Emory Report

September 8, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 3

First Person:

Can women really be 'anything they want' at Emory?

When I was four years old, my mother told me I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up. There are no limitations, she said. I took her literally and informed her that when I grew up, I wanted to be a bird. My mother patiently explained that she didn't really mean I could be anything--I would still have to be a person. Frustrated and disappointed, I had my first lesson in learning to be skeptical of grand promises.

My mother meant well. The daughter of a suffragist, she had only good intentions in teaching me that, regarding major life choices and directions, I should feel no restrictions simply because I was born female. In my mother's idealized future for me, none of my lofty dreams would be weighed down by the burden of the gender-based realities she had faced. I understand her wanting to believe in that bright, boundless future promised to us by the women's movement; I have the same desire for my own daughter.

My idealism, however, is tempered with the sneaking suspicion that even the most well-intentioned promises and policies of gender equity sometimes fall short in practice.

One of the reasons I appreciate Emory as an employer is that blatant discrimination would never be tolerated here. In fact, Emory has an aggressive policy of affirmative action and equal employment opportunity and an impressive track record regarding opportunities for women.

Our Human Resources department proudly points to ample statistical evidence of a supportive environment for women. Numerous women hold top management positions; the recent appointment of Rebecca Chopp as provost is one notable example.

A study conducted by the staff concerns committee of the President's Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), which analyzed statistical data provided by Human Resources, revealed that salary inequities between male and female employees do not exist.

Nevertheless, the same committee's focus group study revealed that female staff believe that gender-related barriers to advancement do exist at Emory, in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary. It is as if some women remain skeptical, expecting a disclaimer to follow the statement that there are no limitations to their potential.

This perplexing disparity between empirical evidence and women's perceptions regarding advancement opportunities at Emory warrants further inquiry. The statements made by the focus group participants indicated the possibility of subtle forms of gender discrimination-practices that are difficult to quantify and can occur in even the most progressive organizations. Emory, despite its best intentions, can hardly escape being a reflection of our social environment, where gender-related biases and inequities are abundant.

The most common work issues mentioned among the women who participated in focus groups included the difficulties of securing child care, supervisors' lack of sensitivity regarding family obligations and resistance to flexible work schedules to accommodate family needs. "[University policies do not] make it easy for working moms at all," said one participant.

We also learned from these focus groups of the perception that more male than female supervisors and department heads exist around the University. "[In my department], they don't have any women in head management, [even though] they do have qualified women [with] degrees who have been here a while and can do the job," one participant noted. Others reported gender-based double standards and inappropriate expectations, such as "[having] to go and pick up my boss's maid."

As members of the Emory community, we would do well to listen to the voices of these women and learn more about where perceptions of gender inequities lie. Once we have done so, we will be in a better position to address concerns.

At the request of President Bill Chace, and with the support of the Human Resources department, the PCSW's staff concerns committee intends to explore this issue further. This fall the committee will conduct a study to identify the extent of these perceptions regarding the existence of invisible barriers to advancement against women at Emory.

This study is not an attempt to collect statistical data regarding barriers to advancement; rather, the objective is simply to determine with whom and why these perceptions exist.

Many studies of this type have focused on the "glass ceiling," investigating gender issues at senior management levels only. However, the staff concerns committee is interested in evaluating the experiences of female employees at all levels within the University, including non-managers trying to move up in the job hierarchy into higher-ranked or management positions; middle- and upper-level managers seeking to move up; and women wanting to break into traditionally male-dominated departments and skill areas.

The committee has enlisted Joan Herold, associate professor in behavioral sciences and health education in the Rollins School, to ensure the study adheres to the most rigorous research methods. Hundreds of randomly selected female staff will be contacted in late October to answer a variety of questions regarding their employment experiences here. The results of the study will be presented to President Chace for his review.

Emory has every right to be pleased with policies that encourage women to advance; data from Human Resources indicates these policies are succeeding. The task now is to determine why the perception persists among staff that gender bias and barriers to advancement exist here at Emory.

The encouragement and support of President Chace and of Human Resources in pursuing this study is a positive sign of sincerity on the part of University administrators to make certain that the promises of opportunity for all women at Emory are, in fact, a reality.

Kathy Reed, associate director of the Association of Emory Alumni, is the chair of the staff concerns committee of the PCSW.

Return to Sept. 8, 1998, contents page