Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment

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There is a common presumption, both within and outside the higher education community, that as bastions of innovation and consideration of ideas and people on their merits, colleges and universities must be at the leading edge of efforts to implement equitable employment practices in their own organizations. Unfortunately the data on gender equity in academic employment do not support this presumption. In the context of a broader discussion about equity, this report provides the most recent data on women’s employment status as faculty members and academic leaders. It reviews various explanations for the inequities that persist, and argues for a renewed commitment to change. 

The reality on campuses all around the country is clear: women make up a majority of the students in American colleges and universities. In fall 2009, women comprised 57 percent of undergraduate enrollment and 59 percent of graduate enrollment (Knapp, et al., 2011). And as figure 1 indicates, it is projected that this year women will earn the majority of degrees at U.S. institutions, at each level of award. The increase in the proportion of degrees earned by women has been especially dramatic for first professional degrees such as those in law and medicine, rising from only 3 percent in 1960-61 to a projected 51 percent this year. The shift to a predominantly female student body has been dramatic enough that the American Council on Education’s report Gender Equity in Higher Education: 2006 echoed most reports on higher education with its focus on students and the implicit question “Where are the men?” (King, 2006)1

What should be a corollary question has received less attention, however: when these high- achieving women students look around campus for faculty mentors and role models, what do they find? The answer by and large is that progress for women into the most prestigious (and well-paid) positions in academia has lagged far behind the advances experienced by women students. This section documents trends in academic employment gender equity, for faculty members, graduate student employees, and college presidents. 

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