Unequal Demands on Women for University Service Retard Careers

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UCR sociologist Karen Pyke presents research at American Sociological Association conference

By on August 17, 2014

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Women professors are asked to serve on university committees in such disproportionate numbers that they are deprived of research time that is essential for promotion and find their careers lagging behind their male colleagues as a result, according to University of California, Riverside sociologist Karen Pyke.

The problem is so widespread among the nation’s research universities that some colleagues and administrators advise women faculty to “Just Say No” to such requests. But that advice overlooks a centuries-old model of higher education and university service that not only fails to address obstacles to women’s success but blames women for their failure to achieve equality in the academy, Pyke found in a study presented today at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco.

Karen Pyke

Karen Pyke

In “Faculty Gender Inequity and the ‘Just Say No to Service’ Fairytale,” Pyke examined the unequal burden of university service placed on women because of their smaller numbers in the academy and its impact on career advancement.

Research universities typically over-recruit women faculty for service on university committees and task forces to ensure gender diversity, she wrote. Some studies show that women faculty at doctoral universities serve on 50 percent more committees than men faculty.

“Ironically, this practice is an institutional barrier to women faculty’s advancement as it deprives them of precious time needed to conduct research, the requisite activity for promotion,” she wrote. “It is thus common practice in the academy to advise women faculty to ‘Just Say No’ to those who ask them to serve.”

While university service also is a condition of advancement, the amount of service required is rarely quantified. Research universities typically have dozens of standing committees and task forces that address issues and policies relating to governance, hiring and promotions, admissions, and curriculum. There are departmental committees as well, and expectations of service to the discipline through association and journal activities.

With hundreds of seats to fill and faculties where women typically comprise fewer than one-third of tenure-track positions, women are asked far more frequently to serve on these committees, Pyke said. Women of color are particularly hard hit due to their even smaller faculty numbers and their ability to contribute to gender and racial diversity in their service, she added. Women faculty also are recruited far earlier in their careers than are male colleagues, at a time when service can have more deleterious and long-lasting effects on their careers.

“The organizational structures of today’s universities, which trace their roots to the universities of medieval Europe when higher education was the exclusive province of men, reflect men’s life course trajectories and social practices, not women’s,” Pyke wrote. “Men continue to occupy the upper ranks of higher education where they have failed to recognize, let alone alter, gendered institutional practices that block women faculty’s advancement. … Casting higher education as a gender-blind institution and failing to acknowledge structural hurdles to women faculty’s advance leads to blaming women for their failure to achieve equality and puts the onus on them to change rather than on men or the university structure.”

University administrators may advise women and underrepresented minorities to seek advice on how to manage their service loads from senior colleagues and administrators “who, as it turns out, are most likely to be men lacking experience with such pressures,” the sociologist found. “Three-quarters of full professors and the vast majority of university administrators in the United States are men. As these are the same individuals who are likely to press women faculty into service, this practice is akin to asking the wolf to guard the hen house.”

The presumption that faculty voluntarily participate in campus service and fully control how much they do is naïve, she added. Department chairs and deans can and do assign faculty to department and university committees and task forces. When an administrator asks an assistant or associate woman professor to serve, “she may not know if this is a sincere question or an assignment to which saying no could have negative repercussions.”

The “Just Say No” approach exacerbates the problem, Pyke said.

“When women faculty internalize the myth that they have the power and responsibility to limit their service loads, they can likewise blame themselves rather than structural inequities, and regard their lower wages and stalled careers as their own fault,” she observed. “… We can replace the ‘Just Say No’ mantra toward service with the far more apt slogan ‘Just Don’t Ask.’ But if you ask me for service, be prepared to acknowledge and reward my service labor. Otherwise, just don’t ask.”

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