Oct. 23, 2007

'Ideal' worker model shuts women out of academia, <br />says speaker at ADVANCEments lecture

A so-called "chilly climate" persists for women at academic and research universities because of an archaic construct of what an "ideal" worker is, said Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California-Hastings, speaking at Cornell Oct. 17.

The "ideal academic" can relocate easily and work full time for many years without time off for child-bearing, child care or care of aging parents. The assumption is that such family chores can be taken care of by a stay-at-home spouse, leaving the worker free to concentrate entirely on professional duties.

But this model does not fit current realities in academia. So said the prize-winning author and nationally known expert on work and family issues in delivering the first annual ADVANCEments in Science Lecture, hosted by the CU-ADVANCE Center. The Cornell center, established last year, is funded by the National Science Foundation to help recruit and retain more women faculty in the traditionally male-dominated engineering and science disciplines.

Williams' lecture, "Why Bad (Stereotyping) Things Happen to Good People," served as the final keynote for Cornell's Life Quality Meeting, hosted annually by the Office of Workforce Diversity, Equity and Life Quality. This year, CU-ADVANCE and the workforce diversity office collaborated to host the meeting and Williams' talk.

According to Williams, inequalities between men and women are apparent not only in the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but also in academia in general. Some of her eye-opening statistics: 38 percent of faculty nationwide are women; women are twice as likely to be non-tenure track; men are 35 percent more likely to be full professors; and 85 percent of department chairs are men.

"It's a pretty sobering picture when you bring all that demographic data together," Williams said.

Female professors are also less likely to be married, more likely to be divorced and less likely to have children, Williams said. Given these and other facts, such institutions as Cornell, in choosing to pay attention to these disparities, have a "historic" opportunity to fix such inequalities.

Additionally, there are unspoken expectations placed on women in academia that put them in a double bind; they are expected to be feminine and nurturing yet are seen as ineffectual if they are too feminine. And when exerting leadership, women are often seen as "difficult" or abrasive. A sign of unconscious gender bias is when "women have to choose between being liked but not respected ... or respected but not liked," Williams said.

Though these circumstances are bleak, Williams continued, such biases are far from inevitable. Unconscious stereotyping can be controlled with heightened awareness, but it requires consistent and conscious attention.

One way to address biases is to hold workshops and seminars for faculty and chairs on how unexamined stereotyping works, and offer tools for identifying and combating such biases. Another solution is for an institution to make greater efforts in finding academic positions for the spouses of newly hired faculty members who relocate and bring with them a partner with academic expertise and faculty credentials.

Institutions should also create better alternatives to standard benefits packages in order to provide more family-friendly options, Williams said. In terms of child care, one innovative idea might be to arrange a cooperative child-care program for graduate students, who might not be able to afford full-time child care, but who could afford part-time care in exchange for also working part time at the center.

Cornell offers dual-career hiring support for academic couples through the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity and Faculty Development, and the CU-ADVANCE center in September conducted a seminar for department chairs and search chairs on avoiding bias in faculty searches. The ADVANCE Center will offer this session again in January to all faculty serving on search committees.