Women’s Work?

What’s happening along the way? Why aren’t women choosing academia proportionately, and why aren’t women staying in academia?
—Susan Gilbert, Associate Dean and Associate Professor in the Practice of Finance, Outgoing Chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women

Vol. 8 No. 1
September 2005

Return to Contents

Women's Work?
Gender Equity in the Hard Sciences at Emory

Harvard's promise

Gender in the hard science faculty ranks at Emory

Hard sciences faculty by gender at other institutions

"What's happening along the way? Why aren't women choosing academia proportionately, and why aren't women staying in academia?"

"I think the 'nature versus nurture' question is not meaningful, because it treats them as independent factors, whereas in fact everything is nature and nurture."

The Crisis in the Humanities
So what else is new?

Sweeping Away the Dust of Everyday Life
Jazz and the Emory Experience

The Diary and the Map
Sartre and Foucault on making sense of history

This Old Sarcophagus
Life, death, money and chemistry in the Carlos Museum


Academic Exchange: What were your reactions to the remarks made by Lawrence Summers about why women are underrepresented in science academia?

Susan Gilbert: I have an interesting connection to Larry Summers, so my initial reaction was keen interest. As a graduate student at Penn, I was well acquainted with his parents. His mother was my mentor, and his father helped convince me to go to Penn for my Ph.D. I clearly recall talking to Anita Summers about the conundrum of career versus family for young women. She told me the smartest thing she ever did was take ten years off the career track to raise her kids. She advised me to do the same, and not give up a family to have a career.

The more interesting question is whether most of us will have the same kinds of opportunities at age thirty-six that we may have had at twenty-six to pursue satisfying careers, particularly in academia. It is apparent that academic careers pose a challenge for women. Roughly half or more of Emory students are women, and one-third of faculty are women—more if we include the non-tenure-track faculty—yet only 16 percent of full professors are women. These statistics are consistent with national data. What’s happening along the way? Why aren’t women choosing academia proportionately, and why aren’t women succeeding or staying in academia as measured by certain success factors, which is of course promotion along the tenure track?

AE: Did Summers actually do a favor for women by focusing attention on important issues?

SG: Perhaps unwittingly. I think the issue is something that needs to be examined, and I think that one of the most important ideas is of family-friendly colleges. I think this is about community and diversity within the university, and about providing role models. I don’t think it’s as much about advancing the careers of individual faculty as it is about serving as an inspiration to our students. They should feel that any career is open to them. If they see there are no women in some classrooms, or that women don’t lead departments or centers, they may perceive a hurdle that shouldn’t be there. I don’t think there’s discrimination, but I want to open the doors to more possibility for women students.

AE: What are your thoughts on that?

SG: The up-or-out career track is very tough for women. You’re asked to be at your most productive professionally during prime childbearing ages. In many professional careers—for example, law, consulting, medicine—women are faced with similar decisions: whether to have a family, whether to postpone it, or whether to postpone the career.

AE: What steps can be taken to make it easier for women to make these choices?

SG: There ought to be a way to pursue careers so the activity and promotion can occur after a family is started, or allow for discontinuity in your career to facilitate raising a family. A study commissioned by the American Council on Education and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation recommended a number of
initiatives aimed at enhancing the flexibility of academic careers: lengthening the tenure track, allowing faculty members to work part-time for up to five years, granting multi-year leaves for professors, and creating postdoc jobs for people who want to step down from academia but still be involved in research.

AE: What is the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) specifically concerned about at Emory?

SG: We’ve spent the last two years focused on raising awareness regarding women in leadership positions at Emory. Rosemary Magee recently joined the president’s cabinet [as secretary of the university], and we are certainly delighted about that appointment. However, we certainly would like to see more women filling senior leadership roles across the university, as deans, trustees, department chairs, and so forth.

Recently the PCSW received funding from the president to send two women per year to leadership academies specifically focused on higher education. And we ended our last academic year with a Women in Leadership Dinner to celebrate the women who hold senior leadership positions at Emory (including women trustees) and brainstorm about how to increase the numbers of women role models for the
younger generations that we educate here. As we move forward I’d like to think that many people will have contributed to progress in this area—including President Wagner and Provost Lewis, women who hold leadership positions at Emory and elsewhere, the pcsw, and many others—and maybe even Larry Summers, as well.