The University Record, January 10, 1994

Focus groups involving senior female faculty provide qualitative information on status of women

By Rebecca A. Doyle

The President’s Advisory Commission on Women’s Issues has issued a summary report of responses from senior women faculty to questions about the environment at the U-M and what they perceive to be barriers or supportive structures in that environment.

Twenty-four senior women faculty responded to the invitation to participate in focus groups that examined such issues as whether the workload in their departments was the same for both women and men, and barriers the women had encountered.

While the questions evoked an array of responses from anger to frustration to laughter, participants’ comments indicated that most of them had experienced some form of gender discrimination in their professional careers.

Many of the participants acknowledged that positive changes had taken place over time, and several told stories about how different things had been when they first arrived at the University.

“You need to get women to help you negotiate when you first come. It is difficult to negotiate anything once you get here,” noted one participant.

“It’s better for women now,” wrote another. “My colleagues are in a better position.”

Women identified having peers with similar needs, a mentor or advocate, supportive colleagues and informal support groups as important resources.

However, comments from many senior women faculty on equity in hiring, promotion and workload revealed a general discontent about both the departmental and University climate in which they work.

“If my colleagues see two women together, they think it’s conspiracy. If they see a man and a woman together, they wink. If it’s two men together, it’s lunch,” noted one participant.

Some women felt they were working in a system with invisible standards and unwritten rules that favor the more powerful, and others said that they felt there was an “old boy” network in their department with standards that exclude women.

Many felt that in order to be successful at the University, they had to play by rules that had been previously set by men in their fields. According to these women, men feel it is important to develop the reputation of being tough, minimize time spent with students and maximize research.

“My profession is male-oriented and very egalitarian,” said one participant. “[The men] are willing to treat everyone the same as long as you act like a man. The thing that facilitated my success was that the men were very willing to share what you were supposed to do to act like a man.”

Senior faculty women also were asked whether they thought there was equity in hiring and promotion. In general, their answers show that they felt their records were scrutinized more carefully than those of their male counterparts, and several said that they believed they received more recognition and respect nationally than they do from the University.

Additionally, participants agreed that their workloads were more demanding—that they were expected to serve on more committees, spend more time advising students and teach more large lectures than their male counterparts. These women, the report notes, were concerned not only about balancing their own workloads but also about being poor role models and discouraging students from choosing an academic profession when their distress and exhaustion became visible.

Individual experiences regarding dual-career relationships, pregnancy, childbirth, maternity and family care issues were unique to each participant, but there was an overall feeling that women in dual-career relationships and those with families have additional burdens. Many felt that progress would be made only when men take equal responsibility for children and other family commitments. Some senior women faculty recalled earlier experiences with family issues that have been resolved for their colleagues by new policies.

“I had a C-section and seven days later started teaching. It was very discouraging. I had no sleep. It was a dreadful time,” said one woman. “The family leave policy has radically changed things for my colleagues now.”

From the group discussions, the following recommendations arose:

  • Establish stronger administrative mandates and accountability regarding hiring, retention and tenure.

  • Enlarge the national pool of senior women by promoting women more often, providing more support for new faculty, and hiring from industry and other sources.

  • Provide information that will assist women in the negotiation process when offered faculty positions. Improve new faculty orientation and create a widely distributed faculty handbook.

  • Review decisions at the next level when junior faculty are denied tenure by the department or college.

  • Assure equity in salary and start-up packages.

  • Address issues affecting women faculty of color.

  • Recognize differences among men’s and women’s workloads related to committee service, formal and informal advising, mentorship of junior colleagues, and number or size of courses.

  • Survey current and former senior faculty women, and possibly men, to ascertain the factors that cause them to decide to remain at the University or to leave.

  • Increase unit-level support to address the needs of faculty with major family care responsibilities and to ensure that faculty members do not experience negative consequences from using the tenure clock or modified duties policies.

  • Provide health care for lesbian and gay partners and their families.