge of Tenure for Women

A recent article in Slate summarizes some of the findings in Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, a recent book by a team of Berkeley researchers. Mary Ann Mason, Ph.D., J.D., a co-author of the book, summarizes their findings thus:

The most important finding is that family formation negatively affects women’s, but not men’s, academic careers. For men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer.”

The research identifies a key problem with our current system of academic employment. But the author seems hesitant to take this conclusion to the next step. For example, when discussing the growing prevalence of adjuncts (part-time, temporary professors), the author draws this conclusion:

Unfortunately, more women Ph.Ds. has meant more cheap labor. And this cheap labor threatens to displace the venerable tenure track system.”

The author thus identifies a double-crisis in education: Women are at a disadvantage and the tenure track system is vulnerable. This suggests that the author has failed to consider the most compelling conclusion of her research, that tenure is itself a patriarchal institution, designed to reinforce and magnify existing privileges. The elements of the system that put women at a disadvantage are not bugs but features.

The tenure track system rewards those with the time (and financial) flexibility to devote their lives to individual research from their twenties into their forties. Since the system was created, that has almost exclusively meant white males with personal wealth or family support. For these men, wives and children provided household support and social outlets that enabled their continued focus on academic research along with additional incentives for career advancement.  Historically, the tenure track system depended on the (non-paid) work of women to expand privileges for these men, including life-time job guarantees for those who qualified.

While I was in graduate school, a professor told me of his advice to undergraduates who aspire to be professors: “Only go to graduate school if you can afford to spend your 20s doing something you love and then walk away from it at the end.” But who can really ‘afford’ to do that in our society? It may be good advice for the individual, but it’s a terrible indictment of the way in which a system that prides itself on being a meritocracy actually replicates and reinforces existing privilege at every turn.

The way to equalize academic career opportunities for women is not to reform the tenure track system. It is to reform the structure of academic careers, including replacing the tenure track system.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.