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January 22, 2009


A recent article in Perspectives on Politics was provocatively titled “Gender Equity in Academia: Bad News From the Trenches. …” Based on a National Science Foundation study of female faculty at the University of California-Irvine, it reported on a number of difficulties faced by women there and, ostensibly, elsewhere. Several of the problems related to leadership. For instance, while more women were serving in administrative roles than in the past, female faculty felt that, once they did, those positions became “devalued.” Female faculty also felt that women disproportionately were given service assignments that were time-consuming but lacked prestige.

Do such problems exist at Pitt?

In the fall of 2007 Irene Frieze, chair of the University Senate’s ad hoc committee for the promotion of gender equity, asked me to chair a working group on this subject. Also serving on this working group were: Kelly Otter, College of General Studies; Kacey Marra, surgery and bioengineering, and Lynne Conner, theatre arts. (Conner subsequently took a faculty position at Colby College.)

Our initial task was to create and circulate an online survey to female leaders (present or former) at the University. We launched the survey in May 2008; of the 88 women contacted, 30 percent responded. Among other things, we asked women about their leadership experience at Pitt, their sense of whether obstacles to such service existed (and, if so, why); whether they thought leadership training was valuable and, if so, whether they had ever participated in such a program (on-campus or off-); and what suggestions they had to encourage female leadership at the University.

Significantly, the overwhelming majority (28) indicated that they thought women were underrepresented in leadership positions here. In general, the reasons that participants suggested for this fell into two categories: institutional (factors relevant either to Pitt or academia in general) and societal (factors relevant to the position of women in the broader culture). In the former category, many respondents bemoaned what they felt was an “insider” culture at Pitt that tended to favor those already in the orbit of present male leaders. Others complained that assertive women were far less tolerated than assertive men.

In the second category, participants mentioned how, despite gains by the women’s movement, females (even career women) often are more responsible for child and elder care than are men — making them less able to assume administrative burdens. In certain fields, women felt that they had to “prove” themselves as scholars to skeptical male colleagues, making it unlikely that they would take on administrative tasks. On the issue of leadership “training,” the response was mixed: Some thought it helpful and regretted that (aside from a few programs in professional schools; no programs were available for women at Pitt. Others thought it problematic to assume that women would need leadership training more than men.

On Dec. 15 our working group presented its findings to the Senate ad hoc committee for the promotion of gender equity. We made the following recommendations:

1. Administrators should be required to take more cognizance of the gender balance (or imbalance) in administrative positions they supervise and to establish a priority for appointing qualified women to open posts.

2. Administrators should consider, in advance, those women in their academic area who may not yet have served in leadership positions but who show skills for so doing and mentor them toward future administrative service.

3. Processes by which leaders are appointed should be more transparent (e.g., involve publicized search committees, etc.). Many survey participants had no idea how many leadership positions were filled or how they might apply for them.

4. Funds should be provided by Pitt for women, identified as future leaders, to attend external seminars on leadership.

5. The University should consider contracting with established academic leadership training organizations for academic women to provide short-term, on-campus seminars if there is demonstrated interest in this.

6. The University should host an event inviting established female academic leaders (external and/or internal) to facilitate further conversation on this topic. This would give visibility to the issue and identify women interested in academic leadership.

7. Given that women in our culture are more likely to bear an extra burden in relation to familial care (thus making their assumption of leadership positions difficult), the University should address outstanding issues concerning the availability of child care on or near campus.

Lucy Fischer, Distinguished Professor of Film Studies and English, chaired the Senate working group on women and leadership.

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