In 2015, one of Penn’s most celebrated faculty members, Adam Grant, wrote, along with Sheryl Sandberg, an article describing the harmful effects of differentially assigning tasks in the workplace based on gender. Five years later, Penn seems to have demonstrated little understanding of the implications of such data. It is well known that women in the workforce are asked to perform more administrative tasks than their male colleagues, creating a culture in which women are expected to take on additional, seemingly innocuous tasks. However, it is less well-known that this culture is perpetuated at Penn, and it is worthwhile to consider how this culture develops, the negative aspects of this culture, and the ways in which people can prevent this culture from persisting at Penn and in society.
In academia, women first experience this culture of differentiating tasks between men and women within the classroom, originating in the way professors view and treat their students. For example, Penn’s Department of Biochemistry is known to award honors to graduating seniors every year. One of those awards, the Helix Prize, is given to students who organize the biological chemistry seminar series, essentially performing an administrative task. Since 2000, women have been 2.36 times more likely than men to be awarded this prize, basically encouraging women to perform administrative tasks, whereas the other awards are more evenly distributed between genders.
The implications of this choice are remarkable. The selection of primarily female students as “seminar coordinators” perpetuates the culture within Penn’s Biochemistry Department, along with that of many other universities, of assigning administrative tasks more frequently to females than males. This method of assignment limits the potential of female students by requiring that they spend time on administrative tasks, thereby limiting their time for academics, research, and other interests. Furthermore, the awarding of an academic prize based primarily upon the administrative skills of a student, rather than their academic merit, calls into question the legitimacy of such a prize.
This discriminatory culture compounds as female students move on to become faculty members themselves. This raises the cost to women for continuing to perform such administrative tasks as they move up the academic ladder. A straightforward solution is to encourage women to decline offers of additional administrative tasks in the first place. However, this ignores the wealth of studies showing that it's not only difficult for women to refuse such tasks, but when women do refuse, they are more harshly perceived than men who decline to perform such tasks, thereby limiting a woman’s potential to be promoted and access opportunities. As a result, those in power must join in the effort to change this culture and refrain from primarily asking women to perform additional administrative tasks.
The societal assumption that women perform administrative tasks better than men and, therefore, should be encouraged to perform such tasks more frequently is a cancer within our society. Such an assumption sets young women and men on a track that only furthers the administrative skills gap between the sexes, only reinforcing this insidious stereotype. If Penn truly cares about gender equity, they will take meaningful action to correct such assumptions by enhancing their current staff training program on diversity and inclusion. Penn has a responsibility to thoroughly educate faculty and staff of the negatives associated with gender-based allocation of work and the stereotypes that are perpetuated through such actions. Penn should add to their current training program a section detailing the negatives of gender-based allocation of work and institute rewards for departments that succeed in achieving gender equity in the distribution of work. This initiative is critical to the establishment of a more equal academic culture. Those in leadership must set an example for more junior colleagues, thinking twice before continuing to ask females to perform additional administrative tasks, such as taking notes at a meeting or organizing events. Furthermore, it is Penn’s social responsibility to instill this mindset into their employees.
ERIKA GUSTAFSON is a College junior from Prescott, Arizona studying physics and biochemistry in the Vagelos MLS program. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.