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University departments to close gender divide

Tori Roeck | Friday, September 16, 2011

Being a female professor in a male-dominated department can be a challenge Arielle Phillips said.

Phillips, an assistant research professor in the Notre Dame physics department, is one of the 10 female faculty members, excluding guest and visiting professors, teaching with 70 male faculty members.

Phillips said the gender divide might reflect on the field of physics itself.

“There is an imbalance in the number of women versus men who are graduating from physics programs … so it’s not always obvious how to tackle that,” Phillips said.

Regardless of being a minority among her colleagues, Phillips said they are all on equal footing.

“The field of physics has been working on this for a while, and it hasn’t always been the case,” she said. “There might still be work to be done … [but at Notre Dame] we’re lucky enough that we do have respectful people who value the input of women as much as the input of men.”

Assistant professor of philosophy Meghan Sullivan said she is the only female junior professor in her department.

According to the department’s website, six current teaching and research faculty members are female, compared to 33 males.

Sullivan said when it comes to mentoring, male philosophy professors often have more support.

“I think men have better informal mentoring and advising networks where when stress starts to build up, they have people they can turn to that can help them navigate very difficult decisions,” Sullivan said. “Without good mentors I think women are more likely to burn out in philosophy than men.”

One challenge many female professors face is balancing family life with their careers, Phillips said.

She said that although raising a family and being a professor is not easy at any University, Notre Dame has helpful programs that allow female faculty to balance the two roles, including childcare programs, paid maternity leave and designated breast-feeding rooms around campus.

“[Notre Dame] offers beyond what is required by law, and that is a positive development,” Phillips said.

Before coming to Notre Dame, Phillips was on the President’s Standing Committee on the Status of Women at Princeton University, and she said most issues raised by women there were shared by male faculty.

“Things like childcare, things like secure parking lots and having emergency boxes … a lot of the concerns of women often end up being concerns of men, as well,” she said.

Due to the overlap, Phillips said men’s input is also important.

“Conversation among women is good and can identify certain ways in which Notre Dame can support its faculty,” she said. “But I think that conversation needs to be expanded to all people who want to have that conversation, and that includes young male faculty.”

Sullivan said talking to other female professors helps women cope.

“Just having sheer numbers of women and having that social connection helps departments and universities handle issues of gender when they come up,” Sullivan said. “If women feel like they have other people who are in a similar boat that they can … talk to about issues before they become major problems, they’re less likely to become major problems.”

A 2008 report issued by Notre Dame’s University Committee of Women Faculty and Students and the University Committee on Cultural Diversity said Notre Dame was behind its peers in hiring and retaining female faculty.

According to the report, the ratio of female professors in relation to that of similar universities had dropped 10 percentage points since 2001.

The report recommended improving childcare services and spousal hiring.

Phillips said Notre Dame’s continued emphasis on addressing gender issues will help the University move forward.

“It’s very important to have a supportive structure,” Phillips said. “At Notre Dame, there are efforts underway and more importantly than what’s already there, there seems to be a conversation that is ongoing.”