Visions of Tomorrow: Academia still a boys’ club

This piece originally posted as an Opinion Editorial in The Stanford Daily.

by Miranda Mammen, ’14

Earlier this week, I received a Facebook invitation to Stanford 2020: Visions of Tomorrow. It looked awesome: “Come see 7 all-star professors talk about their research, why it matters, and what the world will look like in 2020.” I scanned the list of faculty with enthusiasm, noting how many of the professors I have admired or heard friends rave about.

But as I reached the end of the list, my enthusiasm quickly turned to confusion, then disgust. Of the seven faculty members who presented at Wednesday night’s symposium, exactly zero of them were women.

This level of gender disparity is unacceptable. And it’s particularly problematic for an event that explicitly looks toward the future. At last year’s symposium, there were two women; this year there are none. Maybe it’s just me, but in the future I’d like to see more gender equality, not less.

The more I thought about it, the more outrageous the discrepancy seemed. On Wednesday, I posted a sarcastic comment to the event page: “Visions of Tomorrow: Because in the future, there will be no female faculty.” Adam Adler ’12, who is listed as an event creator on the Facebook page, commented in response: “Because in the present, female faculty do not respond to email requests.” (He included a winky smiley face, too.)

It’s absurd and shameful that the nearly twenty groups that co-sponsored the event could not muster up even a single female faculty member to speak. I know from experience that planning academic events is a tricky business. The timeline of reaching out to faculty and hearing back about their availability can be stressful, especially if you seek a balanced diversity of departments, genders, races and backgrounds.

But that is not an adequate explanation for why there are no women on this panel. When people agree to organize an event like this, they are implicitly agreeing to the difficulties that such a task necessarily entails. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me if the event’s organizers had to email fifty female faculty members to secure three or four for this event. The planning process is invisible to the audience. The only thing we see is the end result, for which the organizers took responsibility. Simply put, I expect more – and I’m not the only one. (It took the staff of the Women’s Community Center, where I work, just a few hours to come up with seventeen all-star female professors who would have been a great fit for this event. We can help with brainstorming next time.)

It’s clear that event organizers gave significant consideration to securing faculty from diverse disciplines, including political science, religious studies, mathematics, and medicine. Why isn’t gender considered an important diversity concern?

It should be. Our culture’s consistent failure to position women as intellectual leaders contributes to stereotype threat, which impedes women’s leadership aspirations and reinforces stereotypic beliefs that men are naturally more fit for the academy than women.

Women comprise nearly 50 percent of Stanford’s undergraduate population; nation-wide, that figure is close to 60 percent. But as one moves into the upper echelons of academia, that parity disappears. At Stanford, women are 37 percent of graduate students, and a truly bleak 26 percent of faculty members. (So if the event organizers had passively represented the statistical reality of gender balance at Stanford – not deliberately provided a more equal vision, perish the thought – they would have had one or two women present.)

I would protest the lack of female faculty at an event like this no matter which university hosted it, but the absence is even more appalling because we’re not at just any university. The Stanford community prides itself on being a leading institution. We need to be setting the standard for gender equity in academia, just as we do for teaching and research. Our departments have their pick of the top scholars in every field. There’s no excuse for the exclusion of women from events like this one; female academics of exceptional renown are all around us.

My vision of tomorrow includes equal numbers of women in leadership positions and at decision-making tables. There’s nothing forward-thinking about an old-fashioned boys’ club.


Miranda is a sophomore majoring in American Studies with a concentration in gender and culture. She believes in the productive potential of anger. Contact her at cmammen@stanford.edu.

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3 thoughts on “Visions of Tomorrow: Academia still a boys’ club

  1. DE says:

    The reason for the discrepancy in the percentage of undergraduates who are female and percentage of faculty who are female is simple: time delay. Today we are edging much closer to equal opportunity for women in academia (and thus women graduating from stanford in 2012 pursuing PhD’s and tenure positions are much more likely to receive those degrees and positions according to their merits and not their gender). However, most of the professors at Stanford received their degrees in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, when there WAS much more sexism; female academics in those decades may have either been discouraged from pursing those positions or may have been discounted by hiring institutions, who hired male applicants instead.

    My point is that it’s not as if Stanford TODAY is, in some conspiratorial sense, hiring a qualified male professor over a qualified female candidate; it’s simply that because of the discriminatory practices of the past (which do, admittedly, still linger on in a diminished capacity), there are far more men with PhD’s of tenure age than there are women. Trying to balance out the genders 50/50 at this point in time would amount to a significant case of reverse discrimination against qualified male candidates.

    What we can hope for is that 10 or 20 years from now, when those members of the class of 2012 who pursued PhD’s are searching for faculty positions at a place like Stanford, we can hope that they are hired according only to their merits. Since just as many women are pursuing advanced degrees as men at the moment, the genders will naturally balance themselves out in the future.

    • esqg says:

      That’s part of the picture. It’s clear that Stanford is not conspiring to keep women out. It’s also true that the “discriminatory practices of the past” have decreased but are not gone yet.

      With some research, you’ll find that the proportion of women in many academic fields has not consistently increased, but sometimes regressed. Also look into the so-called “leaky pipeline” phenomenon for women in academia. This is a serious problem, a lot of people have noticed it, and some people (Larry Summers, famously) have begun asking “are girls naturally less better at math?” Not enough people ask, “since some careers were originally designed for men to fill those jobs, are there ways that the demands of those careers, together with the expectations of society, fall unfairly on women?” And not enough people ask, “how can we ensure that the few remaining misogynists are not able to make a woman’s work environment hostile?”

      I’d like to link you to two relevant articles to start off. One is about the issues women continue to face in academia; I’ve read many such, but this is a fairly concise comprehensive explanation.

      A second one is called How to make Diversity Happen. It explains a few points about why it’s not enough to sit back and expect things to get better.

      The narrative that “progress is inevitable” is destructive because it implies that there is no need to help make progress. Make no mistake: in 10-20 years if there are more women faculty in academia, especially STEM fields, it will be because people have made efforts to fight inequality, along gender and other lines. There are plenty of professors at Stanford, male and female, who understand how to work against the problems of gender inequality.

      (I realize the irony of linking two pieces on this subject that were written by men. I’ve seen great expositions of the same problems by women, but now I can’t find them. Isn’t that often how it happens?)

  2. esqg says:

    Gotta love the comments on the Daily version. “I know the writer didn’t say this was about affirmative action, but I decided that’s what she meant, so I’m arguing about THAT!”

    If one does want to broaden the topic, I recently read an interesting and highly relevant article called How to make diversity happen. Among the points it argues is “4) In this day and age, a selection process that does not address these issues IS a sexist or racist (or both) process, like it or not.”

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