The Status of Women in the Historical Profession, 2005
More than twenty years after women began to earn history Ph.D.'s in significant numbers, significant gender disparities of the sort that many believed would be ameliorated by women's entry into the ranks continue to plague departments and the profession as a whole. In 1979, women constituted just 15.6 percent of newly minted history Ph.D.'s and 5.9 percent of full professors of history. By 1999, women amounted to 40 percent of those awarded the Ph.D., and were even slightly advantaged in obtaining entry-level jobs (Figure 1 and Figure 2).1
These figures document a sea change in the profession with respect to gender, and mirror what researchers have found across the disciplineswomen, in large numbers, have gained access to professional and scholarly careers that were once largely the preserve of white men. Through the 1970s and 1980s, more and more women entered the career pipeline of graduate training, and optimists assumed that in time, allowing for some fifteen to twenty years for their ascent up the career ladder, the gender distribution of those in highest ranks of the professionthe full professoriatewould reflect the proportions in which their cohort had received the Ph.D.
In history, as in many other disciplines, this assumption has proven unfounded. In 1999, women constituted just 18 percent of the full professors in history nationwide (Figure 3), a disappointingly small proportion that corresponds to figures for other social science and humanities disciplines. In addition, women's salaries lagged behind those of their male counterparts.2 In light of the fact that in 1988, 39 percent of assistant professors of history were women, a proportion that should have resulted in a higher representation of women at the top of the profession by now,3 it is clear that a full pipeline alone has not addressed the issue of gender inequities in the profession. Indeed, as Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden have argued in their study of Berkeley faculty, the pipeline is in fact quite leaky, with women dropping out at every step up the ladder that begins with the receipt of the Ph.D. and ends, ideally, with a full professorship.4
In addition to the studies of history and other disciplines that testify to the persistence of significant gender differences in nearly every aspect of academic employment, and find that women are disproportionately underrepresented at all levels of the academic hierarchy, several recent reportsmost notably the landmark 1999 MIT "Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science"focus on qualitative as well as quantitative measures of women's experience in academe and report findings just as troubling. The MIT study found that even those women at the very top of the hierarchy felt marginalized in their departments, discouraged and unsatisfied in their professional lives, and, most strikingly, that their dissatisfaction and sense of exclusion increased as they rose through the ranks. Junior women were relatively happy, but senior women were not. Gender discrimination, the report concluded, can "take many forms and many of these are not simple to recognize." It consists in "a pattern of powerful but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty even in the light of obvious good will."5
With these and other findings in mind, the Committee on Women Historians designed and administered a survey to gather information on women historians' experience of gender in their professional lives and their assessments of policies that have encouraged or impeded their progress both in their institutions and through the ranks of the profession. The survey was intentionally non-quantitative and open-ended, inviting comments on three broad questions:
- if and how gender had affected the respondent's career as a historian;
- what factors had facilitated or hindered the respondent's career development; and
- whether mentoring or the lack thereof played an important role in career development.
The survey also gave two prompts for additional comments on any other issues the respondent felt were important. (See Appendix A for the precise wording of the survey.)
The committee sent the survey to all women members of the AHA (excluding those registered as graduate students), and received 362 responses. Nine percent (32) responses came from those identifying themselves as minority: 9 Asian/Pacific Islander, 9 Black, 7 Latino/a, 1 American Indian or Alaska Native, and 7 "Other." Six respondents, or 2 percent, declined to identify their race.
The individual survey responses make for fascinating, if sometimes painful, reading. Pointed and sophisticated analyses of their own and other women's gender-based predicaments figure prominently in themand not only from those whose primary historical interests are in the field of gender. Many point to the double-edged sword of women's and gender history, noting that the opening up of the field has led to increased opportunities for hiring, and thus demand for their expertise, but also noting that too often they are expected, regardless of their area of specialization and preferred personal style, to teach women's history to undergraduates, to offer the "women's point of view" in meetings, and to constantly perform femininity to both students and colleaguesto be, as one put it, "endlessly available, nurturing, and accommodating." The complaint of being "run ragged" by these expectations coursed through the responses. There is more than enough resignation, bitterness, disillusionment, and discouragement to warrant a more serious and extensive consideration of gender in the profession than we were able to carry out in this survey. At the same time, there is among respondents no lack of appreciation for the sustaining qualities of collegiality and intellectual life, and for the opportunities for personal satisfaction and intellectual excitement a full-time professorial career affords. It is worth pointing out that most of the respondents to the survey have jobs (and, many of them, tenured), have been published, and enjoy teaching. Many have been recognized with prizes and major fellowships. The profession as a whole should be concerned that so many successful women feel they have suffered from gender discrimination. Female talent is being squandered in fights over large and small issues that could be ameliorated by the attentiveness of administrators, department chairs, and colleagues, and the establishment of more transparent institutional procedures.Last Updated: July 10, 2008 3:06 PM