Why do faculty women still face bias and an unwelcome reception in so much of higher education? What can institutions do about it?

These are the questions that frame Building Gender Equity in the Academy: Institutional Strategies for Change (Johns Hopkins University Press). The authors are Sandra Laursen, director and senior research associate of ethnography and evaluation research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Ann E. Austin, associate dean for research in the College of Education at Michigan State University. They responded via email to questions about their book and the challenges facing women in the academy.

Q: What are the main problems that remain for women in academic hiring?

A: In hiring, implicit bias is a major concern because it shapes how faculty applicants’ files are read, interpreted and judged. Bias enters when people base their judgments on unacknowledged stereotypes in evaluating individuals. Because it shapes their earlier opportunities, bias also influences the credentials that women later bring to their applications for academic jobs, such as whether they have received prestigious graduate or postdoc fellowships or worked in high-status research groups. When women are excluded from informal social networks, they don’t receive the inside scoop on useful news and opportunities; they may not receive strategic advice or invitations from sponsors and mentors. As a result of long experience with such disadvantages, women may promote themselves less boldly, which may be interpreted as a lack of strength or confidence.

Q: What are the main problems with regard to earning tenure?

A: Implicit bias again rears its ugly head, shaping how people are promoted, tenured and advanced into leadership roles. We find that institutions have an easier time dealing with implicit bias in their hiring practices, because the numbers of applicants are large and it’s easier to put training and protective procedures in place. Because tenure decisions are fewer and more variable or even idiosyncratic, it’s harder to tell from the data if decisions are affected by bias. It can be easier to explain away differential outcomes as due to the strengths and weaknesses of individual cases. As in hiring, the effects of bias across the early career, such as loss of opportunities or exclusion from useful social networks, can distort the array of accomplishments presented in the tenure dossier.

Differences in the ways faculty choose to use their time or how they direct their scholarship can also affect tenure prospects. For example, women and faculty of color tend to spend more time advising and mentoring students — activities that may be perceived as service and less valued than research. In general women publish fewer but more impactful publications, and they are more likely to publish on nontraditional topics — applied science, interdisciplinary work, education and outreach. Faculty of color too often gravitate toward applied research or engaged scholarship that aims to give back to their communities but is often less valued when their work is evaluated by others. These faculty are often asked to do more institutional and disciplinary service to represent their groups, to teach large-enrollment courses, support student interest groups and do community outreach so they can be role models for students. Indeed, they may find it compelling to do these things, but this choice becomes a catch-22 if they are then penalized for doing less traditional scholarship while doing more teaching, service and outreach.

Q: Your book talks about “rebooting” workplaces. What would that look like?

A: Rebooting the workplace starts with examining and reshaping the culture and environment in which the work occurs. Workplace environment has a great deal of influence on people’s satisfaction with their job and their intention to stay at their job or seek greener pastures, and many studies suggest it’s particularly important for women. So rebooting the workplace environment can have a very positive impact. Examples include building habits of collegial interaction that are respectful and nonhierarchical; scheduling meetings at times that do not interfere with family obligations; developing strategies for fair sharing of departmental service, advising and teaching assignments; communicating clear tenure and promotion standards; promoting women’s visibility and leadership; ensuring that resources are distributed fairly and transparently, such as travel funds and lab space; and including everyone purposefully in departmental deliberations and decision making. It also means recognizing and interrupting bad behaviors such as bullying, interrupting and microaggressions.

Q: You talk about work-life balance as a particularly important issue. What kinds of changes are needed? Would they change the nature of the research university for everyone?

A: Work-life balance is an important issue for many faculty and staff, not just women. Family duties still fall on women disproportionately due to gendered societal expectations as well as the biological realities of childbirth and breastfeeding, but we find that men entering academic careers are also looking for more balance, and many are seeking to play a larger role in family life. Our research shows a surprising range in the extent and quality of support for work-life balance offered by academic institutions: some offer very good support, such as generous leave policies and campus-based childcare, and others offer very little beyond the federally required minimums, such as FMLA for unpaid family leave. The most significant changes include policies that enable flexibility of work assignments on shorter and longer time frames — but a variety of practical solutions are helpful, too, such as support for resuming scholarly and creative work after a career break; lactation rooms where faculty, staff and students can breastfeed a baby; and help in locating qualified childcare resources in the community. One size does not fit all, but some institutions have a long way to go to catch up. These policies need to be available for everyone, not just for tenure-stream faculty. Experience and evidence suggest that family-friendly policies pay for themselves in reducing turnover and increasing morale.

Awareness and use of available policies is also surprisingly variable. People feel stigma about using family leave or tenure stop-clock policies, for instance, or even asking about their options, for fear they will be prejudged as less committed to their work than others. So it’s important that administrative leaders encourage the use of such policies and establish clear, equitable and transparent processes for requesting those benefits. People must have confidential access to high-quality information about institutional work-life resources from people who are both well informed and separate from formal evaluation processes. These kinds of changes will widely improve the work environment at universities and colleges of all types, not just research institutions.

Q: How has the pandemic affected the issues you are concerned about?

A: Women are getting hammered by the pandemic! They are carrying extra loads at home and sacrificing their own work time for tasks such as supervising homeschooling and managing elder care as the pandemic disrupts regular routines and systems of support. Faculty of color face extra expectations and challenges in responding to the civil rights and social justice crises of these times. All these faculty are supporting students and colleagues, and they are taking on extra leadership, support and coordination roles to keep their departments functioning. So it’s a crucial time not to back off of equity efforts, but rather to double down: the stakes are high both for individuals and for institutions. Failing to support women faculty now will have lasting costs for many years if we drive talented, established people out of the academy. In contrast, when women are supported so they can succeed, their careers are rewarding and their contributions advance the institution’s work of research, teaching and public service.