higher education

Women and Higher Education Inequity – by Jaclyn Anderson, Margie Crowe 

 Faculty and Leadership Positions, COVID-19, and Structural Disparities 

Where Are the Allies?

The structural disparities linger within higher education and are influenced by long-standing patriarchal practices and ideologies. These inequalities can lead to a lack of diversity and inclusion of single-parent households and women. The problem has become salient given the current pandemic of COVID-19., which disproportionately affects women and single-parent households. Inflexible thinking and leadership practices in higher education have led to barriers to full inclusion of women in higher education positions that are exacerbated when women must choose between their career and their families. Current higher education leadership practices often disallow or acknowledge the right of women to exist in this space. Institutions are reluctant, and indeed refusing, to allow accommodations for staff, faculty, and students (allowing work from home, reducing attendance requirements, required on-campus hours). Administrations that are rife with patriarchal ideologies, with little or no understanding of the consequences of these archaic policies, seem to continue with business as usual.

Today, post-secondary institutions are nearing equal representation of men and women in faculty roles, with men accounting for 54% of the total faculty population and women accounting for 46% of the faculty population (NCEC, 2020). Demographics of post-secondary education leadership and administration are not available in a collective format. However, a cursory review of top higher education institutions showed limited information on institutional leadership. For example, when visiting Harvard University’s main webpage requires clicking four screens deep to find the biography of the current male president. Then, several more screens deep to find the list of provosts (the majority are male). Also, of particular note is the absence of racial and ethnic diversity among the top leadership. Yale University also has a similarly homogenous leadership team, lacking in both gender diversity and racial and ethnic diversity.

A 2017 American Council on Education report on the demographics of higher education presidents showed that 32% of female higher education presidents reported altering career plans and paths to address the competing demand of providing caregiver support to family members. In contrast, the report found that only 16% of male presidents experienced a similar demand or change to the trajectory of their career plans due to caregiver responsibilities. While the report addresses the duties and responsibilities of higher education presidents, it fails to address how the institutions specifically provide reasonable accommodations for female leadership. Herein lies the issue of inequity among female and male leadership and faculty within higher education–the absence of equity, inclusion, and accommodation for women working in higher education. Even the most superficial understanding and recognition of the complexity of demands on women working in higher education, not to mention the apparent lack of empathy evident in leadership practices, appears to be essentially non-existent.

In 2009, Professor Sarah Marshall conducted an exploratory study on the barriers to full inclusion for women with children in higher education leadership positions. Like many other systems and organizations, women must navigate the complexity of balancing a career, home life, and often children. In Marshall’s study, the findings indicated that study participants were committed to their families, children, and their profession, but felt that all participants were at a disadvantage due to having to make choices and sacrifices of children or family over career or career over children and family. However, participants felt a sense of commitment to future generations of women and breaking down barriers. Now, over a decade later, women in higher education of all levels are faced with making those same sacrifices, but with even more significant consequences due to COVID-19 and a system that is designed to support men and punish women.

Preliminary studies show a negative impact on psychological wellness and implementing self-regulation skills to deal with the uncertainty of COVID-19 (Taylor et al., 2020; Stamu-O’Brien, 2020). Women in higher education positions experience high levels of stress, leading to decreased psycho-emotional health (Kersh, 2017;2018) that is likely exacerbated by current COVID-19 management practices that require women in higher education to choose between their family and their profession. In a recent conversation with a fellow academic on the subject, she made a statement that demonstrated an overarching phenomenon experienced by women working in higher education facing constant adversity related to their position, “[I feel] angry, powerless, helpless.”

What does the future for diversity and inclusion within higher education look like? A recent search for job titles with the keywords “diversity” and “inclusion” in the position title yielded 112 results on HigherEdJobs.com (HigherEdJobs, 2020). It is encouraging to see institutions reflect, accept, and act to change the outdated and harmful ideologies and structural disparities that have persisted into the 21st century. As a collective of educated individuals, we can raise the alarm and hopefully avoid a trip back in history. As Aundre Lorde so eloquently stated, “your silence will not protect you.” As women in education and our allies, we need to support, engage, and work towards more significant opportunities for inclusion. We have a right to exist in this space and, indeed, an obligation to do so.

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