Women Shouldn’t Need Different Guidelines for Achieving Tenure (And Other Observations on Gendered Academe)

*while Foreign Policy editors expressed initial interest in this post, a long-delayed response time to its actual draft suggests to me that such interest has faded, though I cannot imagine why. I’ve decided to self-publish it here on RI. 

Recently, Foreign Policy contributor Stephen Walt published an article on how to get tenure in political science, and Erica Chenoweth, Page Fortna, Sara Mitchell, Burcu Savun, Jessica Weeks, and Kathleen Cunningham responded with an article on the different experiences women have when they go through the process of seeking tenure. Both pieces are, in some ways, spot-on. As Chenoweth et al note, Walt’s points are reasonable, but “the likely effect of his recommended strategies would be drastically different” for men and for women.

Chenoweth et al correctly identify the source of that difference – that “processes may be biased against women, often due to implicit bias rather than conscious discrimination.” They then make a very strong case that implicit bias affects almost every facet of the tenure process, from letters of recommendations to research expectations, from hiring committees to the probability of citation, from publication opportunities to syllabus assignments, from teaching evaluations to service expectations. They also correctly point out that there are different behavioral expectations of women in the field than there are for men.

The authors then go on to give women junior faculty a number of survival tips for the tenure process: get what you need at work, get what you need at home, create time, set boundaries with others, filter commentary and criticism, network, and get your work out there. All of these (if they are realistic) are excellent pieces of advice for navigating the gendered nature of the tenure process. And Chenoweth et al do not leave it entirely to women to navigate the process: the last two paragraphs of the piece talk about advice for allies to make sure that they are aware of, and not complicit in, the gendered dynamics of the discipline.

One the one hand, this advice is solid – after all, to an extent  we all navigate the existing system individually. On the other hand, from a feminist perspective, I have two serious concerns about the advice provided. First, I am concerned that providing advice for navigating the gendered system of achieving tenure without strategizing to change the system as a whole puts the primary responsibility for overcoming bias on the victims of the bias. Second, I am concerned that a significant number of the strategies provided are only available to a small percentage of those who might seek professional success as political science faculty, narrowing the spectrum of those to whom tenure might be available.

When I suggest it is important to change the system, I mean that all of the indicators that Chenoweth et al list that show implicit bias against women are not arbitrary. If we categorize them, as they did, we see that the predominant norms in the field prize values associated with masculinities over values associated with femininities, both in research and in measuring professional achievements. Many of these values appear, and are assumed to be, gender-neutral. For example, assumptions about the possibility of objective knowledge of politics and the rationality of political actors influence many judgments of the quality of research in the field, and many scholars whose judgments those factor in to just assume that those values are gender neutral because they have not been exposed to the suggestion that they contain gender bias. In terms of the judgment of professional behavior, often women are judged as more emotional, or men’s childcare labor is valued more than women’s, because there remain embedded assumptions in many people’s heads about the roles that men and women (whether they have a PhD or not) ought to play in social life. In other words, I am arguing that the implicit gender bias in the field that Chenoweth et al note is structures the field’s expectations about scholarship, professional behavior, and professional success, and unfairly stigmatizes those who are perceived (and have to be perceived as such) as non-conforming.

In this atmosphere, Chenoweth et al’s tips, or even Walt’s, or even many of the professional development tips that I have posted over the years might help the people that follow them beat the odds to succeed as a woman in the field. Certainly, the CVs of the six authors of the “How to Get Tenure (If You Are a Woman)” post attest to odds-breaking success, professional acumen, and an impressive ability to navigate a discipline full of implicit biases against them. Their records, and those of many other women who stand out as success stories, are all the more impressive given that they were developed in a system designed for others.

Still, female scholars should not have to rely on being able to navigate a system which is stacked against them. And those of us who have successfully done so  should be all the more committed to breaking down that bias on a collective rather than individual level. In other words, in addition to mentoring and shepherding junior scholars individually through a hostile discipline, we should be focused on deconstructing the underlying hostility. Because of that, I would give different advice than Chenoweth el al, even though I used many of their tips to navigate through many of the obstacles that they outline.

My advice would be for those who set the standards of the field: tenure letter writers, journal editors, book publishers, department chairs, deans, senior faculty who vote on tenure cases, and book and journal reviewers: mainstream gender into quotidan thinking about both professional expectations and the quality of research. In using this standard, is there a disparate impact on female scholars? If I treat research as the disembodied product of a presumed-ungendered individual, what am I missing? Might there be people in the field who my assumptions about objectivity seem as foreign to as assumptions about intersubjectivity seem to me? When I am writing in a letter of recommendation about the personality traits of a candidate, what gendered assumptions are going to be made about the person? How will it be different if I describe a male candidate and a female candidate both as “ambitious,” for example? Do I discard research I see as tangential (like research about gender, for example) because I cannot personally identify with the concerns being expressed? Do I judge female scholars personal choices differently than I judge male scholars personal choices? Does this article that cites few to no women really rely on the ideas of only men? Are there really no women who have something to say on the subject where an all-male panel has been composed? Is there a place where you have seen, but failed to call out, the impact of implicit bias because you did not want to seem like you were accusing the people who engaged in that bias? When you are deciding on a tenure case, did you take into account the structural barriers to female candidates’ success? Did you take into account that, controlling for almost everything imaginable, gender still predicts citation count? Did you resist, then, using citation count unreflectively as a measure of whether someone ought to be tenured? Or did you arbitrarily decide that it was unlikely that this woman was affected? How can we collectively root out gendered biases, not over time with individual women beating the odds, but here, now?

The other concern that I have about the advice given by both Walt and Chenoweth et al is the privilege and the resources it requires both to be able to follow the advice and for following the advice to produce professional reward. Chenoweth et al note that the advice Walt gives might have different payoffs for women than for men; they also note that these issues might be present and even more salient for faculty of color. But a number of conversations since this post was made suggest that not all of the strategies it includes are available to everyone, and even when they are available, they are not always desirable and might even entrench gendered divisions of labor.

For example, the suggestions that Chenoweth et al make about outsourcing household labor rely on one’s household having the financial resources to outsource labor. But many women’s experiences in the field make that impossible. Many women go into debt to get a PhD, which puts a significant dent in early-career salaries. Many women are single parents, living in single-income households which leaves little money out of an early-career salary to invest in childcare (and almost no universities see child care as a research expense). Many women spend a number of years in contingent labor positions between their PhD and that elusive tenure-track job, racking up debt as they try to survive without a living wage. The ability to “invest in” your chances of getting tenure is not available to all. As Kathy Powers notes, “race, socioeconomic status, citizenship, and health status” both influence the availability of financial resources to invest in one’s own career and influence the likelihood that one will have serious personal and professional hurdles to overcome to make seeking tenure possible.

Because of financial and care labor obligations, many women drop out of the chase for tenure – creating a leaky pipeline where some bright women walk away from the field not because they cannot make it but because it is not worth it to them. As Christina Gray explains:

From my personal experience, a big reason I did not take on the tenure path was that I saw that my support network and financial situation would not allow me to sustain a life work balance that was acceptable to me. And not only in the getting of tenure, but more importantly in the years after tenure. I had caregiving responsibilities that I could not outsource. I had no family that could volunteer their labor to subsidize my career. I would have to do tenure on my own, while taking care of a family member who needed constant care and running a household. I could not consider moving to a rural university, because I needed access to specialized services that did not exist in smaller communities. I concluded that I could still do it, but that I would have to cut way back on the other things that I loved in my life, such as running ultra-marathons, rock climbing, camping, gardening, cooking, and dog rescue volunteering. Also, I had specialized in a very time-intensive type of research, and I liked to design time-intensive classes. I would have to adjust that, and instead become an efficient, single-minded machine, focused on tenure only. And once I got tenure, if I got tenure, I would be committed to a career that was not shaped by what I wanted for my life, and not shaped by what I wanted for my research, and not shaped by what I wanted for my teaching. It would be shaped by what was most efficient for getting tenure, and in my opinion it would be an unsustainable life. If I did not get tenure, I had possibly just dragged the person I was responsible for into a life of financial insecurity. I knew I could not put the tenure clock on hold and come back when my personal life was easier to manage. So, I decided to try to find another path.

Compounded by intersectional disadvantage in the discipline – gender bias combines with race bias, class bias, and heterosexism to provide a variety of challenges not only for women in the field, but also for women in the field who do not live up to the ideal-typical expectation of a woman as married to a man with a two-income household and children that they can devise a plan to care for together. Deviations from that ideal-type add up, and are often reasons that women are either less able to live up to “neutral” (but not neutral) expectations, or that their achievements are less noticed or valued. Noting that some of the avenues to getting tenure outlined by both Walt and Chenoweth et al are unequally available even among women is important to understanding the systematic effect of implicit gender bias, and its intersection with other biases in the field.

Even were all of these strategies available to all junior women and successful for all who used them, the desirability of some of these tactics is in question. Two examples stand out. First, as Alexis Henshaw notes in a Facebook conversation, the suggestion of hiring a nanny or other childcare labor comes in the Chenoweth et al post without reflection about the gendered dimensions of home care labor, not only for the scholar but also for the home care labor s/he might employ. The care labor economy is sex- and gender-biased, much like the distribution of home care labor between partners of opposite sexes.

Second, when Chenoweth et al provide the (probably sound, if your goal is getting tenure) advice of not commenting on disciplinary politics as an untenured, or not yet tenure-track faculty, this ignores the political economy of growing labor division in the field – many, and soon most, faculty in the field are adjuncts, people with short-term appointments, visiting faculty, or teaching faculty, and, however good they are at their jobs, many will remain that way. Often, this is not because their work is of lower quality or their teaching performance leaves something the be desired, but the result of a narrowing job market and twisted economic incentives. The discipline exploits their labor. Academia exploits their labor. And women are, not coincidentally, overrepresented in the pool of adjunct or temporary faculty. Practically, talking about that might indeed be professionally disincentivized. But politically, it has to be talked about, and the normative problems involved cannot be overlooked.

Both of these examples suggest that the sex-specific difficulties that women might have on the path to tenure are contextualized both in a broader gendered global political economy and in a system of academic employment where those who can seek tenure are already among the privileged. Discussions about the broader social impact of our professional choices, or the increasing push of women into positions of contingency, bring up questions of the moral desirability to playing to win in a system where one person’s playing to win is a condition of possibility of others’ subordination. As Sara Meger notes, there is a danger of “telling me to ‘lean in’ to a broken system” – it includes both contributing to its continuance as such and risking breaking oneself as well. Women should not have to follow different advice to get tenure, but as long as they do, the tenure system remains what it is – another site of bias.