The report, based on a March 2006 survey of 401 English and foreign-language professors, finds that women take between 1 and 3.5 years longer than men to attain the rank of professor, depending on the size and nature of their school, with the largest gap at private colleges and universities. "That's a staggering difference," says lead author Kathleen Woodward, an English professor at the University of Washington. Worse, the lag time is getting longer. Women now earn more doctorates than men and make up a greater proportion of associate professors, but they're rising through the ranks more slowly than they used to: women promoted in the 1990s took an average of 7.4 years to become full professors, while those promoted after 2000 took an average of 8.8 years. (See pictures of female soliders in Iraq.)
Admittedly, the relatively small sample size of this pilot study and the narrow range of respondents' fields makes generalizing the results tricky. But the fact that women are lagging behind in the languages often considered academia's female-friendly fields suggests that the fight to get more women established in male-dominated math and science might be even more of an uphill battle than we expected. According to the new study, whether women were single, married, divorced, with children or without, they lagged behind their male counterparts in every demographic. Married women took an average of 8.8 years to become full professors, compared to 6.8 for married men. And among single or divorced faculty, promotions took 7.7 years for women and 6.0 for men.
Interestingly, among respondents with kids, women reported spending more time (31.6 hours) caring for their children than did men (17.4), but that didn't make those women rise slower than their childless peers just the opposite. Married moms moved up in 8.2 years, compared to 9.4 for married women without kids. "Women become highly focused when they have so many different things to do," says Woodward. "When I was an associate professor and had just had a baby, I knew when I had four hours to work on a project, I was really going to work on that project." (This theory of parenthood leading to more efficient multitasking also applies to fathers, who in the survey reported getting promoted in less time than childless, married men.)
So if childrearing isn't responsible for slowing women down, what is? One answer is that men and women prioritize different aspects of their work. Female associate professors devote less time than their male counterparts do to churning out books and articles, essential fuel for promotion: women reported spending 7.7 hours a week on research and writing compared to 9.7 hours for men. This difference adds up to men spending about two more full work-weeks a year writing than women do. That can make a big difference at a time when schools' increased reliance on adjunct professors is pushing the bar for promotion higher, requiring tenure hopefuls to publish more than ever. "What men and women value differs slightly," says MLA executive director Rosemary Feal. "Men align the way they spend their time on the activities that are most readily rewarded." (See pictures of the college dorm's evolution.)
What are women doing instead? Teaching, mostly. Women spend more time (7.5 hours a week) on grading or commenting on student work than men (6 hours). They also spend 10.9 hours a week on course preparation, compared to 9.1 weekly hours for men. While these "microdifferences" are not significant week to week, the report finds, over time they may add up to a "major inequity." Unfortunately, prioritizing student contact rarely leads to getting promoted. One respondent, a female professor at a public university, warned in the free-response portion of the survey of the pitfalls of getting too invested in service work. "You can get sucked totally into life-changing amounts of time," she wrote, "for which some of your colleagues are not planning to reward you."
Academic rewards, the report notes, are still largely bestowed by men, who have had decades more time to become ensconced in positions of campus authority. And until more women get promoted to full professorships the springboards to plum administrative posts that's unlikely to change. "It's a vicious circle," says Feal.
In the meantime, the report concludes, colleges and universities can start closing the gap by beefing up mentoring programs, establishing clear guidelines and paths for promotion, and making sure that women are aware of those guidelines. "Institutions should promote people based on their values," says Feal. "So if they value service to the college community and they value teaching, they should find ways to evaluate professors' entire profile when they consider them for promotion."
Woodward adds that increasing awareness is key. "I'm not sure women are aware that they are being promoted later," she says. "I think (this report) can cause many women to examine their own behavior."