From the Chilly Classroom to the Chillier Faculty Lounge
One writer takes a closer look at the obstacles female professors face while trying to ascend in academia at Dartmouth.
In 1989, before religion professor Susan Ackerman found a position at Dartmouth, she interviewed for a job at another university. When her interviewers told her that she didn’t look good in the dress that she was wearing, she panicked.
“It all of a sudden goes through your head, ‘I'm not going to get this job because I don’t look good in my dress,’” said Ackerman. “That’s not why you should or shouldn’t get a job.”
After receiving that criticism, Ackerman began to recognize how the treatment of women in her industry deviated from the experiences of their male counterparts. She added that although she believes there have been advancements in promoting gender equity in recent years, there are still challenges and biases that persist, which may have the potential to impact the representation, treatment and career trajectories of women in the academic world.
One of the primary measures of gender inequality in academia is the gender wage gap. As originally referenced in an article published by The Dartmouth in 2021, during the 2020-2021 academic year, male professors at Dartmouth made an average salary of $218,198, compared to only $184,367 for Dartmouth’s female professors — a pay discrepancy of $33,831.
Visiting associate sociology professor Kristin Smith researches gender inequality, especially as it pertains to employment patterns and work and family policy. According to Smith, sociologists have seen consistent inequality in the compensation of women compared to men, even after running statistical models that control for other variables. Additionally, the issue of the ratio of male to female professors gets worse when you take a magnifying glass to different departments.
“Dartmouth has made an effort to hire more women over the past 15 to 20 years,” Smith says. “But there’s fewer women in the economics or computer science departments, and more men teaching at Tuck [School of Business].”
The only subset of departments that boasts gender parity among the faculty is the arts and humanities, where women represent a stable 50%. In the social sciences, that number drops significantly to 35% and in the sciences, the number drops even lower. Within the physical and life sciences, only 26% of faculty members are female.
But Dartmouth isn’t alone in this matter. According to the faculty statistics of other Ivy League schools – namely Brown, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale – Dartmouth’s peer institutions also struggle with an uneven gender ratio within the classroom.
Thayer School of Engineering professor Helene Seroussi weighed in on the lack of gender parity in the engineering department. While she said that female representation is improving in the engineering classes she teaches and for tenure-track faculty, she confirmed that tenured female professors remain disproportionately underrepresented.
“It happens every once in a while that we have a meeting, and you’re the only woman in the room,” Seroussi said. “I barely notice anymore, but every once in a while I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m the only one around here.’”
According to Smith, there can be discrimination in the hiring and promotion of women; the lack of job flexibility in certain careers like academia affects women and mothers disproportionately because they’re the ones who tend to do more of the housework — or are at least perceived to be.
“Generally, it used to be that employers viewed women as potential mothers, regardless of whether a woman intended to have children or not,” Smith says. “If an employer thinks that you’re going to take time off in a few years and potentially not come back, or just not be as devoted of a worker, then they may not invest as much in you, or they may not hire you.”
In 1971, The Supreme Court declared that denying women employment on the basis of motherhood was unconstitutional, so Smith doesn’t believe that these practices exist overtly as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, she added, these biases still show themselves in other ways.
Ackerman said she has also experienced similar biases against women. Before she taught at Dartmouth, she was compensated less than a male colleague in the same position as her while teaching at another university. When she asked her supervisor why that was, he told her that since her colleague was married and had kids, he felt he needed more money than her.
But this comment seems like a paradox. How can having familial responsibilities be such a disadvantage for women, but sometimes an advantage for men?
There are other ways that gender differences can make it more difficult for women to succeed in an academic career than men. For instance, Ackerman said that the career timeline of an academic makes it harder for women to prioritize having and raising a child if that’s something that they wish to do. She explained that if you factor the five to seven years it usually takes to get a Ph.D. and the additional time it takes to complete a postdoc, an academic typically begins her career around age 30. Then, six years later comes the critical professional juncture where the institution that she’s working at makes the decision whether or not to give her tenure. If such crucial years in an academic career happen between the ages of 28 and 36, they are exactly aligned with the prime childbearing years for women. And giving birth isn’t something that can be easily delayed.
“For women, there are some biological clock issues that kick in,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman also mentioned, however, that Dartmouth has made efforts to address this by delaying “tenure clocks,” the probationary period before a professor’s review for tenure, by one year per child for both men and women. But, Ackerman ultimately questioned whether or not these delays “make up for all the labor intensity that comes with starting a family.”
According to Ackerman, because women often bear a disproportionate responsibility for childcare, they are often more affected by these challenges. One of the biggest problems that female professors at Dartmouth face is the daily schedule.
“The ‘2’ class block used to end at 2:50 p.m., which meant that committee meetings could start at 3:00 p.m., and female professors could be out of work by 5:00 p.m. Now, committee meetings start at 3:30 p.m. which means they end at 5:30 p.m.,” Ackerman said. “There are a lot of daycares that close at 5:30 p.m. This means that women either can’t be on those committees, or are constantly ducking out early of those committees, which means they could never be chair of that committee.”
One thing I heard across the board that seems to be affecting female professors who have children: The lack of childcare in the Upper Valley. Dartmouth has a childcare facility that professors can use, but it’s very expensive and difficult to get into because of its high demand.
Though being a woman in academia can be challenging, the future's not so grim. Like all three professors acknowledged, Dartmouth is making efforts to increase female representation among tenured faculty and improve the ability of professors with children to take care of their families in a way that doesn’t take away from their academic careers.
“It will take years to see the efforts that we’re putting in today go all the way through to the top,” Seroussi says about increasing representation among faculty members at Thayer. “I’m looking forward to seeing that, but we have to be patient because it’s going to take some time.”
Correction Appended (May 24, 11:50 a.m.): A previous version of this article inaccurately described the timeline in which a professor would receive tenure, and it did not accurately capture Professor Susan Ackerman's beliefs about the persistent obstacles that women face in academia and their impact on a woman's career. The article has been updated.