Nancy Hewitt dishes on "The Leaky Pipeline"

You’re probably like Historiann, in that you didn’t get to see the recent AHA panel called “The Leaky Pipeline:  Issues of Promotion, Retention, and Quality of Life Issues for Women in the Historical Profession,” chaired by Leo Spitzer, and starring Tiya Miles, Claire Potter, and Nancy Hewitt.  (Potter has posted a brief description at Tenured Radical, in which she reveals that the room this panel was assigned was in fact IN a garage, presumably with leaky pipes about to burst all over the assembled pilgrims.  Surely, it’s just a coincidence that the panel on women’s working conditions was given this room!)  The title of the panel appears to have been inspired by a 2005 Report on the Status of Women in the Profession by Liz Lunbeck, which argues that the “pipeline” from Ph.D. to full Professorship for women “is in fact quite leaky, with women dropping out at every step up the ladder.” 

The most senior of the three panelists, Nancy Hewitt, wrote to Historiann and very generously shared the full text of her comments with me, the title of which was “The Feminization of History, or the Disciplining of Women?  Women in the Historical Profession since the 1970s.”  It is a reflection on Hewitt’s own career, as well as her observations of changes in women’s status since she was the first woman hired by the History department at the University of South Florida in 1981, to full Professorships at Duke and now Rutgers.  As a historian of women activists and reformers (her books include Southern Discomfort:  Women’s Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920sand Women’s Activism and Social Change:  Rochester, New York, 1822-1872) her thoughts are I think particularly compelling, and deserve some serious consideration, especially by those behind Hewitt in the “pipeline:”  graduate students, adjunct and junior faculty, and the newly tenured.

Hewitt’s analysis–as the title of her paper suggests–is that there are mixed results from the last 25 years of struggle by and for women in the profession.  She writes that today “nearly half of PhDs in History go to women, and the face of the discipline has changed dramatically. It is no longer a singular event when a history department hires or tenures a woman or when women historians are elected to the presidencies of professional associations or selected to serve as editors of major journals. There are many reasons to celebrate the new demographics within the historical profession, which include far more scholars of color as well as women than ever before. Yet these very changes-what some have called the feminization of history–have also created new burdens, highlighted long-term problems, and inspired in some departments a backlash against further change.”  In sum, “even as adding women to History and other disciplines has transformed the academy in numerous ways, universities have also sought to contain and discipline women.”  Lots more dish after the jump…

Hewitt goes on to detail the various forms this disciplining takes for women at all levels of the profession.  First, the service burden still hits women harder.  Hewitt says that “committee work is not evenly distributed–this is not surprising–but my experience at three universities, in many professional organizations, and on numerous editorial boards suggests that women are now over-represented in service to the university and the profession.”  While it was a worthy goal to integrate the leadership roles in the profession, and to serve on book prize committees, and on major standing committees for the AHA and the Organization of American Historians, for example, Hewitt argues that getting what you want is definitely a mixed blessing.  “In the 1970s and 1980s, women begged to be included-on committees, panels, editorial boards, executive councils, and now some of us are begging to be left off.”  Because most of us are rewarded only minimally (in salaries and promotions) for even the most valiant service, and doing more service takes us away from research and publications (the one item for which the university will reward us) those who get caught in the service trap are doubly disadvantaged.

Next, she says that sex discrimination suits appear to be harder to prove.  In the 1980s, “sexist men were more blatant in their efforts to get rid of women, and most departments and universities had such poor track records on female hires and promotions that there was strong prima facie evidence of discrimination.”  Thus, the success women have had in integrating departments has eroded some of the basis for these earlier claims.  “With more women in the profession, with sexism and racism often taking subtler forms, and,” (last but not least) “with more conservative courts, it’s harder to win grievances based on traditional claims of discrimination.”  (Historiann has thought about this a lot in her short career, which nevertheless has been pockmarked by corrupt, old-fashioned sex bias.  For example:  in my first job, I was instructed by the Chair of my department not to neglect my spouse by going off on lengthy research trips, and told that my real duty was at home, despite the fact that publications and tenure would not be forthcoming without said lengthy research trips.  Clearly this was outrageous, but was it actionable?  Probably not.  So Historiann quickly moved along to a much better job, and living well is always the best revenge.) 

A third point is that motherhood (rather than simply sex) appears to be a new fault line in women’s career trajectories.  She notes that “most of the women I knew who received PhDs in History in the late 1970s and early 1980s either never had children or bore their children while completing their dissertations or after tenure. This was a ‘solution’ to mixing family and career that wasn’t likely to last,” and it hasn’t, although it’s still women who bear the burden and pay the price for having or adopting children while on the tenure clock.  In some ways, the answers that universities have offered tenure-track women have only raised more questions.  “For example, now that maternity and family leave policies exist in many institutions, child bearing is considered less relevant (or simply irrelevant) to tenure and promotion decisions–as though a semester off or a year added to your tenure clock resolves the issue.”

Still, sex alone appears to correlate with being denied tenure, especially in the Dean’s or Provost’s office.  Hewitt related some recent tenure cases involving some of her former students.  The details varied, but all three women were denied tenure by administration higher-ups even after winning departmental support (and in two out of three cases, it was a unanimous vote by their departments.)  I’ve heard dispatches from the front that sound quite similar, and Squadratomagico has blogged about the same disturbing trend in her department’s recent tenure cases.  Hewitt followed up in further comments that “it seems clear that there is a growing backlash–especially at the dean’s and provost’s level–against women faculty and women’s history [or] women’s studies at many institutions.”   

Finally, and “even more importantly,” Hewitt points out that “as history has become an increasingly feminized field, the university has not become more nurturing or egalitarian. Instead, the inequities of the profession, which long affected men, are now affecting women, too.”  (Arguably, these inequalities accelerated right around the time women integrated the faculty.  Historiann’s recent post on the rise of Corporate University and the pressure for academics to do more more more with fewer resources.)  In further correspondence with Hewitt, she explained that “the corporatization of the university and the decline in tenure and tenure-track lines has come just as women have expanded into the professoriat, in History and in general, and these developments have made it much harder for women to enjoy some of the traditional benefits of the academic life.”  This Wal-Martification of universities is a crucial metacontext for understanding (if not entirely explaining) all of the aforementioned changes in women’s employment conditions.  It also may explain why women are nearly half of all new Ph.D.’s, but remain underrepresented in the numbers of regular faculty members:  they appear to be far overrepresented among adjunct faculty and other at-will lecturer positions.  Thus, like Wal-Mart, universities disadvantage all their workers, but women are more disadvantaged than male workers.  (Always low expectations, always!)

And here’s one last point, for all of you smarty-pants Associate Professors out there who think you’ve run the gauntlet and have got it all figured out:  Hewitt warns that “the leap from tenured associate to full professor can be just as fraught as that from assistant to associate. This is in part because the burdens of teaching and service increase after tenure, and leaves allowed before tenure can sometimes limit the leave time you have to launch a second book project.  In addition, the standards for full professor have become less predictable (or more flexible) and thus more subject to collegial and administrative whim.” 

Many of Hewitt’s claims, and some of the points she makes, are documented in the 2005 Report on the Status of Women in the Profession, but Hewitt’s frank reflections on her career and observations of her colleagues and students’ experiences put flesh on the dry bones of the report.  What happens to the lucky few of Hewitt’s generation after a quarter century of teaching, scholarship, and service aimed at advancing the status of women in university life?  Well, Hewitt for one is pretty darn tired.  “I’ve had a very rewarding career.  When I look back, it seems almost fortunate to have come into the profession when there were few women but more solidarity, blatant discrimination but at least some means of fighting it, and limited opportunities for getting advice but a more clear cut sense of what that advice should be.”  But, she concludes, “the demands of being a female historian and a women’s historian in the 1980s and 1990s–the process of expanding the circumference of the pipeline and extending it to more colleges and universities–have worn me out, and I look forward to early retirement when I can focus again on research and writing.”   

Historiann wonders if we’re well on the way to being a two-tier profession, with one track for women, and the other (more prestigious and highly paid) track for men.  This is what has happened in other traditionally all-male professions, like medicine and the law.  Once gender no longer functions as a crude gatekeeper for the profession and women enter, gender then becomes a means of stratifying people within the profession and a tool for preserving status and wealth by the privileged group.  For example, as women entered the medical profession, the profession shifted from keeping out most women to tracking them into the less lucrative, more “people-oriented” sub-specialties like General Practice, Pediatrics, and other primary care fields, whereas men were and remain dominant in the most lucrative surgical sub-specialties.  (The one exception to this is OB/GYN, which has a good–although not equitable–number of women practicing in the field.)

The Fourteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women meets in Minneapolis June 12-15, and we’ve got a plenary session scheduled for Thursday evening the 12th on the topic of “The Changing (?) Status of Women in the Historical Profession:  Progress and Challenges,” with panelists who are either currently on the AHA’s Committee on Women Historians, and/or were involved in the preparation of the 2005 Report (including the aforementioned Lunbeck herself.)  Click here to see a copy of the program, and here for more information about the conference, including registration information. 

What do you think?

0 thoughts on “Nancy Hewitt dishes on "The Leaky Pipeline"

  1. Sorry, Radreadr–some topics just don’t lend themselves to wit, and you know what they say about feminists not having any sense of humor! linked to a recent story by Phoebe Levoy at The Scientist ( called “Fixing the Leaky Pipeline” for women in science. The statistics for women in science, and the comments at the end of the article, describe a much more hostile work environment for women than most History departments.


  2. Re: Women now equal or exceed men in Internal Medicine residencies, which is a feeder for many more lucrative sub-specialties. Still, most women stay in IM. The most dramatic gender sorting I’ve seen is amongst Electro-Physiologists (EPs), who are cardiologists who specialize in the electrical system of the heart. Much of EPs work involves procedures that use X-rays to navigate the body. Male MDs often won’t hire female EPs because they worry the women will limit their procedure times if pregnant. Women make up a tiny percentage of EPs.

    On the positive side, some hard-to-get-into specialties that rely on merit have seen dramatic increases in women. Dermatology is well-paid with great working hours. As a result, dermatology residencies go only to the best and the brightest. Guess who’s filling 60% plus of the derm. spots: women.


  3. Hi Paying Attention–thanks for visiting and commenting. Interesting examples of EP and Dermatologists–I’m glad that women are able to dominate at least one high-paying procedure-intensive sub-specialty!

    It seems to me that women dominate in pediatrics residencies too, but (at least in my area) in private practice men still are numerically dominant, even among younger physicians (say under 45 or so).


  4. Pingback: Why we call it patriarchal equilibrium, Part I: Buffalo shuffling off women faculty : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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