There's a 'glass ceiling' for women in higher education

Margie Burns

August 13, 1992|By Margie Burns

THERE IS a glass ceiling in academia, too, though this one's about as low as a chair rail. In the humanities, women have been steadily shunted into poorly paying, part-time teaching.

Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics confirm what observers have noted for the past 20 years. In four-year colleges and universities (two-year schools are even worse), full-time faculty are 70 percent male and 30 percent female. Statistics for part-time and nontenured faculty are almost exactly the reverse: 33 percent male, 67 percent female.

I saw this phenomenon for myself a few years ago when I went to the convention of the Modern Language Association looking for work. At the end of an interview for a job teaching Shakespeare in a tenure track, I was told that the job wasn't mine. I was offered instead a nontenured instructor's position teaching composition.

The teaching of humanities in higher education has evolved into a two-tier system: an appreciably better-compensated upper tier "regular" faculty with tenure (or job security), usually a light teaching load and the perks of travel money, grant support, sabbaticals and leave time -- to say nothing of benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans -- and a second tier of nontenured faculty teaching the lower-division "service" courses

that most students are required to take. These instructors, mostly women, generally receive lower pay, fewer benefits, no job security and little professional recognition.

This gender discrimination is really striking in the humanities, where, after all, employees aren't driving forklifts or engaging in hand-to-hand combat. And by all accounts, most higher education institutions engage in the same practices: large and small, public and private, those highly selective and those open to anyone. Everywhere one looks in higher education, women teach the "service" courses in English, writing, foreign languages and English as a second language.

Three trends over the last two decades have led us down this track. One is the large influx of women into the profession. The second is the burgeoning of writing programs. The third is the loss of budgetary clout experienced by the liberal arts at many schools.

The trends are related. While more and more women have chosen college teaching as a profession, courses in writing have proliferated. Colleges offer (or require) courses in technical writing; writing for business, journalism and engineering; writing "across the curriculum," remedial and advanced composition; writing centers and writing/language laboratories.

Except for the labs and foreign languages, most of these courses are new since the late '60s, when colleges determined that the study of literature was not integral to the teaching of writing.

This had the effect of relegating college writing courses to lower-division "part-time" faculty. It also resulted in the third rTC trend, the budget crunch in the liberal arts. (This trend has been aided by scare stories about a shortage of future scientists.) The result is an academic job shortage. The statistics show that about 30,000 doctorates in "letters" were awarded between 1970 and 1990, while there are about 20,000 regular faculty in the "letters" fields. Thus, even with a 100 percent turnover in the two decades -- hardly the case -- English would still have an unemployment rate of 33 percent. (Additionally, five times as many master's degrees as doctorates are awarded each year in the humanities.)

So the new writing courses arrived just in time to relieve the competitive pressures exerted by bright, motivated women entering the professoriate. These women have been channeled away from academic centers of power and into composition and tech-writing ghettoes.

And the irony is that all of this devalues writing. At the lowest levels of remuneration and rank, grading papers is the academic equivalent of "clerical support," while service-course instructors are now the pink-collar sector of the academic work force.

Are we approaching an era in which all writing will be deemed "women's work," just as typing is now something "my secretary does for me"?

Margie Burns is a former English professor who lives in Cheverly.

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