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Harvard Sees Decrease In Non-Tenured Women

By Marcella Bombardieri


Harvard University has seen a sharp drop in the proportion of women serving as junior professors in the humanities, according to newly released numbers, leaving officials anxious about a problem they had never expected to face in 2004.

Only 21, or 35 percent, of the school’s nontenured humanities professors are women, a drop from the mid-1990s, when women were nearly half of all assistant and associate professors in the humanities.

“I think it’s a disturbing trend that requires attention,” Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers said in an interview. “The key to ultimately diversifying the faculty is developing as strong a pipeline as possible.”

Across all subject areas at Harvard, including the sciences and the social sciences, the proportion of female junior professors has remained at about 30 percent for a decade.

Drop in contrast to sciences

The figures contrast with Harvard’s success in boosting the number of women in senior faculty positions and in the sciences. Those numbers have been growing steadily over the years, thanks to a long push to change an institution that three decades ago had only a handful of tenured women.

Women are now earning more than half of all doctorates in the United States and are especially numerous in the humanities. As a result, Harvard leaders are asking why they are seeing a dropoff in the proportion of younger scholars.

“We worry it might not be a statistical aberration; it might be a trend,” said Maria Tatar, dean for the humanities. “I sometimes worry that some women don’t apply to Harvard because they are concerned about the chances of getting tenure, especially with children.”

Officials caution that the overall number of junior faculty is too low to make sweeping conclusions. But William C. Kirby, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, was concerned enough to highlight the issue in his annual letter to professors last week, writing: “I intend to work intensively on this issue in the year ahead.”

Though few other elite universities have comparable numbers available, there is some evidence that Harvard may not be unique in this regard. Even as it has hired more women overall, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has seen the number of nontenured women in its humanities and social sciences departments decline from 41 percent in 1983 to 23 percent last year. The proportion of women in the social sciences at the University of Pennsylvania has also dipped slightly since 1997.

Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who led an ambitious effort to document inequity in the presence of women scholars in the sciences at MIT, said the numbers could be the early signs of a backlash against universities’ efforts to bring more women to the faculty. While Hopkins said there’s not enough data to make assumptions, she wondered: “If the numbers of women get too high, is there a reaction that ‘eek, this profession is getting feminized’?”

Harvard has been “nondistinguished” on the issue of women in academia, Hopkins said. “When you are the richest and most powerful, you have to be the leader, not the follower.”

But Harvard officials insist they have been aggressive in seeking greater equality. Women are now nearly 20 percent of tenured professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and they are nearly 30 percent of tenured faculty in the humanities. In the sciences, the number of women junior professors has doubled in five years, but still accounts for only 17 percent. In the social sciences, women are 42 percent of nontenured professors.

Junior faculty not replenished

One reason there are fewer junior female professors in Harvard’s humanities departments is that some of them have been promoted, getting tenure and joining the ranks of senior faculty. Of the 88 senior women on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the main teaching body for Harvard College, 33 were promoted from within, according to university figures.

But the new numbers suggest that their ranks are not being replenished among junior faculty. Some wonder whether female academics are more often choosing not to make the personal sacrifices required for a top-flight academic career, just as more women with MBAs and law degrees have been stepping off the corporate ladder in the last few years.

Observers suggest that this tension could be particularly acute at Harvard, which is known for its difficult process in awarding tenure. Harvard has long rejected most of its junior professors for tenure, instead poaching stars from other colleges. A female scholar considering starting a family, Tatar said, might think twice before committing to a school if she worried she would almost certainly leave in five to seven years.

Sensitive to such criticism, Harvard has made a conscious effort in the last few years to promote more assistant and associate professors. That has led to the ascent of young stars like Victorian scholar Leah Price, who last year became the first woman to be tenured from within the English department. In addition, the school allows a new parent with primary child-care responsibilities to delay tenure review by a year.

Harvard seeks minorities, women

To diversify its faculty, Harvard has a longstanding policy that every academic job search should include an effort to identify women and minority candidates. The university changed its review process last year to require the dean or the provost to scrutinize each junior appointment, to make sure the search has been conducted broadly and fairly.

Harvard also has an eight-year-old “outreach fund” that allows the hiring of scholars from underrepresented groups, even if the department in question lacks an empty slot. The fund has supported 15 hires since it was created, and it is expected to spend $20 million by 2020, Summers said.

It may be too soon to judge the success of Harvard’s recent efforts. Some fear that the roots of the issue at Harvard and elsewhere may be that the attention given to gender equality in the 1980s and 1990s has simply waned.

“It’s so easy to fall back into the old ways,” said Susan R. Suleiman, a Harvard professor of Romance languages and comparative literature. “Cultural stereotypes are so embedded that unfortunately, when people think of what’s best, the image that comes to mind is still often a young man.

“We need to be constantly examining our own assumptions,” she said, “about excellence, about what is interesting work, and about what an academic should look like.”