How things have changed for female academics

Myra Strober’s rejection in 1970 for a tenure-track position inspired a lifetime of struggle against sexism

June 9, 2016
Collage of polaroid photos of demonstrators, 1960s/1970s
Source: Getty

“It’s because you live in Palo Alto,” the chairman of Berkeley’s economics department tells me.

“I can’t have a regular job here because I live in Palo Alto?”

He nods.

Chairman Break is tall, with football-player shoulders, and although I’m tall too, his massive frame towers over me. He’s the big shot in one of the most prestigious economics departments in the country. I’m the assistant professor wannabe. If this meeting doesn’t go well, he could decide not to hire me for next year. Under my jacket, rivulets of perspiration are making their way down my dress-for-success blouse.

“You have to live in Berkeley to be on your tenure track?”

Again he nods.

I’m baffled. I never knew that. My husband, Sam, is a medical resident at Stanford and works incredibly long hours. Often he goes back to his lab late at night to check on his experiments. We have to live in Palo Alto.

“OK,” I say softly, getting up to leave. “Thanks very much.”

When I get to my office, my hands are shaking. I can hardly insert my key into the lock. I feel drained, disoriented. Did I take something out of the freezer for tonight’s dinner? Lamb chops? Hamburger? I dial home, but Margie, my babysitter, doesn’t pick up. She’s probably taken the kids out somewhere.

I leave my office and walk across Sproul Plaza, surprisingly quiet after all the years of student demonstrations. It’s 1970, and the Vietnam War is beginning to wind down. I slide into my full-size blue Chevy with a trunk large enough to hold both a stroller and a carriage, and review my meeting with Break. I spend a lot of time in Big Blue these days. It’s about an hour between Palo Alto and Berkeley in the morning and longer in the late afternoon, and I do the commute three days a week.

Gradually, crawling in stop-and-go traffic toward the Bay Bridge, the absurdity of Break’s answer registers. My first response is to cry. I grope around in my purse, pull out some tissue, and dab at my eyes. But now the road is blurry. I switch my thoughts to my children.

“Mommy, Mommy!” Jason, my three-year-old, will scream with delight when he hears my key in the door. And Liz, eleven months, will follow his lead; she’ll speed across the living room on all fours, tug on my leg, and make joyful noises.

Suddenly, the traffic starts to move. I can never tell why the snarls dissolve, but I’m always grateful. As I drive at normal speed, my thoughts turn back to Break, but this time, instead of tears, I’m aware of growing anger – at myself.

What’s wrong with you? I scream inside my head. You let him intimidate you. You let him make you mute. You’re a smart woman, and you let him make you look stupid. Faculty don’t have to live in Berkeley to be on the tenure track. He fed you pure bull, and you bought it. You want to know why you can’t have a tenure-track job at Berkeley? Look at what’s real. There are no women except Margaret in the whole economics department faculty, and though she’s been there for more than twenty years, she’s still a lecturer. Wake up!

The difference between a lecturer and an assistant professor is monumental. Assistant professors have a regular job with an opportunity for promotion and lifetime tenure. Lecturers, on the other hand, are on a road to nowhere. They’re appointed from year to year, generally only a few months before their teaching is to begin, and have no chance of advancing. I’ve worked too hard for too many years to be content with second-class citizenship. I intend to get the real deal at Berkeley.

When I finally get onto the Bay Bridge, my anger changes. Now I’m furious with Break. How dare he tell me I have to live in Berkeley? The radio is tuned to the talk station, and I register Joe Carcione, the popular “Green Grocer,” instructing the whole Bay Area about choosing pumpkins. Ah, Halloween is coming. Maybe I could revisit Break’s office in costume. Witch? Skeleton? Big Bird? Surely some costume could shake him out of his “we all have to live in Berkeley” routine.

With my sheath skirt and matching man-tailored jacket, I’m wearing stockings and high heels. The stockings feel sticky, and the shoes pinch every time I accelerate. How I would love to kick off those shoes. Whoever invented high heels definitely didn’t have driving in mind.

I’m getting angrier by the second – at the traffic, which has snarled again; at my gluey stockings and too-tight high heels; and at my own naiveté. But most of all I’m angry at Break. Slowly I begin to understand what people mean when they say their anger makes them see red, because a swelling fury, a deep scarlet anger, now floods the car. The steel frame and glass windows can’t contain it, and it bursts onto the road like a flaming oil slick – a torrent sliding over the bridge’s girders and thundering across the bay.

As the lights of San Francisco begin to flicker against the darkening sky, I feel a flicker of light within myself. I become a feminist on the Bay Bridge. The anger and enlightenment of that day energizes the rest of my life. It leads me to become one of the creators of a new academic field and new institutions to study sexism and fight it.

The following morning, at 9 a.m. sharp, I’m on the phone.

“I need another appointment as soon as possible,” I tell Break’s secretary.

“One moment, please. I’ll check his calendar.”

Long silence.

“He says he can’t see you until early November.”

“That’s more than a month from now.”

“Yes, I know. He’s very busy.”

Busy! He’s not busy, I think to myself, he’s just a coward. I’d like to punch his secretary right through the phone lines, but I put on my best party manners.

“Well, thank you very much. I’ll see him then.”

Several weeks later, I have my second meeting with Break.

“Professor Break, I’ve come to ask you the same question I asked you last time? Why am I being treated differently from Richard Sutch and Tu Jarvis? We all got our doctorates from MIT. We were classmates. Now we all have the same teaching responsibilities.”

My host leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head, rests his feet on his desk, and sets his pipe in his mouth. I glance around his office. Academic décor, circa time immemorial. Floor to ceiling journals and books, American Economic Review, National Tax Journal, numerous copies of his new book, Agenda for Local Tax Reform. And paper everywhere, manuscripts covering every possible surface in neat and not-so-neat piles, some spilling onto the floor. One small corner of the desk is manuscript-free, cluttered instead with framed photos of people I assume are his family. Musty smell, stale combination of old paper and years of tobacco.

Slowly Professor Break takes his feet down from his desk, leans slightly forward on his chair, lights his pipe, and takes a few leisurely puffs – all the while staring at me. Can he see how nervous I am? After a few seconds, he inhales deeply.

“Do you want me to be frank?” he asks.

Well, I think, at least more than a month of cogitation has led him to the possibility of an honest response.

“Yes, please be frank.”

“It’s because you have two young children, one not even a year old. We just don’t know what’s going to happen to you.”

“Happen to me? I’m not asking you to give me tenure now. I’m asking you to put me on the tenure track and give me a chance to prove myself. In six years, we’ll all be able to see what happens to me.”

“No,” he says, shaking his head vigorously, “No, I couldn’t possibly sell that to the department.”

These extracts, with slight amendments, are taken from Sharing the Work: What My Family and Career Taught Me About Breaking Through (and Holding the Door Open for Others) by Myra Strober.

Collage of polaroid photos of demonstrators, 1960s/1970s

As my memoir details, eventually I did receive an offer to join the Berkeley faculty as an assistant professor. Break said that as members of the department had come to know me they had decided that I was just the right person to fill their labour economics position. However, I suspect that an ongoing investigation by the US Department of Labor of a complaint of sex discrimination filed against Berkeley before I even began teaching there had as much to do with its offer as my own credentials.

Within a few days of receiving the Berkeley offer, I also received an assistant professor offer from the Stanford Business School. While Stanford was not under investigation for sex discrimination, it feared that a complaint might soon be filed against it and decided to take preventive action. In the early 1970s at Stanford, women were only 5 per cent of all tenure-track faculty, and only 2 per cent of all full professors. When I accepted the Stanford Business School’s offer, I became one of the first two women ever hired on to its faculty, and that same year, 1972, Stanford hired its first woman ever on to its Law School faculty.

Today, women are still far from parity with men with respect to faculty positions. At Stanford, women are 26 per cent of the tenure-track faculty. And for the US as a whole, in doctoral and research universities, women are 33 per cent of tenure-track faculty. Moreover, female faculty are still overrepresented in non-tenure track positions. According to a 2014 report by the American Association of University Professors, The Employment Status of Instructional Staff Members in Higher Education, Fall 2011, while one-third of full-time male faculty at doctoral and research universities in the US are non-tenure track faculty, the percentage for full-time female faculty is considerably higher: 42 per cent.

Female faculty also continue to be penalised, as I was, for being mothers. The 2013 book Do Babies Matter? by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas H. Wolfinger and Marc Goulden reports that while men’s academic careers benefit from having children, women’s are disadvantaged, especially if they have their children, as I did, before gaining tenure.

The so-called two-body problem in academe also continues. Before I came to Berkeley I had been an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, and my husband and I had both had jobs in that geographic area. But when he left to take up a position at Stanford, and I followed him, becoming what is now known as the trailing spouse, I had no bargaining power.

Today, academic couples are more likely to go on to the job market together, and institutions are accustomed to dealing with the two-body problem. The person that gets the first offer or has the most bargaining power generally asks his or her proposed institution to help to find a job for the trailing spouse. Sometimes this is successful, but most frequently it is not, because most departments want to hire people they have chosen themselves, not people suggested to them by others. Since in many couples the husband is older than the wife, and therefore more advanced in his career, wives are more often the trailing spouse.

A department asked to hire a trailing spouse may worry about his or her quality and/or fit with long-term hiring goals. Paradoxically, if the trailing spouse is at the beginning of his or her career and does not require tenure, the relevant department may be more willing to take a chance on a spousal appointment, knowing that there will be a termination opportunity in several years if the trailing spouse does not produce in accordance with the department’s standards.

In general, departments do not have available slots for trailing spouses and any central administration that wants a department to hire a trailing spouse must often provide that department with funding for a new slot. This is likely to occur only when the non-trailing spouse is highly desired by both the department and the central administration.

I have observed that the process of finding two tenure-track jobs at the same institution is not only unsuccessful in general, but also creates a great deal of stress for the couple. If the institution does not accommodate the trailing spouse, both spouses begin to suspect that either one or both is not sufficiently desired. If the institution offers the trailing spouse a non-tenure track position, the couple must make a difficult decision about whether to accept it. As they begin to compare their relative academic success and desirability, the couple can begin a downward spiral in their relationship. In my experience, unless both spouses are “stars”, academic couples seem to have the least stress and the most success finding two jobs when they each apply separately to an institution in a large city with multiple colleges and universities.

Undoubtedly, women have become far better represented in higher education than they were in 1970, but progress has been uneven across fields. For example, while women now earn about 46 per cent of all doctoral degrees, they earn less than 30 per cent of the doctorates in the physical sciences and engineering.

And sadly, at the same time that women have increased their representation in doctoral programmes and faculty positions, the academic job market has become much less robust. Women are getting a more level playing field in academe just as it is becoming more difficult for anyone, male or female, to find relatively attractive full-time academic jobs with competitive salaries, security of employment and opportunities for promotion. My own research on teachers and bank tellers shows that women increase their representation in occupations just when men begin abandoning them because they are no longer relatively attractive. We will have to keep careful watch to see if this is how gender equity plays out in higher education.

Myra Strober is professor emerita at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University and professor emerita of economics at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Sharing the Work is published on 10 June by MIT Press.

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