Unfinished Agendas: New and Continuing Gender Challenges in Higher Education

S.L. Sutherland finds that women still have some way to go to achieve equality in the academy

January 22, 2009

In 1978, the journal Signs published my article on male-female differences among university students in Alberta, Canada. I worried that women were not moving in sufficient numbers to the most challenging and financially rewarding fields of study, noting that "women remain grossly underrepresented at the higher levels of virtually every occupation ... Whether one believes that opportunities are fewer for women, or that fewer women are willing to grasp opportunity, the prognosis for the future does not point to radical change."

Great change was, however, under way. Fed in part by a bubble in the intellectual valuation of the social sciences that had begun in the late 1960s, borne by the tide of massification, an expanding higher education opened its arms to undergraduate and graduate women. In 1970, women comprised some 40 per cent of total enrolment in all US higher education institutions, including two-year colleges. By 2005, that enrolment category had doubled to 17.5 million students, and women made up 57 per cent of students.

But was the change radical? The title Unfinished Agendas perfectly summarises the contents of Judith Glazer-Raymo's 12-chapter edited book, and the conservationist messages of her collection of mixed-method quantitative and qualitative ("critical") essays interpreting the lived experiences of women faculty. These range from the miserable and unrelenting visibility of "women of colour" (who outnumber men of colour in higher education), the exploitation of female staff for extra teaching and service in even the elite institutions, to the withheld prizes of the university presidency and seats on the boards of trustees.

Glazer-Raymo's masterfully handled, long and data-filled introduction starts with the year 1972 as the "high-water mark" for progressive legislation for women and minorities, providing the base cohorts for doctoral and faculty gains for women from 1980 to 2005. She then captures the downside.

Although women's gains in the social sciences and humanities are undeniable, our heaviest representation (to the point of domination) is in education, library science, social work and nursing. Women are still few relative to males in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields and in the centres of entrepreneurialism - a renewed patriarchy where expertise rubs up against the market and the male participants are gilded. Glazer-Raymo moves though the contingent workforce of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty where women are overrepresented, documents the lower salaries for women at all ranks in all institutions other than in two-year colleges, and the extent to which minorities are weakly represented. Finally she moves to the social, political (since US states have a role in appointing boards) and legal forces, most notably during the George W. Bush Administration, that have eroded women's gains and those of minorities.

A recurrent theme of Glazer-Raymo and the authors of nine contributed chapters is that the agenda of consolidation of women's ground in higher education, and further gains, is imperative because the identity of the person in any authority role is part of students' "learning process". If this were deeply believed, we white women would be replacing ourselves with minority women, minority men and white men in our "owned" fields, while mentoring women towards male fields.

Two pure assumptions are equally pervasive. One is that the academic game is truly worth the struggle, provided that women's curiosity-driven research is supported, and that work-life balance is possible - even without the desired equity in the STEM fields or in business, and even with exploitative service assignments. A second assumption is that existing disciplinary and field patterns of gender enrolment and faculty numbers can and should continue as they are through increasing massification, with right-minded political will. Not one scholar asks how the male youths of the higher-education shortfall are equipping themselves for work. The fact of a 60-40 female-male imbalance in public institutions is for the most part seen as a potential spur to ill-considered actions to increase male numbers.

That said, this book, published in the midst of a period of extreme financial turbulence, is a fine portrait of a set of institutions whose contribution to the students it serves may need reviewing.

Unfinished Agendas: New and Continuing Gender Challenges in Higher Education

Edited by Judith Glazer-Raymo

Johns Hopkins University Press

320pp, £36.50 and £16.50

ISBN 9780801888625 and 88632

Published 4 June 2008

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