The University Record, November 12, 1996

Commission for Women celebrates 25 `historic, often contentious' years

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

The U-M Commission for Women is alive and well and about to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its rip-roaring birth.

Robben Fleming, president emeritus of the University, and Barbara Newell, first director of the U-M Commission for Women, will share their memories of the historic and often contentious push for equity by University women in the 1970s as they celebrate the Commission's 25th anniversary, 1-4 p.m. Nov. 20 in the Rackham Amphitheater.

Other speakers at the celebration, "Milestones on the Way to the Millennium: Welcoming the Next Generation," include Provost J. Bernard Machen and Barbara Murphy, assistant chair of the commission and assistant to LS&A Dean Edie N. Goldenberg. Laurita Thomas, director of Human Resources at the U-M Medical Center, also will speak on "Challenges for Women in the 21st Century Workforce."

Fleming appointed the first Commission for Women in 1971 in response to a range of pressures, including a threat by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to withhold $3.5 million in federal funds for sex discrimination against women as a class. The clash between the University, HEW and campus women made "The Sexes" page of Time magazine and was followed carefully by Science magazine, as well as the local newspapers.

Jean King, now an Ann Arbor attorney and then head of FOCUS on Equal Employment for Women, led the charge against the University by filing a complaint with the Department of Labor that alleged that, excluding the School of Nursing, only 5.3 percent of the faculty were women. FOCUS also alleged there was a 45-percent limit on first-year women students in LS&A, that there were very few women administrators, and that many women employees were classified as clerk-typists but were expected to perform administrative duties for which men were paid higher salaries.

The FOCUS complaint formed the basis for the HEW investigation and subsequent mitigation by the University. At first the University chose to resist the demands made by HEW.

After $15 million in contracts were withheld by December 1970, the University started to comply with HEW's requirements by formulating an affirmative action plan for ending sex discrimination at the University. The Commission was charged with looking into U-M policies, procedures and practices that might discriminate against women and with making affirmative and constructive proposals for the improvement of employment and employment conditions for women. Newell, who later served as president of Wellsley College, was then an assistant to Fleming.

They accomplished a good deal. In the 1970s, after an equity audit, 100 women were awarded salary increases; a job posting system was instituted to circumvent the "old boy network"; the maternity leave policy was improved and all non-union U-M employees became eligible for major medical health insurance.

In the 1980s, the Commission focused on salary equity, a non-discriminatory hiring policy, a staff grievance program, flex benefits, improved child care and career development policies.

In the 1990s, the Commission made a significant response to President Emeritus James J. Duderstadt's Michigan Agenda for Women. The Commission drafted a document with 18 areas of concern to U-M women that should be addressed in the Agenda and proposed that President Duderstadt meet with women at numerous town meetings to discuss these concerns.

The town meetings, according to Duderstadt, "were a tremendous personal education for me, deepening my commitment to the Agenda and confirming my belief that gender equity is imperative if we are to excel in the coming decades."

The Commission continues to set goals for the 1990s and expects to act as a partner with the administration in helping to implement the Agenda. "There is still plenty to do," says Elaine Sims, co-chair of the Commission.

For instance, a report on U-M women released last May noted that between 1990 and 1995, the proportion of women assistant professors grew from 30 percent to 36 percent; of women associate professors from 23 percent to 26 percent, and of women full professors from 9 percent to 12 percent.

Although women represent nearly half of the U-M undergraduate degree recipients and about a third of the doctoral degree recipients, just 22 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty are women while 53 percent of the lecturers are women.

Additionally, just 2 percent of the more highly paid skilled trade positions are filled by women while 94 percent of the office staff on the Ann Arbor campus are women. Some 73 percent of professional/administrative positions in salary grades 1-5 are filled by women while 30 percent of the employees in grades 16 and above are women. (These figures do not include U-M Hospital staff.)


Attorney Jean King was not the only courageous woman on campus in the 1970s. According to Time magazine (March 12, 1973), a determined law student and member of the "ad hoc Committee Concerned that Fleming Does Not Meet With Women" undertook a week-long watch outside Fleming's office---dubbed the "Fleming Follow"---tallying all the visitors who came and went. The total was 124 visitors, just 21 of whom were women.

The composite visitor portrait, which was presented by the ad hoc Committee along with mock scientific charts, was "white, male, balding, blue-suited, out of shape." The composite visitor either "ignored the secretaries or flirted with them."

Pringle Smith, editor of the Business School's Dividend magazine and a member of the ad hoc committee, explained the genesis of the watch to Time, noting that "A lot of bright women are in dull, repetitive jobs here, so they spend their spare time thinking up creative things." She added about Fleming, "I think he is educable."