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April 13, 2000

Academia is good career choice for women, Pitt panel members say

For a female faculty member, success often means compromise in one's personal life, but it's a career choice that a group of Pitt faculty members wholeheartedly endorse.

Last month's panel discussion, "Women and Academics," focused on the role of women in higher education. It was sponsored by Pitt's Office of Residence Life, with support from the women's studies program.

Vivian Curran, assistant professor of law, told the audience of about 40, "You can't be excellent as a teacher and a parent. These are in some ways irreconcilable goals."

But the University environment is still better than many for balancing career and family, she said. Curran practiced law at a firm for five years before joining Pitt's faculty in 1989. "I had an enormous sense of guilt when I had my children. I was torn between my work at the firm and being home for the kids. I also was the first woman in my family to use day care, and I felt guilt for that, too."

When she went into teaching, life became more manageable, Curran said. "The worse thing that can happen, if you have a family commitment, is you have to cancel a class — which makes the students happy anyway. It's unlike a trial where you can't not show up. Also, you can tailor what you do in your classes to your own interests more."

Nancy Condee, professor of Slavic languages and literatures and director of the Graduate Program for Cultural Studies, said, "I expect that among your questions would be how do you strike a family and career balance? Well, you don't. I helped raise five children and worked straight through. Career ambition means partly setting aside your maternal side."

Beverly Michael said not getting married until later in life than most women helped her establish her career first. "I got married at 36; had my kids at 37 and 38," said Michael, who is a senior lecturer in mathematics. "I could work my schedule around the kids for the most part; have classes two or three days a week. It is true that after they grew, my career really took off. By then, I could travel more when I was being invited to panels and seminars. And I could spend more time helping write textbooks with some of my colleagues."

"I chose not to be a mother," said Beverly Harris-Schenz, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor in Germanic languages and literatures. "I realized career and parenting didn't mesh. But I am a lover of children. I have seven godchildren." She said that in some ways she thinks of her students and advisees as her children.

Lydia Daniels, a lecturer in biological sciences, returned to academia after a 14-year hiatus as a parent and full-time volunteer. She said, "I don't recommend that path. I never thought I could go back after three years quickly became five, became seven, became 10. The field of biology has changed dramatically while I was off — I'm still catching up after two years back."

But a university should not be confused with a trade school, she said. "I developed skills in critical thinking and communication that have served me in whatever I've done, including catching up with my colleagues."

She acknowledged that certain faculty ranks are out of her reach as a result of her choices. "I know I'll never be tenure-track and never a full professor. But I sacrificed that to have a family life and I don't regret that."

Lisa Brush, assistant professor in sociology and women's studies, shifted the focus of the discussion to advice the panelists could offer women. "They say there are always two things you do in solving a murder mystery: When there's been some crime: 'Cherchez la femme — Look for the woman' and: 'Follow the money.'"

Focusing on the latter, Brush, who also moderated the discussion, said, "You have to realize you need money to get an education. Usually, that means "be a fellow," which too often means, "be one of the guys." Fellowships are available, but you have to be pro-active to seek them out, she said. "I went from the sublime to the ridiculous, earning $45,000 at the University of Wisconsin as a postdoc, and $32,000 when I first joined the faculty at Pitt."

Brush stressed the benefits for women who pursue higher education: "First, it is economically important: Women with a high school diploma average about $1,000 per month in salary, which rises directly to about $4,000 a month for a Ph.D."

But the pay scheme is still weighted toward men, she said.

"On average, a woman's salary increase is about $1,940 per year. But for men it's $3,235 per year. A woman with a B.A. makes the equivalent of a man with a high school diploma."

To bring this and other women's issues out in the open, it is important intellectually and politically for more women to embrace careers in higher ed. "It's important to society. Education will not be driven by women's questions without women there to do that. And women's lib has certainly been promoted through higher education."

Daniels picked up on Brush's other theme: "My approach is: 'Find the woman.' I had only two women instructors in my entire undergraduate education at Cornell. I was fortunate to find a vice provost to encourage me.

"But women are rare in faculty and administration. At Pitt's biology department, about 30 percent of the faculty are women," Daniels said.

"A vast, mostly invisible workforce of women volunteers — in libraries, schools, nursing homes, charity organizations — most of them university-educated, are out there. How can we bring them back to higher education?" she said.

Daniels said through her example of returning to the academy after 14 years, she wanted to be like "a pair of strong shoulders for others who follow."

Michael said, "As a mathematician, I would say we're the sum of our many parts. We can't deny our family heritage, so celebrate who you are," she advised, adding she was a baby boomer from a working class family.

"My mother thought being a secretary would be a good job for me, and I had three aunts who were nurses. Fortunately, an astute counselor told my mother I was college material. I believe there is no better career for a woman than in higher education."

When she took calculus, there were only three women in the class and no female math instructors at all. Today, her calculus classes are nearly equal in gender, she said, but the department's faculty is still mostly male.

"When I went to college, the best women students went into teaching; that's not true as much now," she said. "In my mom's generation, women stayed home. In the '70s and '80s, there was great pressure on women to work."

Now, she said, the pendulum is swinging back. "There is much more balance in choosing for women. There are many more opportunities to take different paths."

She added that there is a shortage of women Ph.D.s in math and other departments, so that female graduates often have more job options.

Condee said she was particularly influenced by the Cold War Sputnik satellite launch by the Soviet Union, which put added emphasis on math and sciences in the United States. "There was money available for study in the Cold War era," she said.

"My father was a Miltonist and a Shakespeare scholar," Condee continued. "So, to flip my parents out, I went into Sovietology." In the Cold War era, the Soviet Union was viewed as a place that had suppressed the Russian culture after the 1917 revolution, she said. "Bad people were controlling the country, we were told. At 16, I went to the Soviet Union," said Condee, who eventually specialized in Russian culture and Soviet culture and politics.

She said, however, becoming a teacher was not her original goal. "Eventually, I bumped up against the Ph.D., and had to teach, which turned out to be not as bad as I thought it would be. I was the first woman in my family to hold a job, but I think that has as much to do with class as gender, as much with race as gender, as much with my generation as gender," she said.

Curran offered a historical contrast as preface to her advice. "I heard Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak at Columbia Law School; she was an appellate court judge at that point. But after graduating top of her class at Harvard law school, her only offers were as legal secretary or paralegal."

Is this an example of the so-called glass ceiling? It depends who's defining the ceiling, Curran said. "In a law firm, you want to be a partner; that's the goal. So the two-week vacation you get you don't take, to say to the firm you're essential, so they make you a partner — and then you're miserable! Measure success in your own terms," she said. "I always expected to work hard; that you chose a profession and you knew you'd work hardat it. But the real message is you have to enjoy it."

The field of law is changing for women, she noted. "At Pitt law, more than 50 percent of tenure-stream candidates in the last 10 years were women and law classes have equal numbers of men and women."

Michael said she felt she had reached the glass ceiling in her department. "My colleagues respect what I do as a math educator; they just think it's not as important as what they do: math research. I have a specialty, but not tenure. We make compromises in life. I just can't leave Pittsburgh right now because of family circumstances."

Michael recalled facing discrimination in one of her former, pre-Pitt jobs.

"The department wanted to hire a computer scientist. I was told, in order to hire him, I had to go from full to part time." She said she refused and her appointment was not renewed by the department.

Daniels also cited an example of gender discrimination from her undergraduate years at Cornell. "I once interviewed a dean there — who had an oil painting of himself in his office — and he said to me, 'What's a pretty girl like you doing in biochemistry?' It took me a while to get over that and to restore my self-confidence," she said.

Harris-Schenz said that, as an African American woman, she sometimes felt it was a "concrete ceiling." "In my honest opinion, there are still jobs today for which I 'need not apply,'" because of her race and gender.

But she credits her family background with helping her overcome career obstacles. College was always on her parents' agenda for her, she noted. "I wanted to be a physician. I knew they made money and had prestige." She went to the University of Michigan and enrolled in a pre-med course of study. "I had to take German, and was told I'd never be able to learn it, since I hadn't had any in high school. Well, I became a German major. I like interfering with stereotypes, confronting people with them."

She advised women to do the same. "It's your choice. Find a self-definition, not what others say you can or can't do. After all, you have to live with the consequences; no one's going to take those away from you. So look for that thing you love to do and carve out for yourself your own world."

Harris-Schenz added, "It's a fallacy that you only go in a straight line to get to where you want to go. I've had students say, 'I can't take that course, I'll get behind.' You never get behind. Every course you take moves you ahead."

Several of the panelists bemoaned the lack of female mentoring available during their academic studies. Harris-Schenz said, "I never had an African American instructor at Michigan or Stanford," let alone an African American woman.

"The University is not what it should be. There should be many more who look like me, African American females. I can't separate parts of me. What is more difficult: being female or being black? Well, I've never been only one of those," she quipped.

Regarding mentoring, "Be aggressive," Harris-Schenz advised. "I went for mentoring. People should have realized we need mentoring, but that assistance might not be forthcoming on its own. Just remember no one person has all the answers; people have said no to me; I've heard no. Do as much as you can on your own andthen seek out help, don't wait for it."

–Peter Hart

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