- Most of us not only live with severe gendered pay gaps, we are acutely conscious of the insidious nature of bias that impact women’s day-to-day lives in higher education.
As a new Assistant Professor, I recall sitting in my office and a young man came through the open door, sized me up and asked if he could speak to a “Dr. Rao,” the instructor for the course he had signed up for that semester. I had inquired quizzically, “yes?” At the moment he appeared agitated and asked again if I could let him know where and when he could find Dr. Rao. At this point I realized that even if I were occupying a rather spacious office, sitting behind a formidably large table, dressed professionally, diligently working on a computer and with my name emboldened on the door, it was not in this student’s cultural and visual map to acknowledge that I could be “The Dr. Rao” who had been given – or earned — this space or the person who had the authority to instruct him and his cohorts.
Writer and essayist Joseph Epstein’s ridicule – tacitly endorse by Wall Street Journal’s opinion section where his column appeared — of the incoming First Lady Jill Biden’s doctorate in education as not being equivalent to a medical degree may have led to a national outcry but as a woman who has worked in the American academy for three decades, I shrugged my shoulder: there are dime a dozen Epsteins who roam our gilded hallways.
Most of us not only live with severe gendered pay gaps, we are acutely conscious of the insidious nature of bias that impact women’s day-to-day lives in higher education. For example, in the U.S., women now comprise more than half of the population of undergraduate students and earn nearly half of the terminal degrees awarded. Ideally such numbers should bode well for women. If they are earning more of the undergraduate degrees, then more of them may potentially pursue graduate degrees, more would be available in the pool of potential tenure-track faculty for hire, more will earn tenure, and there will be a greater number of women faculty who can potentially earn the rank of full professor. However, the reality is quite different.
An American Association of University Women (AAUW) report notes that women still earn less, hold lower-level positions, are less likely to have tenure, and are much less likely to earn the rank of full professor than men. In academic rank, women have made progress. In 1982, for example, barely 10% of full professors were female. By 2005, 25% of full professors were female, and 31% by 2013. However, given that women now receive slightly over half of all doctorates awarded, it is troubling that this percentage is not higher.
These numbers are far worse for women of color, who represent less than 2% of all tenured faculty and only .03% of full professors. Overall, the proportion of Euro-American men and women among all full-time faculty shrunk 11% from 1993 (84%) to 2016 (73%), primarily due to the increase of Asian and South Asian Americans entering academic fields, especially in engineering and sciences. Female underrepresented minority ranks have slightly increased since 1993, but their ascension to tenure-line ranks has been, at best, modest.
Beyond hiring practices, classrooms have remained contested spaces of female authority and expertise. Studieshave shown that the language student’s use in evaluations regarding male professors is significantly different than language used in evaluating female professors. Female professors are likely to be evaluated harshly for not displaying enough nurturing capacity compared to their male colleagues who are not expected to carry such burden of empathy.
Another study on the popular ratemyprofessor website found that most positive words, associated with good teaching, are likely to come up in reviews of men than of women. The words “smart” and “intellect” are more likely to be used in ratings of men than women, and “genius” is more likely to be used to describe male than female professors in all disciplines.
Epstein’s description of who is to be referred to as a “doctor” matches my own experience in the academy where I have had female colleagues tell me that they had to ask students to refer to them as doctor as opposed to calling them by their first names or in other informal manner. All such experiences for women result in what two psychologist, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, have described as imposter syndrome or the feeling that “you’re not good enough, that you don’t belong, that you don’t deserve the job, the promotion, the book deal, the seat at the table.” This syndrome, they argued, persists through college and graduate school and into their professional work, where women tend to judge their performance as worse than they objectively are while men judge their own as better.
The underlying question as to whether anyone with an earned doctorate or an honorary doctoral degree (Epstein confuses the two) should be referred to as a doctor has been debated for a while. After all, Epstein might argue, lawyers with their JD or juris doctor are not referred to as doctors. One can spend hours exploring the correct etymological use of the word but what is truly at issue here is a long held academic norm – referring to faculty members with doctorates as doctor.
While he also ridicules entertainers and billionaires for receiving their honorary doctoral degrees, he can’t seem to move past Dr. Biden’s “dissertation with an unpromising title.” Of course, never having written one himself, rest of us are hard pressed to understand how Epstein would be in a position to evaluate the quality of a dissertation title, let alone the degree itself. But such is the scope and power of academic hierarchy that men like Epstein, from their lowest station, can sling mud at women – even incoming First Ladies — for something they themselves never achieved. And calling a 69-year-old woman who has been a lifelong professional a “kiddo” is a classic rhetorical strategy that men employ to demean women — though not as often on the pages of Wall Street Journal (thus, a new low).
But what was Epstein and Wall Street Journal’s true guilt? None. They simply made transparent deeply held views of women in the academy.
Shakuntala Rao is Professor of Communication Studies at State University of New York, Plattsburgh, New York. Her research has been published extensively and influentially in scholarly areas of global media, political journalism, popular culture and ethics. She teaches classes in political communication, social media and journalism ethics. Her edited books include “Indian Journalism in a New Era”, “Democracy and Civil Society in India”, and “Media Ethics in the Age of Globalization”. She has been a Fulbright scholar to India and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University (Beijing), Central University of Venezuela (Caracas) and Stockholm University (Sweden).