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 Have Women Cracked Academia's Glass Ceiling?
 Janet Rhodes, USA
 January 1, 2005

"I was thrilled when I went for my job interview at San Diego State University," recalled Pat Washington, who earned her PhD in sociology from the State University of New York. Raised in a welfare family, Washington's mentors from grade through grad school were educators, and now she was to become one herself.

In 1996, Washington was selected out of more than 200 candidates for a tenure-track assistant professor position at SDSU. But seven years later, Washington —who had been named Teacher of the Year for three consecutive years, won dozens of awards, presented at scores of conferences and was widely published—was denied tenure, a promise of virtual lifetime employment awarded to scholars who demonstrate excellence in scholarship, teaching and service.

Losing a bid for tenure is devastating, because the candidate usually loses her or his job and must leave the university by the next academic year. That's what happened to Washington.

"Did I cry about it? Yes," said Washington. "Did I get angry? Yes. But more than that, it strengthened my resolve to get treated fairly." Washington filed suit against the university.

According to "Tenure Denied," a new report released by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Washington's experience is too common. Although women make up more than one-half of instructors and lecturers and nearly one-half of assistant professors, they represent only one-third of associate professors and merely one-fifth of full professors nationwide. Of the faculty at colleges and universities offering four-year degrees, only 27 percent of those awarded tenure are women.

"Tenure Denied" chronicles 19 sex discrimination cases, including Washington's, supported by AAUW's Legal Advocacy Fund during the last two decades.

"I'm disappointed that we have to resort to this," said Carlynne McDonnell, Vice President of the AAUW California Legal Advocacy Fund. "Universities and colleges should be the last places doing this. It's a loss to society at large when people are not allowed to live up to their potential," she said as she recalled the LAF-supported case of Dr. Janet Conney, who had complained of sexual harassment. Conney's dream of conducting research in geriatric psychiatry died when UCLA declined to renew her contract.

"The facts of the case resonated," McDonnell said, adding that during medical school Conney had been chief resident and was ranked by one of her teachers as one of the best students he had ever had. "She became a doctor, because she saw her father get sick. Who knows what the end of our lives would be like if Dr. Conney had been allowed to do her research?"

McDonnell noted that great leadership is the fundamental characteristic of colleges and universities that have a good record in gender equity.

Models of Equity in Higher Ed

After a 2001 survey of paid faculty at UCSF revealed that women were less optimistic than men about their future career prospects, the university made changes.

"We just hired a search ambassador to assist search committees in creating gender and ethnic balance in faculty positions. And two out of four deans at UCSF are now women," noted Amy Levine, EDD, Director of the UCSF Center for Gender Equity.

"Power to determine tenure is political," said Rosa Perez, President of Cañada College in Redwood City. Perez has experienced the tenure process from both sides—formerly as a faculty member who was awarded tenure by the City College of San Francisco, and now as a community college president who approves the decisions of the tenure committee.

Perez's role as president includes working with deans to ensure that the tenure committee represents different perspectives. Throughout the review process, she keeps an eye out for "those reviews you have an instinct about," she also asks "good questions."

"I am amazed to this day," said Perez, "about the comments made when a faculty member goes for tenure, such as, 'Her accent is wrong,' or, 'She doesn't fit with our culture'."

Perez uses a proactive approach with faculty to make them aware of biases before they affect tenure decisions. "The faculty of this college has been very courageous in facing their own biases and addressing them."

Learning from Tough Times

"I've never expected fairness," said Adela de la Torre, PhD, Director of both the Chicana(o) Studies Programs and the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Gender at UC Davis. "When I started graduate school in 1976, the concept of sexual harassment did not yet exist," she said as she recalled the routine harassment of women students by male professors. "The responsibility was totally the woman's if she did not want to receive sexual advances to make sure that she wasn't in the situation."

In spite of the unwelcoming atmosphere she encountered in graduate school, de la Torre has persevered and achieved success, noting that she has never been denied promotion or tenure. She has now been a tenured full professor in three systems: Cal State Long Beach, University of Arizona, and UC Davis. She credits her unusual degree of success to having learned from tough times. "My behavior is more strategy-driven than emotionally driven. This is much harder for women than men." When asked if she had advice for women entering academia, she replied, "Don't select a mentor you like. Select a mentor who's successful. Look for a track record of success."

Finding Support

"If you're privileged, you never have to look at it," Perez said as she reflected back over her 34-year career in academia. "The people who are out of power have to look at it. I don't remember a day when I wasn't scared in college, but thrilled at the opportunity.

"The scariest moment," she recalled, "was when I walked into Stanford University. I had grown up in the San Francisco Mission District; my mother was a factory worker. I had never been to Stanford. I was shocked, because it was so wealthy and privileged."

But Perez found someone to support her. "I went over to psych services and said, 'I'm freakin' here. I need some help. I don't belong here.' They supported me that first semester. They kept saying, 'Don't quit, don't quit, don't quit.'"

Pat Washington, who was denied tenure, says she will never quit. The lawsuit she filed against San Diego State University is scheduled to go to trial May 6. With the support of the AAUW, Washington hopes to make major inroads for women who seek tenure.

"For me, it's really important we do this for future generations," said Washington passionately. "The battle for civil rights didn't end in the '60s. We're dealing with something very different now. The discrimination is not so overt today and the laws we have on the books just don't deal with that."

Next month, a report on the opportunities colleges and universities offer to working adults through night and weekend classes, online programs and distance learning. To learn more about Pat Washington's case, visit Pat Washington. For more information on the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund, call Carlynne McDonnell at (909) 624-5232.For information on the UCSF Center for Gender Equity and AAUW, visit or UCSF Center for Gender Equality, or call (916) 448-7795, or visit.

From Bay Area Business Woman. Copyright @

Janet Rhodes writes for Bay Area Business Woman News.