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Addressing female underrepresentation

Richard Klee | Thursday, October 10, 2013

This year has been marked in the Notre Dame Forum as a year to reflect and learn about the theme of ‘Women in Leadership’. In a previous column I described the underrepresentation of women in leadership now at Notre Dame, where women are outnumbered by men three to one among executive administrators, nine to one among full professors, and eleven to one at the highest level of university oversight, the Board of Fellows.  In this column I would like to present basic information and analysis regarding the underrepresentation of women among faculty and graduate students, with a particular focus on female faculty and graduate students who are parents or who are discerning parenthood.
In a 2008 study, the University Committee on Women Faculty and Students noted that Notre Dame had made strides towards better representation of women among tenure-track faculty, but was nonetheless losing ground, relative to its peer schools, in other important respects. The report described the basic problems: “Since 2001, the ratio of female faculty at Notre Dame relative to our Association of American Universities (AAU) peers has dropped by a full 10 percentage points. Notre Dame has excelled at recruiting women at the assistant professor level, but we do not seem to be able to keep them. Notre Dame continues to lag behind the AAU privates at the associate and full professor ranks. Relative to our peers, the percentage of full professors has not changed in 10 years.” In the period studied, Notre Dame in fact did better than its peers in attracting female scholars to a tenure track job, but was significantly less effective than peers in promotion to tenure, and retention in senior faculty positions.
The report described several initiatives proven effective at other schools that, if applied at Notre Dame, would improve the University’s gender climate. Several of these initiatives were fully accepted by the President and Provost in their response to this report in 2009. Some were altered or rejected. I would like to focus on these here. Firstly, the Committee recommended expanding high quality child care at Notre Dame’s ECDC. This recommendation has twice been evaluated by the administration and found too expensive. The administration has not considered other potentially less expensive means to secure childcare, such as vouchers or subsidies offered directly to faculty parents. The result is that faculty and graduate students cannot secure child care at Notre Dame until the second or third year of their child’s life, depending on waiting lists.
Secondly, the Committee had recommended a full office to supervise and support the increase of gender diversity at Notre Dame; this recommendation was altered in implementation by the administration. Citing “the current economic climate that counsels against significant administrative and bureaucratic expansion” and that a person integrated within the Provost’s office with ” focused attention” on gender concerns could better coordinate efforts across the university, a person with part-time focus was designated to supervise this university-wide work.
In implementation, however, neither the concerns to provide “focused attention”, nor to constrain administrative and bureaucratic costs in tough times, has been maintained. The supervisory person was a year later tasked to be “Interim Director of the Hesburgh Libraries”, a position held for over a year. (I do not identify this person, as competency is certainly not in question here, only the administrative structure of the university.) Administrative costs also ballooned, according to foundationcenter.org, as many executive administrators at Notre Dame saw their compensation double, triple, or quadruple from 2003 baselines.
Inconsistent attention and poor funding are also a characteristic of the Graduate School’s approach to improving conditions for student parents, conditions which typically affect female students more strongly. In 2011, after a year of study on ways to make graduate study more “family friendly”, the Graduate Council considered a proposal to provide an ‘accommodation policy’ option for student parents following childbirth or adoption, in addition to a medical leave option. This accommodation, however, came with no additional funding. Several professors on the Council noted “the failure to add a semester of funding … as it is not “family friendly” to lose support as a result of becoming a parent.” However the minutes noted that unless there was “buy-in at higher levels of the University administration” no such funding was possible. Several years later, this ‘buy-in’ has still not occurred, with the result that the typically female student users of this policy must consume limited academic funding to heal and care for a newborn following childbirth. Moreover, the minutes record that leadership of the Graduate School promised improvements at departmental levels, but I am unaware that any department has made such improvements two years later.
A university that does not provide basic supports and benefits to female scholars seeking to negotiate the difficult balance of work and family should not be surprised by statistics that show poor retention and promotion of women. Whether for the Graduate School, where the attrition rate for female students is significantly higher than that of male students, and the recruitment of women to doctoral programs lags in most departments, or to improve the representation of women faculty in the tenured and full professor ranks, Notre Dame must offer more attention, funding, and consistency before it can be confident of its efforts to address the underrepresentation of women.

Richard Klee is a doctoral candidate in theology and an undergraduate alumnus of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at rklee2@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.