The University Record, April 2, 2001

CEW conference speakers warn of gender divide in academy

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

Provost Nancy Cantor (above) and CEW director Carol Hollenshead spoke at the 'Bridging Gender Divides: Educational Access, Leadership and Technology' conference held last week on campus. Photos by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services
The broad, legally enforced gender divides in opportunity and access appear to have closed. Yet other, subtler divides threaten the fragile infrastructure that supports gender equity in higher education.

“Let us not close our eyes to all the divides that make up the texture of our daily lives,” said Nancy Cantor, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. Cantor last week opened the national conference “Bridging Gender Divides: Educational Access, Leadership and Technology” with her remarks on some disturbing trends in gender equality.

She urged the educators, administrators and gender equity advocates gathered at the Michigan League to commit to closing those divides. “If we do not make progress . . . many women will fall through the cracks, and we will be back to the great gender divide.”

Following Cantor’s presentation, Bernice Sandler, senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C., traced some of the legal developments that have benefited women in education during the past 30 years. She shared findings from her research on the “chilly” classroom climate for women and problems of self-esteem that continue to hold women back. Sponsored by the Center for the Education of Women (CEW), the two-day conference drew 270 participants from throughout the country as well as China, Japan and Korea. Presentations and panel sessions addressed legal, political and public policy issues related to women’s access to higher education and achievement within the academy.

“We are especially concerned about issues of access, leadership and technology,” said Carol Hollenshead, CEW director. “The higher up in the academy we go, the fewer women we see. Women make up less than 15 percent of the full professors at research universities, and you can count on your fingers the number of women presidents at leading institutions.”

Several less obvious problems also constitute gender divides, she added. Women are far from being full partners in the growth of technology and its culture. Higher education also has become less accessible to poor women.

A distinguished scholar and champion of interdisciplinary research, Cantor spent more than 20 years investigating how human social intelligence connects individuals to their environment. Hollens-head described Cantor as a passionate believer in diversity who has been instrumental in the University’s defense of affirmative action policies and “acutely aware of the need for fundamental institutional change.”

While holding eight out of 19 positions as U-M deans, women are missing in many science and engineering areas. The Medical School has never had a woman chair, Cantor noted. While women represent 50 percent of undergraduates, she added, participation in computer science is much lower.

Cantor referred to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that showed women are leaving nontraditional fields at research universities at high rates to join liberal arts programs in which they feel more comfortable. Her own research has shown that people need a sense of place and security in their environment in order to “jump off” and explore.

Hollenshead referred to Sandler as “the mother of us all. Were it not for her unflagging efforts of more than three decades, many of us would not be in this room today.”

Sandler long has been involved in ground-breaking advancement for women. She filed the first reports on sexual harassment and on how men and women are treated differently in the classroom. In the 1970s, she filed the first charges of sex discrimination against more than 250 universities. Sandler played a major role in the development and passage of Title IX and other laws prohibiting sex discrimination in education.

Prior to the passage of Title IX, virtually every school had minuscule quotas for women, Sandler noted. Dormitories had different rules for men and women. At the U-M, women students—even criminal justice majors—were banned from a course in criminal justice simply because it dealt with male offenders.

Citing data from her 1970 testimony at the Title IX hearings, Sandler noted that in 1969, the percentage of women faculty at universities in the United States was actually a little lower than in 1929.

In 1970, the U-M budget for men’s athletics was more than $1 million, while the women’s was zero, Sandler said. “The women’s teams raised money for travel by selling apples at football games.”

Yet when the American Council on Education was asked to testify before Congress on Title IX, the organization’s response was, “There is not discrimination in higher education,” according to Sandler.

Today, the United States has the best laws in the world outlawing discrimination in education. “We’ve come a long way, but not yet far enough,” she said. “The patterns for women since the 1970s continue ‘the higher, the fewer’ trend. The more prestigious the school, field or department, the fewer the women there. And overall, salaries for women in higher education are lower than those for men of comparable rank.”

Many of the gender inequities in higher education are based on attitudes and behaviors that are difficult to identify and change, she said. In one long-range study of high school valedictorians, men and women were periodically asked to rate their intelligence relative to their peers. As entering first year students, about 23 percent of the men and 21 percent of the women rated themselves smarter than their peers. At college graduation, 26 percent of the men but not a single woman in the study still considered herself smarter than peers.

The change couldn’t be attributed to grades, since the women had slightly higher grade averages than the men, Sandler said. “Something happened to the self-esteem of those women along the way.”

Sandler believes most people desire fair treatment of women on campuses. But those who press for change must hold those in power accountable for implementing it, she said.