Last Thursday, a new report was published that urges college to make the traditional tenure track more flexible. Ten university presidents and chancellors are among the authors of the report, produced by the American Council on Education and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The report says, in part, that the tenure system that has long held sway in higher education isn't family-friendly and particularly harms womens' careers.
Also on Thursday, three university presidents who aren't among the authors of the study, released a letter responding to Harvard University President Lawrence Summers's comments last month. (Does anyone exist who isn't aware of Summers's "innate differences" speculation?) The three--Shirley Tilghman of Princeton, Susan Hockfield of MIT, and John Hennessy of Stanford--are all scientists by training. In their letter, they wrote, "Speculation that 'innate differences' may be a significant cause of underrepresentation by women in science and engineering may rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases." They go on: "The question we must ask is not 'can women excel in math, science, and engineering,?'--Marie Curie exploded that myth a century ago--but 'how can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?'"
The ACE report doesn't call for overthrowing the tenure system--just for making it more flexible. Among its recommendations are the perennial call for "better childcare" and a suggestion to allow women with young children more time to complete research before they're evaluated for tenure. Interestingly, France Cordova, chancellor of the University of California at Riverside and an astrophysicist by training, said that UCR has offered benefits similar to those that the ACE report suggests since the 1980s but that a recent faculty survey showed that "most people didn't know they existed, and those who did were afraid to take them."
OK, I know that IT isn't academia, but women computer scientists are trained in American colleges and universities. Here's what those women CS students see while in college: women faculty in science, engineering, and technology that are more likely to be assistant professors than full professors, and who holder fewer high-ranking academic posts than men. In her article "Women Without Tenure, Part 1" for Science Magazine's online magazine, Next Wave, Cathy Ann Trower quotes a congressional commission report: "Academic institutions, especially the SET \[science, engineering, technology\] departments, continue to be a male milieu in which men share traditions and women are more likely to be outsiders." Sound familiar?
The reality behind these studies and hundreds, maybe even thousands more like them is that women face greater obstacles when choosing technical careers than men do. In addition to already shouldering a disproportionate share of the parenting responbility, women also have to work hard to overcome, if they ever can, being the "other." So let's see here--an insufficiency of female role models, responsibility for child-bearing and rearing, having to break into a closed social system, mastering a difficult technical specialization--whew. No wonder fewer women are majoring in computer science every year.
It's heartening to know that academia is at least looking at the problem, however nonrevolutionary, polite, and ultimately easy to ignore the ACE report may be. Unfortunately, business, where the majority of IT jobs are located, isn't held to many standards other than financial survival. It will be a long time before anything similar to the ACE report is published about, let alone taken seriously, by the IT sector of American business.