Council bridges faculty gender gap

Women make up about a quarter of full-time faculty at the University of Chicago, leaving many women in departments with few or no other female colleagues.

By Christina Pillsbury

Part two of a two-part series on the faculty gender gap

Women make up about a quarter of full-time faculty at the University of Chicago, leaving many women in departments with few or no other female colleagues.

“If you’re the only woman [on a faculty], this is not a good place to be,” said Linda Zerilli, director of the Center for Gender Studies. “There’s always that feeling that you’re the woman up there speaking, and that you represent all women, so you’d better say something smart.”

Designed to help eliminate obstacles to recruiting and retaining female faculty, the Women’s Leadership Council (WLC) is trying to make the University of Chicago “the destination for women in academic careers,” WLC member and Associate Dean of the department of medicine Halina Brukner said.

The WLC now holds semiannual luncheons in an effort to help female faculty find support from women across academic disciplines. They are the group’s latest efforts to make the University more welcoming and supportive to women at an institution where women are largely underrepresented. In every department save one—Slavic Languages and Literature—women account for less than one-third of faculty.

The University’s gender gap is comparable to that of peer institutions, but Zerilli said that’s a poor measure. “We’re always comparing ourselves to Princeton and Harvard, and saying ‘We’re not worse,’” she said. “Yes, but what’s the standard?”

Associate Provost for Program Development Mary Harvey established the 12-member WLC in June 2008 at the request of Provost Thomas Rosenbaum. WLC member and Professor of medicine Suzanne Conzen said the group is still gathering data on “what seems to be any obstacles for retaining and attracting women to the U of C.”

The council’s first major campaign—to add an on-campus daycare center—is underway. “There was one thing that didn’t need any data and that was child care, so that was one thing we did tackle,” Conzen said. Junior faculty often find problems trying to balance their careers while starting families.

The planning committee met yesterday to sort through corporate applications for building, designing, and running the childcare center, set to be completed in 2012. While the plans for the daycare center are in the works, members point to increased networking opportunities as the council’s biggest development.

The WLC was “struck by limited ability for faculty to meet other faculty among other divisions,” in its initial stages, according to committee member Lenore Grenoble, associate chair of the department of Slavic languages and literatures.

This spring, the council brought together female faculty from across the University for a luncheon to hear their concerns and to encourage a community across divisions. The council found that the camaraderie established in this gathering was as important as hearing concerns from the women. The WLC, composed of faculty members from each of the major academic divisions, is looking to create other avenues of support and to help departments find ways to recruit and retain female faculty.

The council is looking to educate hiring committees about methods to attract and retain the best female faculty. But its scope is limited to campus-wide education initiatives because search committees are closed within each department. Hiring, Mason said, is a “more tricky problem because search committees are very local matters and our ability to get involved is very limited, so we focus on things University-wide.”

While efforts to improve the gender balance among the faculty gradually move forward, the WLC is focusing on strengthening the community of female faculty who are at the University. Without the ability to directly impact hiring, the council hopes improvements like the childcare center and a career office that places faculty partners in University jobs will encourage women to join the U of C faculty.

For the moment, the WLC will continue to hold quarterly luncheons for junior and senior faculty and hold more seminars with outside experts on recruiting and retaining women. Council members said they hope these luncheons will provide an opportunity for women to meet inter-departmentally.

“It has been our experience that it’s enjoyable to get to know colleagues from other disciplines,” WLC member and Professor of neurobiology Peggy Mason said. “It’s fun for us and we actually look forward to our meetings, so we want to give the same experience to other women.”

Luncheons have been separated by junior and senior faculty, but bringing the two together will enhance mentoring opportunities. Zerilli said women mentors are often essential for junior members of an academic division—especially in the physical sciences, where women are most underrepresented.

“This does not mean that men cannot mentor women, of course,” Zerilli said. “But we know from studies that having a female mentor can make a real difference in a woman’s ability to envision a career in science or math for herself.”

Professor of organismal biology and anatomy Victoria Prince said having female mentors in addition to her primary male mentor as an assistant and associate professor was essential for her success. Prince is one of just three women among 23 full-time faculty members in her department. With so few women in many departments “It is generally a problem that women are disproportionally asked to be members of committees,” Prince said. “I was lucky to receive mentorship here as a junior faculty member about when it’s okay to say no and when you should say no,” said Prince.

According to Grenoble, campus culture can discourage women from seeking out mentors. “It seems that there’s a stigma of weakness if you need mentoring,” Grenoble said. “And that’s kind of funny because everyone needs mentoring.”