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What Roles Are We Modeling? Gendered Academic Employment and Its Consequences

In looking through photos that my daughter posted recently from her university summer field school experience, I was struck that most of her fellow students (but not the lead professor) were women. My daughter is working on her bachelor’s degree in natural resources conservation at a rural Midwestern university, a field and location not always associated with plentiful opportunities for women. As a father I was pleased, but as a researcher on gender equity in academic employment, I pondered some of the broader implications. In this essay I consider the gendered nature of academic employment and the effect of that model on women as students and graduates considering their own careers. I presented much of the data on academic employment discussed here in a more detailed previous analysis (Curtis 2011), although I’ve updated the figures here wherever possible. The focus in this essay goes beyond documenting the continuing inequities to a consideration of the impact of that situation on the aspirations of the women who now make up the majority of our college student population.

Ongoing Shift to Contingent Employment

The most salient trend in the academic workforce over the last three or four decades has been the ongoing shift to contingent employment, reaching 76 percent of all instructional staff positions nationwide as of fall 2011. This category includes faculty members employed full or part time off the tenure track, along with graduate student employees; it should also include postdoctoral fellowships, but the available data do not allow us to count those positions accurately in the census of academic employment. All of these positions are contingent in that they are limited-term, insecure, mostly underpaid, and inadequately supported by their institutions.

Women have entered the academic workforce in large numbers during the same period in which contingency has emerged as the normative employment situation. Between 1976 and 2009, the number of women employed in instructional staff positions at degree-granting colleges and universities grew by 266 percent, whereas the number of men employed increased by only 62 percent during the same period. However, even as the overall academic workforce became increasingly contingent, women have found themselves disproportionately in these less secure and less rewarding positions. Women faculty members are more likely than men to be employed in part-time positions, and women faculty members in full-time positions are more likely to be off the tenure track. Although women hold 44 percent of all full-time faculty positions, they comprise only 29 percent of full professors, and the proportion is even lower in many disciplines and in most departments at major research universities.

The overrepresentation of women in contingent appointments shows in their earnings, as well. Among full-time faculty members, women earn salaries on average that are 80 percent of what men earn, and this proportion has been remarkably consistent for more than thirty-five years now. The gender pay disadvantage has several components: women are less likely than men to hold positions at research universities that pay the highest salaries; they are more likely to be in disciplines that pay lower salaries; and as noted above, they are less likely to reach the most senior rank. According to the most extensive analysis available, wages among part-time faculty are roughly equal for men and women on average (Coalition on the Academic Workforce 2012). However, since women are disproportionately employed in these low-paid part-time positions, a true compilation of all academic earnings by gender would show a disadvantage even greater than 20 percent.

Just a Matter of Time?

In contrast to the employment and earnings situation for their instructors, the most recent data on women as students and graduates of higher education seem to offer the promise that it’s “just a matter of time” before women achieve parity in the academic workforce and in other fields. Women comprise between 55 and 60 percent of total enrollment at the various levels of degree-granting institutions nationwide. They now earn the majority of degrees awarded at all levels from associate’s to doctoral. And the limited data available on graduation rates indicate that women are more likely than their male cohorts to complete degrees once they enroll. Indeed, the success of women in enrolling and excelling in higher education has been so dramatic that the series of Gender Equity in Higher Education reports issued by the American Council on Education since 2000 have been focused on “the issue of male achievement” and the “gender gap” between apparently high-achieving women and their seemingly disadvantaged male counterparts (King 2010).

Sociologist Ann Mullen provides a counterpoint to this depiction of “feminization” in higher education:

To some, the fact that women earn 57 percent of all degrees to men’s 43 percent suggests the gender pendulum has swung too far. They claim that if the ratio still favored men, there would be widespread protest. But such claims fail to see the full picture: though women earn more degrees than men, the gender integration of higher education is far from complete. Men and women still diverge in the fields of study they choose, their experiences during college, and the kinds of jobs they get after graduating. (Mullen 2012, 38)

We would all like to think that the world of gendered access to academic achievement and career success has changed, and it has in so many ways. Barriers to entry in academia and employment that were brick walls just a few years ago have become more porous, although it’s important to note that the “glass ceiling” in many professions has hardly been shattered. Yet recent analysis by the American Association of University Women indicates that women college graduates are still subjected to an earnings disadvantage right from the beginning of their employment (Corbett and Hill 2012).

Blatant examples of discrimination against women in education and employment are becoming less common—although I continue to be astounded by the examples documented by Joan Williams and her colleagues in developing the field of family responsibilities discrimination law (Williams 2010). The question I’d like to raise is more subtle: To what extent do the gendered roles of academics serve as a model for the students we are educating?

In addition to the gendered nature of academic employment detailed above, the work done by women faculty members also differs from that of their male counterparts. A number of research analyses have documented that women full-time faculty members do more teaching and more service work than do men. They spend more of their time advising students and less time on research. As a consequence, the individual woman student might have more intense interaction with women faculty members, but what will she observe in that interaction? Whether employed full-time and carrying a heavier load of less-rewarded work, or employed in a precarious contingent position, faculty women disproportionately model limited prospects in their academic careers.

The Impact of Faculty Role Models on Graduate Student Career Aspirations

Mary Ann Mason and her colleagues have summed up a decade of groundbreaking research on the interactions among gender, family, and career outcomes in academia in a new book, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. Among other specific topics, they consider the impact of faculty role models on graduate student career aspirations:

About half of all doctoral students are now women, but a far smaller proportion will become tenure-track faculty members. …Despite their large (and growing) numbers, women students find themselves in a male world. In many disciplines, few of their advisors are women, and even fewer are mothers. The top administrators are likely to be men as well. This leaves women graduate students with few role models and with profound doubts about how to go about combining families with high-powered research careers. (Mason et al. 2013, 24-5)

Much of this observation could be extended to the roles modeled for women undergraduates by their instructors and faculty advisors, as well. Thus, the stubborn disadvantages experienced by women in academic employment have potential repercussions beyond their own careers and families. If the career experience of her faculty role models is one of lower earning potential and continued barriers to advancement into senior positions—or even to a stable career—what signals does that send about her own career aspirations to the supposedly unfettered woman student? Until we are truly able to eliminate gender inequity in academic employment and provide role models that our women students can emulate without reservation, our hopes for their attaining their unlimited potential are tinged with doubt.



Coalition on the Academic Workforce. 2012. A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members.

Corbett, C., and C. Hill. 2012. Graduating to a Pay Gap: The Earnings of Women and Men One Year after College Graduation. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.

Curtis, J. W. 2011. Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment. Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors.

King, J. E. 2010. Gender Equity in Higher Education: 2010. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Mason, M. A., N. H. Wolfinger, and M. Goulden. 2013. Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Mullen, A. 2012. “The Not-So-Pink Ivory Tower.” Contexts 11 (4): 34–38.

Williams, J. C. 2010. Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

John W. Curtis is director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors.

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