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Though more women are going to college than ever before — 71.5 percent of 2008 U.S. high-school graduates, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — this doesn’t mean more women are becoming professors.

Though female undergraduates flood into Penn each year with dreams of finding a vocation and changing the world, the road to full professorship is often untouched amid gender equity battles and work-life struggles.

The statistics found in Penn’s Progress Report on Gender Equity, a 2009 update to a report released in 1999, speak for themselves: 28.4 percent of standing faculty are women, though Penn’s web site boasts that women comprise 52.8 percent of all currently enrolled students.

Part of the argument for this discrepancy has been that the growth of woman undergraduates has happened only relatively recently, School of Dental Medicine professor and former Faculty Senate Chairwoman Sherrill Adams explained.

“That can explain why women aren’t at higher faculty ranks,” she clarified. “It doesn’t explain why women aren’t at the lower faculty ranks.”

She called the discrepancy between the 41.6 percent female assistant professors and the 29.7 percent female associate professors “disconcerting,” saying it is “not a pipeline issue” because women have had sufficient time to get up to that level.


Adams acknowledged that this jump from assistant professorship still hits at a crucial time for women — in their 30s, when many are trying to have children.

“The academic job is anchored in the belief that it is an all-encompassing job and that the people who pursue it (i.e. men) have support for the rest of their lives,” Lotte Bailyn, a Management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in an e-mail. “This, of course, is no longer the case for most families, but the old institutions are hard to change.”

The struggle to maintain both an active career and a stable family has historically discouraged some women from tenured professorship, but some have seen improvements.

Amy Levine, the executive director of the Center for Gender Equity at the University of California, San Francisco site, said she has seen numerous changes since she began working at UC 30 years ago.

“My hope and assumption is that within the home, things are becoming somewhat more equitable,” Levine said.

Cornell University English professor Molly Hite is not as optimistic.

As a veteran of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Hite said she expected men to take up more domestic duties at the start of the 1970s.

“As Gail Collins’ [When Everything Changed] will confirm, that never happened: nothing changed in terms of women’s primary responsibility for … doing all the things you do to raise children,” she wrote in an e-mail, referencing Collins’ recent book on the progression of feminism.


Nevertheless, universities like Penn and its peer institutions have developed progressive initiatives like increased childcare options and extension of the tenure clock.

Adams said Penn took a “significant step” in November of last year with a new motion called “Backup Care” for emergency situations in which a child is too sick to go to a daycare or the child’s parent must go out of town.

“I think the University is committed to increasing access to childcare,” she said. “We just have to keep monitoring it and make sure it happens because it is expensive, and in tight economic times, it might be tempting to sort of cut back on the commitment to childcare — that would be a mistake.”


Adams, Hite and the UC Creating Change Initiative co-headed by Levine cited the culture of academia as also being a deterrent for many women.

“The culture of academe — which is competitive, solitary … and based on asserting one’s own worth … seems not only to be unfamiliar to female faculty but seems to make many of them actively unhappy,” Hite wrote, adding that from her work on tenure committees, she has seen women held to impossible double standards.

Bailyn added that according to MIT reports, although the school’s junior female faculty felt “well-treated and supported,” senior female faculty felt “marginalized” and not given the same resources or acknowledgements.

Penn, however, has started focusing on the junior faculty through a new formalized mentorship system, Adams explained, particularly helping women and minorities find the guidance and support they need to avoid feelings of isolation.

As president of the new Penn Forum for Women Faculty, Adams will also be heading its first inaugural event in February, designed to increase networking opportunities for women across the campus.

“Certainly the presence of outstanding women mentors and role models makes a difference, especially when we consider the need to inspire the female leaders of tomorrow to apply to graduate schools,” Provost Vincent Price wrote in an e-mail. “We want everyone to think of Penn as a school that is committed to grooming the female leaders of the future.”

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