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The Career Column: 
Women in Academe: A SIOP Panel Discussion

Lynn A. McFarland
Clemson University

Although one cannot deny the progress women have made over the years in academic careers, women are by no means on equal footing with men in this area. Take psychology departments, for instance. Although women make up 39% of full-time psychology faculty, women are much less likely to be tenured than men (only 30% of female as compared to 52% of male faculty are tenured). Further, only 22% of full professors at all U.S. colleges are women (Halpern, 2004). This is particularly disturbing when one considers that 74% of psychology graduate students are women (Dittmann, 2003). 

This April at the annual SIOP conference, a panel discussion considered the issue of women in academe, and in psychology departments in particular. The discussion was chaired and organized by Jennifer (Jen) Gillespie (Bowling Green State University) and Karen Ehrhart (San Diego State University). The panel consisted of women in different stages of their careers and included Jeanette (Jan) Cleveland (The Pennsylvania State University), Michele Gelfand (University of Maryland), Lois Tetrick (George Mason University), Kecia Thomas (University of Georgia), and myself. 

The purpose of this panel discussion was to highlight issues relevant to women in academic settings. In particular, Karen and Jen focused the discussion on the #1 recommendation by the APA Task Force on Women in Academe: cultivating a climate that supports women in academics. This task force identified five categories of issues relevant to creating such a climate: research and professional issues, representation, respect, mentoring, and workfamily balance. The panel not only discussed problems unique to women in each of these areas but also offered strategies for addressing these issues. Further, the goal was not only to provide prescriptive advice for women in academics but also to provide strategies for programs to create and sustain a climate supportive of women in academics. Ill address each of these five issues in turn and present the panels insights on each topic.

Research and Professional Issues

The panel first discussed questions about what institutions can do to help women balance research and teaching responsibilities. The panel agreed that balancing these areas, particularly early in ones career, is much easier if service is limited. Unfortunately, because women tend to be underrepresented at most universities, they are more likely than men to be asked to serve on committees because university administrators often believe it is a good idea to include underrepresented groups on important university committees. However, young academics should be selective and strategic in their service activities because such activities are generally only indirectly linked with tenure decisions, but research and teaching levels are more directly linked. Participation in service is important inasmuch as it reflects good citizenship behavior and collegiality. Michele stressed the importance of getting advice from senior colleagues and seeking protection from heavy service responsibilities. Lois noted that the best thing to do early in ones career is to take on high visibility service assignments that can contribute to ones professional reputation. For instance, serving on a SIOP committee may be a good idea. Just dont over do it or try to do too much. Ultimately, tenure is going to be based on research productivity and teaching ability, and service responsibilities may inhibit performance in these areas.

In terms of how women can more easily develop a program of research, the panel noted that its important to focus on your own work and not get side-tracked by student projects that may not be directly relevant to your interests. For instance, Jan noted that the best thing a faculty member can do for her students is to get tenure, that is, to be there after 6 years. Therefore, it is more important to get involved with research that is related to the research area youre working in. Otherwise, if you say yes to chair a thesis or dissertation on any topic, you may become too diverted from you own program of research. Once you obtain tenure, its your responsibility to be involved with student projects even when they arent directly in line with your own interests. But until then, be careful about what you work on. Above all, Michele noted that it is important to work in areas that you are passionate about, as this will help during the tough times.

To increase the chances that one is productive, the panel also noted that young academics should negotiate their teaching schedule so that they teach the same courses for the first few years. This will limit the preps you have and allow you to devote more time to research.

Representation and Respect

The discussion then moved to representation and respect. The panel discussed an issue raised by Jen and Karen that, in academic institutions, women are less likely to be in a position of power. I raised the point that both institutions and women were to blame for this fact. Although institutions could certainly do more to encourage female participation in leadership roles, we can all think of instances in which women turned down such positions for fear that they would interfere with family life. After all, most leadership positions come with more responsibility, and additional work responsibilities can make it difficult to balance work and family. However, Jan suggested that individuals must recognize that no job is set in stone. Women have the ability to negotiate the nature of their roles in most positions. So, if youre asked to be the chair of the department, but worry that the increased responsibilities may interfere with your family life, you can set limits on this position to ensure that doesnt happen. For instance, you can set limits on the hours youre willing to work. Jan indicated that departments are often more open to this kind of role setting than one would think. And, if theyre not flexible and arent willing to accommodate your needs, you either need to consult more senior female (and supportive male) faculty in the department or determine whether it is in your best interests to consider other academic options. If women push the assumption that the way work is accomplished is fixed and inflexible, we might find more women in leadership roles and workfamily balance might be easier to achieve. 

Another issue discussed was why few women take academic positions of any kind. It was noted that faculty rarely make the variety of options in academe known to students. If a faculty member places a student in a prestigious academic position, this increases the reputation and visibility of the faculty member who mentored the student. Programs also get credit for placing students in high-profile positions. Therefore, its often difficult for faculty to see that the best option for a student may not be in a high-pressure prestigious institution. However, the challenges and drawbacks of alternative options should be explored carefully because such alternatives may in fact close off career options in the future. The panel indicated that there are numerous paths to successful careers including research universities, teaching universities, and small liberal arts colleges. It is important to know the features of each as well as your own values, especially when you enter your first few positions. And above all, remember that many academics do not stay in their first job! Find out what work situation is best for you.


We all know the importance of mentors. Research suggests that having a mentor predicts job satisfaction, career mobility and opportunity, recognition, a higher promotion rate, higher income, and the ability to adapt to changing organizational conditions (Dreher & Ash, 1990; Eby, 1997; Fagenson, 1989). One would expect mentoring to have the same benefits for academics. Women with mentors will likely be better able to deal with the stressors of academic life, be more successful, and go further than they would have otherwise. Although the session did not directly cover the issue of mentoring (due to the fact that the other issues generated extensive discussion), this topic came up several times. Kecia noted that having a mentor can make the road to tenure easier to navigate. However, because fewer women are in academia, it may be difficult for women in academics to find mentors. For example, Kecia found gaining access to mentoring a challenge. As Kecia noted, once she was tenured she realized that many times colleagues in her department tended to mentor people like themselves. Thats a natural inclination because it would seem easier to mentor those with whom one has the most in common. When your race and gender are not represented among post-tenure colleagues, it can be difficult to gain a mentor. Its important to realize this early on and try to be proactive. It might be useful to seek out a mentor. Make it clear you would like guidance and target someone you think you could learn from and who has the inside track to help you understand precisely what needs to be done to make the tenure process livable. Further, if youre already tenured, make the time to mentor junior faculty and make sure you dont restrict your mentoring to certain races or genders.

WorkFamily Balance

Many of the issues addressed by the panel were not gender specific. Men face most of the same obstacles to success we discussed and could benefit from much of the advice discussed during the session. However, the issue of workfamily conflict is certainly an issue more women than men face. Karen and Jen noted that it has been found that the most important reason why female PhDs avoid careers in academe is because of family commitments. Further, research suggests that men who have children within 5 years of receiving their PhD are 38% more likely than their women counterparts to achieve tenure (Mason & Goulden, 2004). Although workfamily conflict was an issue the panel did not get to discuss directly, this topic was addressed throughout the session. 

Workfamily conflict is particularly salient for untenured academics. As Jen and Karen noted, the tenure clock and the biological clock collide. After age 35, the probability of getting pregnant decreases and the likelihood of genetic defects in the child increases. Therefore, most people start having children before the age of 35. This means that many folks in academe are going to start having kids before they get tenured. There is currently no logical reason why the tenure clock needs to be ticking the way it does. The tenure clock was understandably based on men because few women were academics when tenure policies were established. However, now that women make up a substantial part of the academic work force, and because most universities see value in encouraging women to take academic jobs, it is time to reconsider the tenure process. 

In addition to slowing the tenure clock, there are other ways universities can reduce workfamily conflict for both sexes. Universities can give time off (to be repaid later), develop collaborative research groups, offer modified teaching schedules, and offer guaranteed on-site childcare. In my research for this article, I found many advocating part-time tenure-track positions. In such an instance, an academic may be tenured or on a tenure track but is only expected to do half the job of a full-time faculty member. Thus, they are given half pay and are evaluated in light of the fact that they are part time. Sometimes these positions are permanently part time but others have set up temporary part-time positions (e.g., for 3 to 6 years after the birth of a child). Such part-time positions have obvious appeal to those struggling to balance work and family. But, universities also benefit. The university only has to pay half of the academics salary, yet allows them the ability to keep someone on the faculty who may be an excellent professional and who might leave without a reduced work schedule. Unfortunately, many universities will not even consider this option because they believe no qualified professionals would opt for such an arrangement. Others discount this, noting that women who have already proven themselves as highly qualified teachers and researchers have opted for this arrangement, and it has worked well for these individuals and their employers (Halpern, 2004; Lobel, 2004). 

The bottom line is that universities must become more creative and flexible when it comes to the roles and responsibilities of academics. Otherwise, they risk losing excellent human capital.

To Learn More

If this is a topic you have a particular interest in, youre in luck. There are books and Web sites you can read that provide detailed information and resources for women in academe. Kecia recommended two great books, both of which were seconded by other women on the panel: Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Womens Changing Lives (by Anna Fels) and Women Dont Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever). 

In terms of Web sites, Jen and Karen and others provided a number of Web pages readers might find useful. You can find the report by the APA Task Force on Women in Academe at: www.apa.org/pi/wpo/academe/toc.html. On the Web site of the American Association of University Professors, there are several Web pages devoted to women in academic careers: http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2004/04nd/04ndtoc.htm, http://www.aaup.org/Issues/AffirmativeAction/Articles/aamwt428.htm, http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2003/03ja/03jaross.htm. Some other interesting Web sites that address issues relevant to women in academe are: http://www.cnn.com/2004/EDUCATION/02/17/women.on.campus.ap/, http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov99/ed2.html, and http://www.geosociety.org/pubs/gsatoday/0211clocks/0211clocks.htm


The panel was a great way to raise issues relevant to women in academe. It offered a number of insights into what individuals and programs can do to increase the number and status of women in academic environments. We had a great time at the session discussing these issues and were glad to see such interest in this topic. 


     Babcock, L., & Laschever, S. (2003). Women dont ask: Negotiation and the gender divide. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 
     Dittmann, M. (2003). A changing student body. APA Monitor, 34, 42. 
     Dreher, G. F., & Ash, R. A. (1990). A comparative study of mentoring among men and women in managerial, professional, and technical positions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75, 539546.
     Eby, L. T. (1997). Alternative forms of mentoring in changing organizational environments: A conceptual extension of the mentoring literature. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 51, 125144.
     Fagenson, E. A. (1989). The mentor advantage: Perceived career/job experiences of protgs versus non-protgs. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 10, 309320.
     Fels, A. (2004). Necessary dreams: Ambition in womens changing lives. New York: Pantheon Books. 
     Halpern, D. (2004). Presidents column: Obstacles to female full professorship: Another civil-rights issue. APA Monitor, 35, 5.
     Lobel, S. (2004). Working part time after tenure. Academe, 90, 3538.
     Mason, M. A., & Goulden, M. (2004). Academe, 90, 1115.

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