Publication Date

December 3, 2018

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

Post Type

Advocacy, Employment & Tenure


Economic, Intellectual

To the editor:

Speaking of surprise, as a longtime reader of Perspectives I was surprised when I read the following sentence in Emily Swafford and Dylan Ruediger’s report “Every Historian Counts: A New AHA Database Analyzes Careers for PhDs” (September 2018): “The data . . . show that gender has surprisingly [italics mine] little impact on broad patterns of career outcomes for historians with PhDs.” For decades past, one of the most informative features of Perspectives has been the annual report on the number of new PhDs and of those finding employment in the preceding year. And for at least two decades, if memory serves, the breakdown of this information by gender has shown small oscillations around nearly identical academic employment outcomes for new PhDs. More men than women continue to enroll in and complete PhD programs, but for those who finish, the proportion securing academic employment is roughly equal for both genders—as might be expected in a profession that has asserted its commitment to equal hiring practices for my entire, now-completed academic lifetime. AHA staff ought to know this.

After expressing their surprise at learning that career outcomes for women in the profession are not what they supposed, Swafford and Ruediger go on to say without a single bit of hard evidence that the status quo in the profession still disfavors women because of “such issues as compensation, tenure decisions, sexual harassment, parental leave policies, and more subtle forms of discrimination.” Robert Townsend’s 2010 report “What the Data Tells Us about Women Historians,” available on the Association’s website, reveals that in 2003, the most recent year for which data were then available, salaries for women at the assistant professor level were then 1.5 percent higher than for men, those at the associate and full professor levels between 1 and 2 percent lower. I also seem to recall but could not locate an especially detailed longitudinal study from not too long ago that found that female assistant professors were likely to gain tenure and move to the associate level slightly more rapidly than male.

Gathering data about the state of the profession has long been one of the most valuable services the AHA provides. As the Association continues to transform itself into an advocacy agency for identity politics, is it too much to hope that at least its fact-finding and data reporting resist this drift and rest on evidence, not presupposition and unwarranted editorializing?

The editor responds:

First, I thank for the chance to explicate more fully the data in “Every Historian Counts.” A careful reading of the article reveals that the context of the quotation was not a discussion of only academic employment but of all career paths history PhDs take. The article’s very next sentence, in fact, reads, “Anecdotal evidence has long posited that women are more likely to be shunted out of the professoriate or into non-tenure-track positions, but Where Historians Work suggests otherwise.” Indeed, the rest of the paragraph presents detailed evidence from the Where Historians Work database about gender and careers beyond the professoriate.

Second, Dr. Benedict’s reading of stories from the Perspectives archive is selective. Robert Townsend’s report of 2010, it is true, found that there was “very little difference between the average basic salaries for male and female historians at colleges and universities.” But Townsend, in the next paragraph, writes that “when outside income is included, it becomes clear that men earn significantly more in outside income than their female counterparts.” (It may be that Dr. Benedict and I differ on the definition of “compensation.”) The longitudinal study Dr. Benedict could not locate is probably Townsend’s “Gender and Success in Academia” (January 2013), which was a report of survey data. Here, Dr. Benedict’s reading is also selective. Townsend’s finding that female assistant professors rose in the ranks more quickly than men was limited to the youngest cohort surveyed. Townsend states very clearly of all the data, “Male respondents reported that they moved slightly faster from the assistant to the associate professor ranks than their female counterparts . . . but historians of both genders moved from associate to full professor at an identical average rate[.]” —Allison Miller

Philip Benedict
University of Geneva (emeritus)
AHA Life Member

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