Gender Disparities Continue, CWH Survey Reveals

Elizabeth Lunbeck, January 2005

More than 25 years after women began to earn history PhDs 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, according to a new survey by AHA’s Committee on Women Historians (CWH).

In 1979, women constituted just 15.6 percent of newly minted history PhDs and 5.9 percent of full professors of history; in 1999, women amounted to 40 percent of those awarded the PhD, and were even slightly advantaged in obtaining entry-level jobs. These figures document what is by any standard a sea change in the profession with respect to gender. And they mirror what researchers have found across the disciplines—women, in large numbers, have gained access to professional and scholarly careers that were as late as the 1960s almost wholly 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 a decade or two for their ascent up the career ladder, the gender distribution of those in the highest ranks of the profession—the full professoriate—would reflect the proportions in which their cohort had received the PhD. In history, as in many other disciplines, this assumption has proven unfounded. In 1979, 25 percent of assistant professors of history were women; by 1988, that figure had risen to 39 percent, a proportion that—absent other factors—should have, in due course, resulted in a higher representation of women at the top of the profession. Yet even by 1999, women constituted only 18 percent of full professors of history nationwide, a disappointingly small proportion (that corresponds to figures for other social science and humanities disciplines as well). In addition, women’s salaries lagged behind those of their male counterparts. It is clear that a full pipeline alone has not addressed the issue of gender inequities in the profession.1 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 career point.2

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 that find women disproportionately underrepresented at all levels of the academic hierarchy, several recent reports—most notably the landmark 1999 MIT report, "Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT," which drew attention nationwide—have focused on qualitative as well as quantitative measures of women’s experience in academe and have reported 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, "turns out to 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 goodwill."3

These and other findings in mind, the Committee on Women Historians decided to design and administer a survey in the interest of gathering more information than is currently available on women historians’ experience of gender in their professional lives and their assessments of policies that have either 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 invited additional comments on other issues the respondent may consider important. The CWH sent the survey to all women members of the AHA (excluding those who indicated in their membership preferences that they did not wish to receive e-mail messages and excluding also members registered as graduate students), and received 362 responses.

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 them—and not only from those whose primary historical interests lie 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 conform to gender stereotypes—to be, as one put it, "endlessly available, nurturing, and accommodating" to students and colleagues. The complaint of being "run ragged" courses through the responses. There is more than enough resignation and 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 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 teaching career affords. It is worth pointing out that the respondents to the survey for the most part have jobs (and, many of them, tenure), have published, and enjoy teaching. Many have been recognized with prizes and major fellowships. That so many of these women, drawn from the ranks of the professionally successful, feel they have suffered from gender discrimination ought, we feel, to be cause for some concern in the profession as a whole. Too much female talent is being squandered in fighting over issues, large and small, that could be more easily resolved by the attentiveness of administrators, department chairs, and colleagues on the one hand, and more transparent departmental and university procedures with respect to hiring, promotion, and governance on the other.

Analysis of the survey results will shortly be made available at Highlights of the report include a discussion of issues of most concern to respondents, broken down into date-of-terminal-degree cohorts, and policy and procedural recommendations for chairs, departments, and administrators interested in establishing and maintaining gender equality. Balancing the demands of work and family, the difficulty of attaining formal equality between women and men in professorial careers, and chilly department climates sparked spirited and often frustrated commentary from many respondents. Much of what was reported will be familiar to students of gender, but some is surprising. For example, while it is known there is wide variation across institutions on the issue of maternity and childrearing policies, a surprisingly large number of respondents reported their institutions had no formal maternity policies of any sort. Many women reported egregious gender-based salary discrepancies, across faculty ranks. Respondents also noted women’s slow progress through the post-tenure ranks, highlighting how important considerations of gender are throughout a scholarly career, not only at the time of hiring or the tenure decision.

The report also details the many ways in which gender influences departmental decisions, with respondents noting that women are expected to bear heavier service loads than their male counterparts and to be especially available and nurturing to students, all the while risking being perceived as unprofessional—too stereotypically "feminine"—in doing so.

Clear and transparent policies, enlightened leadership on the part of chairs, and the establishment and enforcement of an ethos of equity and fairness would go far toward addressing many of the survey respondents’ concerns. The report suggests a number of concrete steps and procedures that might be discussed and implemented in the interest of addressing gender inequities in departments and in the profession. Some are straightforward; others—especially those clustered around issues of gendered expectations and departmental climate—are more tricky, and require enlightened leadership and a measure of shared goodwill for their success. Among the report’s recommendations are that chairs should carefully monitor equity in all its dimensions within their departments. Areas in need of constant monitoring include: (1) Patterns of compensation, on the question of which chairs should be especially alert to gender biases, both those that are manifest and those that are embedded in other factors, such as time to promotion; (2) Promotion trends and patterns, in order to ensure that women are not systematically being kept at a particular rank for longer than warranted periods. The post-tenure careers of faculty, female and male, demand special attention to ensure that both the rewards and perks on the one hand and the increased workload of the post-tenure faculty member on the other are distributed as equitably as possible; and (3) Discrimination, both overt and subtle, on the basis of race and employment status, as well as on the basis of sexual preference (even at institutions with formal anti-discrimination policies, such discrimination, overt and covert, is of concern to respondents). The report also recommends that chairs carefully monitor the distribution of service commitments, that they be cognizant of the fact that many female—as well as male—faculty are shouldering the double burden of work and family, and make allowances where possible in terms of scheduling teaching, meetings, and the like, and that they attempt to establish departmental cultures in which women and men are held to equivalent standards of conduct, performance, and style. These issues are recalcitrant and not easily remedied; yet, bringing them to faculties’ attention can constitute a first step toward resolving them. Interestingly, women married or partnered to male academics were among the most satisfied of all respondents to our survey.

Many wrote that they had benefited enormously not only from the support their partners provided but also, importantly, from the informal access to information their partners afforded them. Several also noted that their partners, having witnessed first-hand the gender discrimination and difficulties they had endured, had taken the lessons to heart and were in consequence better colleagues and, in some cases, better department chairs. That is, the flow of information can go both ways, and be of benefit to all, underscoring the importance of transparency and access to information in achieving gender equity.

—Elizabeth Lunbeck is a professor of history at Princeton University. She was chair of the AHA Committee on Women Historians for 2000–02.


1. These and other statistics provided in the preceding section of this essay are drawn from the data compiled and analyzed by Robert B. Townsend, and which are made available in various reports and articles that are posted online at

2. Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, "Marriage and Baby Blues: Re-defining Gender Equity in the Academy," in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 596 (2004), 86–103.

3. A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT, 1999. Available online at