• April 18, 2014

40 Years of Title IX: Leadership Matters for Women in Academe

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Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

Forty years ago this month, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 became law, requiring an end to gender discrimination in admissions at educational institutions that receive federal money. Since then, progress in attaining gender equity for women has been heartening, but there is still considerable work to be done, particularly in the areas of faculty and leadership.

In the 1980s—in little more than the blink of an eye—women surpassed men in admissions on most college campuses. And now, unlike their parents and grandparents, these women are increasingly likely to be taught by women. This is good news, and we have Title IX to thank.

Women—and their dollars—are the lifeblood of today's colleges. But who decides how those dollars are spent? Men, largely—and that's not all they determine. As far as students are concerned, men are the dominant minority, but male administrators hold a lopsided percentage of university power and the most senior leadership positions. What's more, men make most of the decisions that control women's educational lives and futures, without much input or oversight from women themselves. This includes decisions about curriculum, co-curricular programs, the nature and scope of health and benefit programs, and faculty hiring. Women have unprecedented access, yes, but they have little influence.

We should, of course, herald the increase in the number of female college presidents. But we won't sound the trumpets yet. After all, women represent a disproportionate one-fifth of the presidencies, the American Council on Education has found, except at the community-college level, where they represent one-third of all presidents. While the number of nonwhite female presidents has increased over the past four decades, their ranks are in decline. Ironically, female presidents have more education than their male counterparts but are much less likely to have a spouse and children at home.

Given the current state of leadership affairs, it is no wonder that female faculty and administrators, like their student counterparts, feel constrained by policies and procedures that were originally designed by and for men. Too often this means that the different forms of excellence in research, art studios, classrooms, and boardrooms are rendered invisible by the status quo.

This is not to say that men are bad leaders; quite the contrary. But the current system of academic-leadership advancement was tailored for 19th-century male faculty, and it hasn't departed much from that pattern. So being a female academic or administrator is a lot like wearing a suit that was made for someone else. In my years as a tenured faculty member, administrator, consultant, and lawyer, I have witnessed the many ways in which most institutions are blind to those ill-fitted suits, to the realities of the 21st-century woman and the dual roles that men and women play in today's society.

Take the archaic tenure-and-promotion process, which is still designed for male faculty from two centuries ago, who were either single or had wives at home taking care of the household and the children. It doesn't recognize the need for flexibility, for example. I have several female colleagues who get up at 2 a.m. to work on manuscripts, but this is lost on the academy, which is more likely to notice an absence during a daytime meeting because of a sick child. That is why we need to take a close look at benefit packages and policies, to ensure that they have the dependent-care programs and dual-career support that are vital to the advancement of female faculty and their families.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg—countless processes, norms, and cultures are daily stumbling blocks to women's advancement. Female faculty are the handmaidens of academe, serving with their time, talent, and treasure in ways that move their institutions forward. But their contributions are often missed in considerations of tenure, promotion, recognition, salary increases, and leadership succession. Four decades after the passage of Title IX, it's no wonder that women still suffer from chilly climates or vote with their feet and leave academe for greener pastures. The situation is especially perilous for women from minority backgrounds.

Certainly, the authors of Title IX did not intend such a perverse result. So, what do we do about it? Simply place more women in positions of influence? Yes, and no. We need more female administrators, but women are not immune to discriminating unfairly or to perpetuating the male-oriented system. And there are some progressive male administrators who are working to fix structural problems and level the playing field in ways that advance women and men and the institutions that they serve.

What we need now is a continuing-education effort for men and women alike, coupled with institutional reforms that take today's realities into account and create an environment conducive to a more inclusive and equitable form of leadership.

Here are some useful ways to do that:

Educate yourself and others. Be honest—do you think Title IX is mostly about the accessibility of athletics programs? Read Title IX. Understand its intent and potential impact. Think about integrating Title IX into everything you do—your research, teaching, service, administration, and professional organizations. Spread the word to your colleagues.

If you see something, do something. If you're in senior leadership at your college, draw attention to unfair advantages, antiquated procedures, and conventional wisdom that unfairly discriminates against women. If you see harassment, report it and see that justice is served. If there's a lack of diversity in hiring pools and blue-ribbon committees, ask why. Demand professional treatment for all, and when you see meaningful gender equity, celebrate it openly and widely.

Commit to equity at the highest levels. If you are a university president or sit on a governing board to which a university president reports, be as vigilant about gender equity as you should be about avoiding NCAA violations and raising money. The committees that come together for strategic planning should be planning for gender equity as well, with approaches that redress inequity in continuing and sustainable ways and that are reinforced with institutional data.

Instill equity principles everywhere, every day. They must emanate from the president's office and proliferate throughout the campus and the larger community, in every academic, co-curricular, and support unit. Gender equity requires a change of mind and heart—a transformation of the institutional mind-set. We need to communicate, establish, and employ clear and fair standards for tenure, promotion, salary reviews, and leadership succession. We need creativity­—in designing innovative work arrangements, career paths, employee benefits, and antidiscrimination policies that will benefit men and women alike. And we need to hold leaders accountable for progress on those fronts in terms of reappointment, budgetary allocations, and salary increases.

Establish support structures. This evolution will require some ballast. We'll need universitywide support for mentoring, confidential advice, recognition ceremonies, work-life interventions, critical-needs grants to assist with embryonic research initiatives, dependent-care resources for conferences and research travel, and leadership-succession programs that focus on gender equity.

These are our first steps in a long list of remedies that are certain to benefit women and men alike as well as the institutions they serve. Colleges and universities have long benefited from the presence of women­—it's time to maximize the benefits of their leadership as well.

Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh is dean of women's affairs at Indiana University at Bloomington. In August she will become vice president for equity and inclusion at the University of Oregon.

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