Upon walking into a lecture hall at UW-Madison, students are almost twice as likely to find a man at the podium than a woman.
Numbers from the university’s most recent Data Digest clocked women faculty at just 750 in 2015, compared to 1,455 men. This may not sound too promising given the national conversation around gender equality, but 20 years ago, the gap looked more like a four-times difference.
Progress has been made.
But it’s still no secret that women looking to rise through the academic ranks face a steeper climb,
“They call it a leaky pipeline,” said Ann Fink, a visiting Gender and Women’s Studies professor at UW-Madison who examines these disparities particularly in the sciences. “Recently, it seems like in a lot of these disciplines, you have more women entering as assistant professors. But then they still seem to disappear.”
The gender-based trends toward tenure at UW-Madison look similar to universities across the country: Men are significantly more likely to jump the hurdle to associate professor within six years. Here, an average of 54 percent of them up for tenure in the last decade
The fact that this portion of the academic career often aligns with a woman’s prime childbearing age is an explanation floated often for why this gap exists. It’s part of the reason UW-Madison started giving tenure clock extensions, according to provost Sarah Mangelsdorf.
A typical junior faculty member will come up for tenure during his or her sixth year, but women who become pregnant or adopt a child during their time as assistant professors can ask for an extension for their time to promotion.
“I’ve known assistant professors who had two babies while on the tenure clock, and they might get two tenure clock extensions,” Mangelsdorf explained. “If you ask for it in a timely manner, it’s pretty much granted.”
That’s why the university also collects data on professors promoted to tenure within nine years—that data is much closer
But Fink said this general referral to family responsibilities never really pans out as a complete explanation of why female junior faculty members are slower to promotions. It’s not as if women enter academia with no plans to have children and then change their minds come tenure time, she explained.
The university has looked beyond that as well, making an effort to find other ways to help women advance along the pipeline.
One method is the Women Faculty Mentoring Program, which pairs female assistant professors with senior female professors in a similar department. Each junior faculty member must have a mentoring committee, but this extra opportunity is provided to women if they ask—59 out of UW’s 199 female assistant professors are currently taking advantage of it.
Another is the research done
“Just yesterday, the dean of the School of Engineering was saying that those bias workshops, every department in the School of Engineering will have had them by the end of the year, which is great,” Mangelsdorf said.
Those efforts work in tandem to combat a sense that requirements for tenure can sometimes be ambiguous and unclear.
“They’re hardly ever transparent to the outsider, and even to the person who’s going for tenure,” Fink said, citing a few high-profile cases across the country where the faculty member thought tenure was secured only to be turned away by the tenure review board.
While Mangelsdorf acknowledged that UW-Madison has no list that “explicitly tells you exactly what you need to do,” she said if the mentoring junior faculty get works correctly, men and women alike should be equally informed of what they need to be promoted.
But even as women’s resources to further their academic career grow, little things can still hold them back.
A 2017 study on faculty service loads found that women are much more likely to perform departmental service like sitting on committees and organizing events. It’s even more likely for female professors of color—often because those committees need inclusive representation to build a more diverse faculty.
It can place “an undue burden” on women in departments filled with mostly male colleagues, Mangelsdorf explained, recalling a conversation with a female African-American faculty member at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s.
“She said, ‘If I get asked to be on one more committee, my head will explode,’” Mangelsdorf remembered.
The study found that this extra service limits women’s time to pursue research and other opportunities they need to obtain tenure and a full professorship, as well as that they face bigger consequences than men for not being perceived as team players.
Fink agreed that this expectation can be harmful.
“It can be politically bad for you to say no to stuff like that,” she said. “And that might end up looking bad on a tenure review.”
UW-Madison administration is aware of this trend, and Secretary of the Faculty Steve Smith is currently building a database called Committee Tracker, which will in part make sure the same people are not being asked over and over to perform internal department service.
It’s hard to deny the data showing there’s work left to do for gender equality along the academic pipeline—both at UW-Madison and nationally—but Mangelsdorf pointed to the strides women have made in her three decades in higher education, as well as to the ways the university is leading on the issue, as continual steps in the right direction.
“I’m actually quite proud of the things the University of Wisconsin has done to advance women and to hire women, promote women, support them,” Mangelsdorf said. “Is there more work to be done? Absolutely. But [the school] has been a great leader; it’s something to be proud of.”