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University tenure clock disfavors women weighing academic ambition against family

(Michelle Fu/Daily Bruin)

By Ani Gasparyan

May 6, 2019 10:51 p.m.

Professors aspiring to get tenure are working against a ticking clock.

For women, though, this clock ticks much louder.

Faculty at UCLA typically start off as assistant professors and work within a roughly eight-year time frame to obtain tenure, or permanent employment. Every two years, they’re evaluated and have the opportunity to climb the hiring ladder.

And every one of those years matters. Faculty run against the clock to prove that their research and contributions to the university are valuable enough to merit tenure, but many end up getting stuck as regular faculty.

A lot of candidates know that’s a possibility from the start, especially with the increasing trend of universities hiring adjunct faculty to cut costs. But women have disproportionately had to face that truth.

Women hold 49% of faculty positions in the U.S. – which can be praised as significant progress from what was once an exclusively male institution.

But they hold only 38% of tenured positions.

It’s worse at UCLA, where only 33.7% of professors in 2016 were women.

This doesn’t happen by chance. The tenure clock is long and tedious, and universities value those who can devote themselves to their work and produce results. For some women, that can feel like choosing between having a career and having a family.

That apparently is a deterrent to promoting more women for universities like UCLA.

It’s a cultural problem. Faculty members up for tenure are evaluated by fellow faculty based on their research, commitment and expected promise.

Contributions and promise, though, can be pretty subjective to evaluate, especially in a system that’s barred women from higher education for centuries. And this can be attributed to how the system itself is set up: Despite years of women being able to obtain college degrees, universities don’t acknowledge that many of them who seek positions in academia have greater responsibilities than their male counterparts.

Ashley Blum, a doctoral student in political science, said the system hasn’t adapted to be inclusive of women who want families.

“The difficulties that women face, particularly in the period between graduate school and going up for tenure, are the biggest detriment to women doing well in academia,” she said.

The tenure clock often takes place at the same time that people are establishing their families. Marriage and children can be obvious deterrents to productivity, and it’s still apparently the woman’s job to bear that responsibility.

Women with families are often evaluated more critically for what they’re able to contribute to universities, presumably under the assumption that they’d have less time to do research on top of providing child care.

“I do worry about being pressured to choose between being a serious academic and having a family,” Blum said. “I’m hoping the systems will have adapted to be better to women who really want to do both, but so far I don’t think that they have.”

That’s not to say academia has been inept at factoring in women. Some universities have updated their tenure policies to pause the tenure clock for what amounts to parental leave – the more kids you have to care for, the more time you get. That period also means less grading and teaching.

But this has tipped the scales only further in favor of men.

Male professors have been able to use stop-the-clock policies to their advantage by simply doubling down on their research, according to a recent study. Women, in contrast, actually use this time to parent their children.

So while both women and men are able to utilize this policy change, men are able to increase their productivity while women are still forced to remain stagnant – perpetuating the same double standard that put them in this position in the first place.

Moreover, while women can extend the tenure clock if they have children, that isn’t something they can explain on their academic resumes, said Jessica Collett, a sociology professor.

“People can just see … that over these nine years this person has not accomplished as much as other people would accomplish in that time, (and they might say), ‘So maybe we shouldn’t give her tenure,'” she said.

Of course, it might seem like women’s uphill battle against the tenure clock is because of some faculty’s insensitivities – faculty, after all, are the ones who ultimately evaluate their peers for tenure. Yet the numbers show there’s clearly an institutional double standard: For example, in 2016, there was almost an equal distribution of female to male faculty in UCLA’s humanities divisions. But the higher up you go, the fewer women you’ll see. Those numbers only get worse the more rigorous the degree program and the more masculinized the field of study.

The fact of the matter is that tenure, by design, fails to let a lot of women into the university ranks. It perpetuates the false idea that women must choose between pursuing their career ambitions or having a family, which worsens the gender gap in higher education.

Tenure is a representation of who universities value. At UCLA, that apparently means only a handful of women.

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Ani Gasparyan | Senior staff columnist
Gasparyan was an assistant Opinion editor from 2018-2019. She previously contributed as an opinion columnist for the section and writes about issues surrounding gender equity and student life.
Gasparyan was an assistant Opinion editor from 2018-2019. She previously contributed as an opinion columnist for the section and writes about issues surrounding gender equity and student life.
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