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Academia is quietly and systematically keeping its women from succeeding

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Time for a change.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Academia’s war on women is real. Even though women outnumber men both in college enrollment and graduation rates, colleges aren’t exactly bending over backwards to accommodate them. From skyrocketing costs resulting in women taking out more loans—and incurring more debt—than men to the complicity of administrators in on-campus sexual assault, women do not always feel particularly welcome on campus. Not to mention that once women graduate, they will earn over 20% less than men.

Perhaps more important, however, is the correlation between a decreasing interest in the humanities and an exponential increase in adjunct labor. Of course, it’s not just women in the humanities who suffer. Women in research fields have long complained of discriminatory practices and sexism from colleagues and administrators. Meanwhile, bias against mothers continues to hold women back from achieving tenure. Statistically, however, many more women work in the humanities than in the sciences, and over 55% of female humanities faculty are adjuncts, or “contingent” workers. And so the devaluing of the humanities in higher education is bound up with our culture’s larger devaluation of women’s work.

Many more women work in the humanities than in the sciences, and over 55% of female humanities faculty are adjuncts.

The backlash against the humanities began in the late 1980s with the institutional recognition of women’s studies, as well as other minority-based programs such as African-American studies. Conservatives attacked the humanities for its “liberal agenda” and fomented disdain for higher education through the discourse of “political correctness” by intimating that liberals were policing language on campus. Lynne Cheney’s 1988 report to US president Ronald Reagan on the “Humanities In America” criticized the “trivial” nature of this new race, gender, and class inclusive humanities curriculum.

The late Harvard professor Barbara Johnson explained this “self-reconstitution of patriarchal power” in her book The Feminist Difference: “[J]ust at the moment when women (and minorities) begin to have genuine power in the university, American culture responds by acting as though the university itself is of dubious value. The drain of resources away from the humanities (where women have more power) to the sciences (where women still have less power) has been rationalized in other ways, but it seems to me that sexual politics is central to this trend.”

The gender breakdown of the humanities would appear to bear out Johnson’s hypothesis. The 2013 Humanities Departmental Survey, which surveyed 621 humanities departments from 448 academic institutions in the United States, found that “women comprised almost two-thirds of the faculty in languages and literatures other than English,” and make up nearly half the humanities faculty in total.

Academia’s gradual transformation into an “adjunct nation” has disproportionately affected women.

Meanwhile, academia’s gradual transformation into an “adjunct nation” has disproportionately affected women. “In 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track,” Caroline Fredrickson noted at the Atlantic. “Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs.”

Historically, female faculty have been pigeonholed into the position of adjunct. “Before women were allowed to be full professors, colleges often allowed them to teach at the adjunct level and wives of professors often picked up extra work as adjunct instructors,” Kay Steiger writes in The Nation. This association became so strong, according to Eileen E. Schell, that adjuncts became known as ”the housewives of higher education.”

Like most housewives, female adjuncts are not properly compensated for their work. Dismissed as contingent “women’s work,” their labor is delegitimized through pay and through the restriction of their labor to part-time status. Estimates suggest that between 50% and 75% of contingent faculty are women, in line with general labor statistics that show two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. In fact, a 2014 SEIU report found that “38% are paid below $455 per week, the minimum salary that almost all professional employees must receive to be deemed exempt under the current Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations.”

Like most housewives, female adjuncts are not properly compensated for their work.

The precarious situation of the female adjunct is reflected in new research by Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn of Cornell University. According to their study, published in January, the largest contributor to the gender wage gap is that of profession. Call it a modern day form of the derogative “women’s work”: professions known as women’s professions, that traditionally have been dominated by women, pay less than those perceived as men’s professions. “Many women in professional jobs remain employed in traditionally female occupations such as nursing or K-12 teaching that are generally less lucrative than traditionally male professions,” they observe, noting that “teaching” refers to “non-college” jobs.

In fact, when women begin to take over a profession, the pay drops, as Claire Cain Miller wrote at The New York Times. Given this reality, perhaps it’s no surprise that faculty salaries across all ranks have decreased over the past five years, according to a 2014 National Education Association study.

However, the NEA also concluded that female faculty earn exceptionally less than their male counterparts, with “the greatest disparity… found at doctoral universities, both public and private, where women’s salaries are just 80% (at public institutions) to 78% (at private) of men’s salaries, and have remained the same the past eight years.” This is despite the fact that “the percentage of female faculty members at higher education institutions has increased every year,” since 2003. A meager 34% of female faculty, to note, can claim the title of professor, according to the NEA study.

Unfortunately, academia’s shift toward contingent faculty is an economic model that is now being adopted in industries such as publishing, media, and law. This shift contributes to America’s wage stagnation problem, especially for women, as well as to its intellectual fragility. If we aren’t properly compensating our most qualified workers, what incentive is there to become qualified at anything at all?

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