Sexism in the Academy

Women’s narrowing path to tenure

Ceal Floyer, Ladder. 2019, aluminum ladder. 109 5/8 × 14 3/4". Photo by Ken Adlard. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery. © Ceal Floyer.

At each major point of the academic career path, there is significant hemorrhaging of female talent. In many countries of the Global North, women compose a little over half the undergraduate student body, which is only slightly more than the share of female doctoral students. It is after graduate school that the precipitous declines begin, as the number of women falls approximately ten percentage points each at the stages of assistant and associate professorship, so that finally the percentage of female full professors hovers around 32 percent. (In the European Union, the average share of full professors who are women is 21 percent.) This inverted pyramid is recognizable across academies in the Global North; even Scandinavia, despite its generous welfare states, conforms to the pattern. The few disciplines that boast large female faculties, such as education and foreign-language departments, tend to have the least prestige and are axed first during fiscal crises.

While there were significant gains during much of the 20th century, feminist progress in the academy has slowed and may have already come to a halt. Since the 1970s, an increasing number of women have joined university faculties, but this obscures the fact that in the last thirty years much of that influx has been directed toward non-tenure-track positions. There are still two tenured men for every tenured woman, a ratio that increases with the prestige an institution has. In the US, the share of female full professors as a proportion of all female faculty remains stuck in the single digits, increasing only modestly since the early 1990s. In medicine, female first-authorship has either stalled or declined in the most prestigious UK journals in recent years, after substantially increasing since the mid-2000s. Among the most serious expressions of women’s hardship in the academy is the case of US black female scientists, who often experience desolate isolation in addition to sexual and racial harassment, according to a recent study. The proportion of black women among tenured female faculty in the US has actually fallen since 1993.

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