Among Harvard’s Faculty, ‘Women Are Still Pioneers’

Experience in Faculty of Arts and Sciences remains distinctly worse for women

UPDATED: September 15, 2015, at 4:41 a.m.

This is part I in a two-part series about diversity in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Part II ran on May 8.

Elsie M. Sunderland, an associate professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, has two young children and is a few years into Harvard’s infamously rigorous tenure track. Her female students and postdoctoral fellows often come to her for advice on approaching a career in academia and how to balance those demands with having children, she says.

To Sunderland, having children is both physically demanding on women and cuts deeply in the ability of a faculty member who is a woman to do work, creating an “intense environment.”

“If you look around, there are very few women—I think that this is a primary reason,” Sunderland says, arguing that the intersection of these life decisions and the tenure track “does make it difficult to have a large representation from [the female] demographic.”



Sunderland is not alone in thinking that academia is, at times, daunting for women, particularly at Harvard; Less than half of women across the University surveyed in its 2013 Faculty Climate Survey reported feeling that the work environment for women is “at least as good” as it is for men.

Beyond work-life pressures, many faculty members say that the lack of representation from women in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—who in the 2013-2014 academic year made up 27 percent of FAS—can shift unique burdens onto them. Generally, women in FAS serve on more committees and often serve in more mentorship roles, according to FAS Dean for Faculty Affairs and Planning Nina Zipser.

Faculty say that the environment for women within FAS has improved in recent years as the body’s gender balance has become more evenly split and faculty members generally have become more aware of the issues women face. But the still-substantially lower number of faculty members who are women in Harvard’s flagship school results in administrative burdens and academic stresses that their colleagues who are men generally do not experience.

As Psychology professor Mahzarin R. Banaji puts it, “women are still pioneers at Harvard.”


Two decades ago, only men were featured in the portraits that line the sea-foam colored walls of the Faculty Room in University Hall where members of FAS gather for their monthly meetings. Only in 1995, when Harvard commissioned a portrait of the school’s first tenured professor who was a woman, Helen Maud Cam, did a woman break into the ranks. And on Tuesday, when faculty members entered that room for their final meeting of the academic year, the faces of just three women looked out over the crowd alongside 30 men.

The changing gender balance of the portraits in this room is indicative of a slow but significant change in the environment for women in the faculty in the past 20 years. In that time, Harvard has seen not only a shift in demographics but a change in faculty members’ awareness about women’s issues.

In 2013 and 2014, the fraction of women in FAS increased t0 27 percent after remaining at about 25 percent since 2006. According to Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Judith D. Singer, in the past decade, the number of tenured women across Harvard has increased by just under 100.


The increase in the total number of professors who are women was partly driven by a voluntary FAS retirement program that was instituted in December 2010 and facilitated the retirement of 75 faculty members by 2014. Of that cohort, 69, or 92 percent, were men.

But beyond the retirement program, FAS Dean Michael D. Smith says he has made increasing diversity within the Faculty a priority for his deanship. That effort has included addressing the Faculty’s gender disparity by institutionalizing formal structures to promote equitable hiring practices.

In particular, Smith appointed Banaji, the Psychology professor, in 2010 as his senior adviser on faculty development. Banaji’s academic research focuses on implicit biases—the attitudes or stereotypes that affect people’s actions and decisions in an unconscious manner—and she works with individual departments and the office of Faculty Affairs and Planning to make search committees aware of how these biases can affect the hiring process.

Additionally, Zipser says that her office and FAS’s divisional deans keep track of junior faculty candidate lists. From to time these administrators ask search committees to reconsider the candidate list if there are only men and no women on the short list of potential hires, Zipser says.

Physics Department chair Masahiro Morii says that structures to address implicit bias have been effective and that his own department has changed its hiring procedures “very recently” as a result increased awareness of these biases. Whereas the department last hired a junior faculty member who was a woman in 2005 (eight men have been hired since), this year Physics has more women than in the past on its short list of candidates, according to Morii.

Administrators and professors say these steps to improve hiring outcomes have resulted in a better gender distribution among the total FAS faculty, with gender parity in junior hire offers achieved in the 2013-2014 academic year. The whole University achieved gender parity in total junior hires in the 2014-2015 academic year.

“We are learning how to do this better,” Morii says.


Despite active administrative efforts to hire more women, many professors say that Harvard’s intense work environment can still be more stressful for women than men, primarily because they are fewer in number.

According to a University-wide faculty climate survey released by the Office for Faculty Development and Diversity in 2014, 43 percent of women who responded either disagreed or strongly disagreed that the climate for female faculty in their school or department is “at least as good” as for male faculty, compared to 20 percent of male faculty respondents.

Additionally, about 30 percent of respondents who were women across the University feel like they have to work harder to be perceived as legitimate scholars, according to the survey. Women are empirically more likely to be interrupted in both formal and informal settings, according to Katherine J. Hinde, an assistant professor of Human and Evolutionary Biology. Hinde was a lead author on an article on sexual harassment and assault on field research sites published last year.

Sociology professor Michèle Lamont says that she thinks a “good old boy” atmosphere used to exist in many departments at Harvard in which “powerful” men in the senior faculty would specifically seek out certain junior faculty members to mentor, usually men. While she says she thinks that atmosphere has mostly dissipated, she still senses some vestiges within departments in FAS.

Moreover, certain departments still face challenges attracting and hiring female faculty, and work environments can often be less welcoming for women, some faculty members say. In the Economics Department, for example, only two tenured faculty members are women, while 42 men are fully tenured.

This environment results in part from deference given to senior faculty members in departmental decision-making that can end up inflating gender discrepancies. While 38 percent of junior faculty across FAS are made up of women, only 24 percent of senior faculty are women.

“Seniority matters. It really, really matters,” says Ajantha Subramanian, a professor of Anthropology. “These spaces are nominally equal, but they often don’t feel that way. You take any of our department meetings, it will be the senior faculty who take up 90 percent of them.”

Beyond working in stressful environments, women are often asked to perform more “service” for a department or faculty, such as working on more committees or taking on additional advising roles, many professors and administrators say.

Zipser says that women, on average, serve on more committees than do men. She and others attribute it to the fact that departments want to diversify the perspectives of their committees but, in order to do so, must draw from the smaller pool of women.

“It’s a terrible irony that it’s out of the best intentions that sometimes more service burden is put on female faculty,” says Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Professor Elena M. Kramer, who was also chair of the FAS’s Standing Committee on Women.

Aside from official administrative duties, faculty members who are women often have to take on added informal mentoring responsibilities to students, similarly to colleagues who are underrepresented minorities, though they acknowledge not as acutely. Female students at both the undergraduate and graduate level often approach female faculty who can relate to similar experiences in academia.

“I think that very few faculty are willing to close doors—of course they’re not—which means that we’re asking them to pay a disproportionate burden of mentoring our undergraduates,” Hinde says, speaking about diverse groups more generally. “That is something that is going to inhibit equal opportunity within this institution.”

Like many other faculty members, Hinde emphasized that there is a difference of degree in the mentoring burden among diverse groups. The stress is greatly compounded for underrepresented minorities, she says, with far fewer faculty members to engage with a significant undergraduate population.


This often more challenging environment for female faculty can make retaining them more difficult. Some faculty and administrators say that while the University has made a concerted effort to address hiring issues, it must now focus on keeping women here once they come.

“We’re doing a better job hiring tenure track women, but we see a lot of tenure track faculty in general leave before they come up for tenure,” Kramer says. Three tenure-track women are leaving the sciences division this year before they undergo review, she says.

Though the decision to leave Harvard happens on a case-by-case basis, Kramer and other faculty members say, they agree that departmental culture, faculty mentorship—especially in cases when women are thinking of having children—and spousal hiring issues can often play definitive roles in shaping these decisions.

Banaji says that for her the “most significant” aspect of the faculty climate survey is the finding that men and women publish at the same rate and generally spend the same amount of time research, but women with children spend on average 20 more hours a week more than men do on “household duties.”

“People could ask, ‘What's going on? Who are these super women who are doing two jobs in such excellent ways?’” Banaji says.

To help alleviate the burdens of child care on faculty members who are women, Harvard has a maternal leave policy of at least eight weeks, and the University also offers parental teaching relief policies that are gender-neutral, meaning that both men and women are granted the same options for course reduction. Additionally, one-year tenure-clock extensions are automatically granted to junior faculty for each child they have or adopt on the track, but only up to two children.

While both men and women with children are eligible to receive parental leave, Banaji says that men may sometimes use that time away from teaching to work on other scholastic projects.

“If you take the leave and you're a man, even though you didn’t carry this baby, the assumption is that you are going to take that year to be deeply involved in childcare. I think large numbers of men are,” Banaji says. “It’s just as possible that others aren't. To them it could be another year to write a book, for example, even though that was not necessarily the intention of the leave.”

But these administrative policies targeted towards professors with families cannot completely mitigate the stresses of having children while pursuing a tenured position.

For Lamont, who has three children and a husband, “my own life trajectory has very much made me aware of issues like work-family balance.” She says it is a constant “dance” for faculty who are women and have families to fulfill Harvard’s expectations for its faculty and still care for their families.

Kramer adds that she believes people reviewing tenure cases must remember that junior faculty with children often do not have time to publish as quickly as their peers without children.

“Too often I heard comments like, ‘This doesn't look like a traditional tenure case,’ and we need to understand that maybe getting three papers out or whatever standard the field has, that’s not going to be the case if somebody’s had two kids, however many kids,” Kramer says. “But if you get to the end of that review period and they’ve done stellar work, and they have fantastic recognition by their peers, those two or three slow years should not matter.”


These faculty climate concerns are here to stay—at least for now, many faculty say, because the Harvard simply cannot dramatically increase women's representation in the faculty immediately.

Though the University achieved gender parity in its junior hires this year, that achievement is not guaranteed in the future, as Singer and other faculty members observe. In order to make permanent change, Harvard must promote its junior faculty members who are women to the senior level, which will take time.

“You could estimate that even if we can start hiring 50-50 today, it will be 40 years before the gender balance is achieved,” says Morii, speaking specifically about the physical sciences. “But that doesn’t even happen today because the candidate pool is already skewed something like three to one.”

The quantitative reality is challenging, Morii says, at a place where the ultimate goal for professional success is a lifetime position that academics receive at about the age of 40 and often do not give up until they are 70 or older.

University President Drew G. Faust, herself the first woman to hold Harvard’s top administrative position, agrees, saying that because so much of the faculty stays from year to year, progress must be slow.

“It’s not like you can replace half the faculty and completely change its demographics in a single year,” Faust says. “I think we’ve made progress, but there’s a lot further to go.”

Problems with the representation of women in academia stem from more than simply the hiring process, however. If Ph.D. pools manifest widespread gender imbalance, universities have little hope to diversify their faculties beyond the demographics of the existing pools. According to Sheila Thomas, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Minority Affairs at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, change is still slow to come even as GSAS actively looks to recruit more women—especially in fields in which they are typically underrepresented like quantitative sciences.

Only with greater representation will committee and additional services burdens be alleviated for women. With more women in the faculty, there can be greater numbers of mentors for the younger faculty who are women, which could better help them navigate the tenure track, according to Stacey A. Combes, an associate professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.

Sustained focus from senior members of departments is vital to make sure women influence decision-making even as their presence grows, says Astronomy department chair Abraham "Avi" Loeb.

“At this moment, we must give women the influence to create a fairer atmosphere,” he said.

—Staff writer Karl M. Aspelund can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kma_crimson.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.


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