Crashing the top

Women at elite universities may have broken the ivory ceiling, but they're still battling old-fashioned discrimination.

Published October 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When MIT posted its "Study on the Status of Women Faculty in
Science" on the Internet in March 1999, it made the front page of the New
York Times under the headline, "M.I.T. Acknowledges Bias Against Female
Professors." Since then, Nancy Hopkins, the professor of biology who
chaired the report, has received an outpouring of e-mails, faxes and phone
calls from female academics, confirming her contention that gender
discrimination is still commonplace in top-flight universities at every
level of institutional life. As a long-term veteran of elite higher
education myself, I needed no persuading. I, too, have spent years, as
Hopkins put it, "chronically recovering from the battle of yesterday or
preparing for the one tomorrow."

Like Hopkins, I was part of the first generation of women to teach
in the top-level universities. Inevitably, since I began my
professional life just as affirmative action went into effect in the early 1970s, my
career has been a series of firsts -- I was the first woman to be offered an
assistant professorship in my department at Harvard, the first woman to
teach in Princeton's English department, the first to get tenure in the
college division of Columbia's English department. I saw the elite
universities before they had perfected their civil rights manners, before
they learned how to correct, or camouflage, their gender assumptions.

I am divorced and contentedly childless. Although my work has been the most important thing in my life, I always found it difficult to think of myself as ambitious or
competitive. Calculations of money and success played no conscious part in
my decision to become a writer and a teacher -- I was embracing a higher,
even a sacred calling. I did not yet understand that by choosing career over family I had exchanged the traditional feminine domestic plot for the quest story, a search for personal and even societal salvation usually reserved for men.

When I applied to college in 1959, women were marrying younger and having
more babies than at any other time in American history. Thanks to the G.I.
Bill, men were going to school in record numbers, but the percentage of female
college and graduate students had dropped since the 1930s. This shortage
of female scholars was evident in "Who's Who," which had fewer entries for women
in the 1950s than in the 1890s. Betty Friedan was uncovering the horrors of the "The Feminine Mystique" by studying 1950s college women as well as housewives, and my undergraduate years at Harvard could have served as a case in point.

In the early 1960s, Harvard was a Cold War university awash with federal
funds, dubious corporate investments and misogynistic assumptions.
Radcliffe students took Harvard classes and received Harvard degrees, but
they were prohibited from entering Lamont, one of Harvard's two main
libraries, though male students could use Radcliffe's library. Nor were women eligible for Harvard's prestigious honor societies, traveling fellowships or, presumably, most of its professorships. There were only 12 tenured women at Harvard when I entered, a number that had shrunk to 11 when I left a decade later, Ph.D. in hand. I never had a female teacher.

President John F. Kennedy drew many of his cabinet members from his alma
mater, and James Reston jestingly predicted in the New York
Times that soon Cambridge would have nothing left but Radcliffe. Radcliffe, apparently,
couldn't supply the nation with its cabinet nor, unaided, give distinction to Cambridge. Despite my ambitions, however, I didn't question the prevailing assumption that even the smartest women were less viable career bets than men. Back home in the New Jersey
country-club set, I'd been advised that "every girl must have two social
sports," for me a dreary and impossible goal. At Harvard, devouring the
major works of Jonathan Edwards, as I did during my first week of classes,
was a sign of virtue. Male endorsement was reward enough -- I was content to
be an unrecognized heir, even the exception that proved the rule.

Some of my teachers, however, confused my enthusiasm for their subject with
a passion for their person. One professor jumped me at Henry James' graveside, where he had presumably taken me to muse on the noble poignancy
of literary achievement. Out of the blue, my philosophy instructor
explained that he would run away with me soon but not just yet, because his
wife was then eight months pregnant. A teaching fellow told me, as a
compliment, that the only thing needed to make my beauty complete was a
lobotomy. Dependent as I was on male regard, I always put my money on my
mind: Intellect lasted, looks didn't. I regarded what today we call sexual
harassment simply as another career obstacle, to be cleared without
breaking my stride.

My dedication served to make me oblivious to the obstacles that faced me.
It was a double bind: If I fully assessed the forces
arrayed against me, how could I continue? If I didn't assess them, how would I know where
I was going or how to get there? As a woman in a male world, I needed
armor. Inspiration afforded the strongest kind, but armor is nonetheless
an anaesthetic, even a form of blindness.

In 1970, I turned down a tenure-track job at Harvard. My fascination with
peak male intellect remained, but, thanks to the feminist movement just
under way, I was now aware of the gender-restricted privileges that
safeguard its preeminence, and the dangers of questioning them. The Harvard professors I
loved who had praised me as a student might react differently once I was a
colleague. After all, no one likes finding a critic where he expected a
fan. I accepted a post at Princeton, which was then aggressively
recruiting women scholars. There, I assumed it would be less risky to be
my adult self, whoever that might turn out to be.

In fact, Princeton proved to be my first experience with the out-in-the-open backlash against women scholars. Long an
exceptionally well-to-do bastion of gentlemanly values, the university had
admitted a handful of women undergraduates in 1969. When I became one of
only 13 female professors on its faculty, and the first woman ever in its
English department, many of my colleagues expressed their open displeasure.
"Some of us wanted to be in an all-male school," one colleague pointedly told me, explaining why he'd rejected a Harvard offer.

To make matters worse, despite my junior status, I was quickly given a
series of coveted and prestigious committee appointments. While this
seemed to be a privilege, it also fueled the resentment of my male
colleagues. Inevitably, token women are overexposed and overworked -- even
today, the Ivy League looks like a cheap Hollywood production in which a
dozen female extras run
repeatedly past the camera to create the illusion of a mob scene. Meanwhile
I was kept constantly aware of my status as an interloper. Colleagues
warned students not to take my courses in women's literature and history.
My chairman called me into his office to tell me my work was faddish, "a
luxury, intellectually speaking, which Princeton simply can't afford."
In 1974, I resigned to take a job at Columbia, where I have been ever since.

Today the attitudes and behavior I encountered in the early stages of my
career should seem part of a prehistoric past. Women
outnumber men in college. Roughly 30 percent of the students at the
nation's leading business schools are women; the figure is over 40 percent
in medical and law schools. In many fields in the social sciences and
humanities, more women than men get Ph.D.s. The nation's female faculty
has grown 114 percent since 1976, almost six times as fast as its male

Yet such figures are misleading. Despite the increase in their numbers, on
several significant fronts, women are losing ground in the academy, and the
more prestigious the institution, the greater the discrimination. There may be more female than male undergraduates nationwide, but most of the top private colleges, including Harvard, MIT, Chicago, Yale, Johns Hopkins and Princeton, maintain a slim male majority. Although over 50 percent of the faculty at junior colleges are women, the
figure is only 36 percent at four-year institutions.

Most disturbingly, the gap between available female Ph.D.s and women in
tenure-track appointments has actually widened in the last 10 years.
While more women are qualified for such jobs, a smaller
percentage are getting them. This imbalance is evident in promotion
patterns as well. More full-time male faculty (72 percent) have tenured
jobs now than did in 1975 (64 percent), but the number of tenured full-time women remains the same (46 percent). Women are disproportionately
represented in the proliferating part-time, non-tenure-track jobs that now
make up about 40 percent of all academic posts. The multiplication of ill-paid and often
benefits-free, part-time jobs, which enrich the institution at the expense
of its most vulnerable members, coincided precisely with the moment when
women began to earn Ph.D.s in record numbers. The gender gap in
academic salaries, after narrowing in the early '90s, has increased in the
last few years, and it is greatest at the top.

Yet gender parity within the academy is no longer seen as a pressing issue.
As Jean E. Howard, an English professor at Columbia and
currently the president of the Shakespeare Association of America, told me,
"Feminism is no longer foregrounded in progressive politics in the academy,
especially in the elite institutions. The assumption is, we've done that."
Howard is quick to add, "We haven't -- it's just not being talked about."

Some of the critics of the MIT report argue that what gender inequality,
if any, remains in the academy merely reflects women's personal
choices -- perhaps they wanted to be less career-driven, to take time off to
raise children. But that doesn't explain why the women who have
pursued full-time careers still meet discrimination. There are many factors at work
in today's sometimes embattled, ever more profit- and prestige-conscious
elite universities, factors that shape women's (and men's) careers in a
variety of ways. Yet among them is surely the old gender pattern
sociologists identify as "feminization," the shift from a largely male to a
largely female work force, and its consequences. Greater numbers do not
necessarily spell increased equality, especially when the group in question
is female.

When "feminization" has occurred in the past, notably in elementary
school teaching, the result has been a loss for the occupation in pay and
status. Women move into male territory only to find that its occupants
abandon it rather than share it with women, and they take their privileges
with them. In such situations, female failure becomes a consequence of
female success. A feminist journal of the 1970s summed up this dynamic:
"Women Get a Ticket to Ride After the Gravy Train Has Left the Station."

The elite academy, however, presents a critical new variation in the
feminization pattern. Gifted 19th century male elementary and high
school teachers, unhappy with the growing number of women in their ranks,
could aspire up to the all-male world of the richest private colleges and
universities. But if the elite institutions are themselves overrun with
women, where can the most distinguished men go? The backlash today against
women in the top-level universities is intense, though
unacknowledged, precisely because the stakes are so high. And if obvious
discrimination is in theory prohibited, mistreatment less accessible to
legal remedy can accomplish the same end.

Nancy Hopkins' awakening didn't come when she discovered how much lower
her salary was than those of her male peers ("it was my fault," she remembers
thinking; "I'd never asked about salaries"), but when a male colleague in effect took over a course that she had been teaching. She sought redress, only to realize that
the rules were one thing, the practice something else. As Anne McClintock, a pioneer in gender studies at the University of Wisconsin, told me, "The decisions that really
matter are made outside the democratic process."

The right of faculty women to be in the elite academy is no longer at issue.
But their authority, their ability to lead in both the scholarly and
administrative realms -- particularly in areas that have traditionally been
all-male preserves -- is on occasion not only challenged but actively
undermined. One female professor quit her tenured job at an Ivy League university
after watching two female colleagues of unimpeachable intellectual and moral
standing in important administrative positions be stripped of their power and
accused of unethical conduct. Watching this
"torture," as she put it, brought her to "a level of despondency about
which I could do almost nothing." "I don't want to do bitter," she told me.
"Not if I have a choice. So I ran away." She was fortunate enough to be
offered a post at another top university.

Another scholar was forced out of a departmental chairmanship by an
all-male administration that sided with a hostile male colleague, who had
campaigned to turn her colleagues and students against her. Despite
the fact that the male scholar was widely recognized as unstable, she
says, the administration treated her adversary like "a sick but
brilliant brother they were going to take care of at all costs."

According to another female scholar, "even when the man making the charges
is less valuable than the woman he accuses, shoring up male camaraderie at
the center takes precedence over the well-being of the institution." An
Ivy League administrator, reminiscing about a moment when she horrified her
male superiors by demanding "a penis salary, not a vagina salary" for a post
she wanted to fill (the spot remained vacant), explained that women have to
"stroke the fellas to get something done. Anything else, and you're a
bitch. If you want to complain, you can't, because you're always going to
be complaining to a man, since you wind up going to that level, and the man
will side with the men." As Elaine Combs-Schilling, an anthropologist at
Columbia, notes: "Power flows around the woman in a leadership
position, never through her."

In my own department at Columbia, though there are significantly more
women than men at the graduate-student and junior-professor levels, tenured
men still outnumber women by over 4-1. Behind the surface rhetoric of
equality, old attitudes lie in wait, and sometimes manifest themselves
in ugly and disturbing forms. A personal example:

Last winter, I was asked to poll my department as part of the process of
electing our next chair. The results, which favored a brilliant and
feminist candidate, were unwelcome to a small group of senior men who had
the (all-male) administration's ear in a way that the departmental majority (which in this
instance included most of the department's women, minority group members and
faculty under 40) did not. One of these male colleagues accused me of
falsifying the polling; the poll was declared invalid, and, for various
reasons, the female candidate withdrew.

I was devastated. How could men who had worked with me for a
quarter-century not know that I would never tamper with the democratic
procedures on which all my hopes for progress depend? Success, it turns
out, seldom shields women from injustice, though it sometimes protects
their male colleagues from the consequences of unjust acts.

There are, of course, women at Columbia and elsewhere who believe that
gender is not a decisive factor in their careers, and certainly not a
reliable basis of identification among complex and varied human beings. This is a
respect-worthy position, one that the academy -- like many
workplaces -- often rewards highly. Nancy Hopkins remembers
avoiding one early feminist organizer lest she anger the men in her
department or be distracted from her research. Yet ultimately, the burden
of "living alone with discrimination" proved too heavy for Hopkins. After
years of silence, she began to talk to other faculty women about how she
felt. When they said, not, as she feared, "You're crazy!" but rather,
"Me, too," her life changed, and she took the actions that led to the MIT
study. The task force succeeded, Hopkins believes, because
the women involved operated like "a school of fish, doing everything by consensus."

Today, MIT's administrators are justly proud of the steps they have
taken to end gender discrimination, which include equalizing salaries and
hiring nine new faculty women in the School of Science. In fact, what these
women asked for was good for their institution as well as themselves.
As Susanna Cole, a senior at Brown, observes, when universities recruit
female students and faculty, they usually "promise them an environment in which
women will be equal. If it's not there, they're lying," and sooner or
later, lies have consequences.

When I asked the faculty women I interviewed what motivated them today,
they spoke of their work and their teaching. Research in biology remains
"the most interesting thing in the world" to Nancy Hopkins. "The students
make my heart sing," Elaine Combs-Schilling said. But they also spoke of the
challenge of still feeling like pioneers in mostly male worlds. "These institutions are still a frontier for women," said Jean Howard. "Someone has to fight the battle in the Ivy League."

For me, it's worth fighting. I still believe with all my heart in what my
great Harvard teacher Perry Miller called "the life of the mind," the
gold-rush kingdom of first strikes and second chances. Its sole prerequisite
is freedom; its only law, democracy.

By Ann Douglas

Ann Douglas teaches cultural history at Columbia University and is author of "Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920's." She is currently at work on a book about the Cold War culture in the United States.

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