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Faculty Satisfaction: A Gendered Issue of Integration

"If you care about women, take steps to help them connect."

How happy are you in your work on campus?

How would you rate your job satisfaction?

Are you happy to show up in the morning or do you go hide in your office?

At every stage of the faculty pipeline, women are leaving at higher rates than men. Study after study has shown that, on average, women faculty at every stage feel less satisfied in their jobs than men.

Theories abound to explain it in terms of lower pay, heavier workloads, childcare or housework. But a new study presented at the AERA meeting in Chicago in April points to integration—a sense of belonging—as the largest single gender-related factor in faculty satisfaction.

Dr. Marin Clarkberg and Dr. Marne Einarson surveyed tenured and tenure-track faculty at an elite research university. Both work in the Cornell University NY office of institutional research and planning, Clarkberg as associate director and Einarson as senior research and planning associate.

At the provost’s request, they set out to learn:

  • What affects faculty job satisfaction the most?
  • Which influences best explain the gender differences in job satisfaction?

Besides equity, retention is a practical motive to investigate faculty satisfaction. Another is morale. Discontent among faculty who don’t leave can spread like poison.

Not wanting to use a canned climate survey, they started by asking focus groups what quality of work-life meant to them. They also studied existing instruments and literature. Half a year’s preparation resulted in a long survey sent to all full-time faculty members, getting 962 responses (65%). More than 400 items addressed overall satisfaction and many possible causes.

Essentially, they asked:

  • Overall, how satisfied are you being a faculty member at University X?
  • If you had to do it all over again, would you accept a position at University X?

Other items asked about satisfaction with rank, salary and office space and addressed the climate of the department. Responses to these various measures all correlated closely with the question about overall satisfaction.

Faculty satisfaction overall was high, as other studies have found. And as in other studies, a clear gender difference emerged: 35% of the women and 48% of the men said they were “very satisfied.” On a scale of 1 (very dissatisfied) to 5 (very satisfied), women averaged 3.8 and men 4.0. The significant difference held up whether or not they had tenure.

What’s going on? “People have their various stories out there about why women faculty show less satisfaction,” Clarkberg told WIHE. They used multiple regression analysis to explore how each independent variable contributes.

She described the process as “chipping away.” You look at all the factors that may play a role. Then you chip away, factor by factor, and keep checking to see what’s left. If you hold one factor constant and the gender difference is still there, you need to chip away some more.

Rewards and workloads

Women have heavier teaching and service loads, taking time away from pursuing their scholarly interests. They get paid less for doing more. Workload is a source of stress and gets in the way of raises and promotions, based largely on publications the women have less time to produce.

National studies of colleges and universities show these results strongly, in part because women tend to be in teaching-intensive disciplines and at teaching-intensive colleges. Within a single university the differences by gender are less striking but still present.

Their survey was confidential but not anonymous; they were able to link responses to school data about gender, race, salary and department. They got data about scholarly writing, grant submissions and committees from the survey.

Nearly half the women and 62% of the men who responded had tenure. More women were in arts or humanities, while more men were in agriculture, science or engineering. Women averaged 2.7 peer-reviewed articles submitted in the previous year, compared to 3.5 for men, reflecting different patterns by discipline.

Satisfaction rose as pay went up and fell as teaching loads increased—no great surprise. It also varied by college and discipline, with most satisfaction in biology and Arts and Sciences.

While women and men differed in pay, teaching load and discipline, they found those factors don’t explain why women are less satisfied than men. Holding them constant hardly made a dent in the gender difference in satisfaction.

Women on average teach more and earn less than men, it’s true. But compared to men at the same teaching load or pay level, women are still less satisfied. Something else must be going on.

Family responsibilities

Academic expectations were formed in a day when professors were men with stay-at-home wives. Today only a minority have a partner who isn’t also employed.

Household responsibilities typically fall heavier on women, especially wives and single parents. Faculty women have the stress of trying to manage work and home.

Family demands may also cut their research productivity and keep them from traveling to conferences. Mothers of young children are less likely to advance to tenure than either fathers or women without children.

Their survey gathered data on family and life partnerships. Women were less likely to be married and more likely to be in same-sex relationships. Perhaps because they were younger, more women had preschoolers at home.

Faculty Differences in Family Status By Gender

 

WomenMen
Married 60%80%
Partnered 13%6%
Same-sex partner 6%2%
Preschool kids 13%11%
School-age kids 20%21%

Like other studies, this one found married faculty somewhat more satisfied than unmarried ones. Having a same-sex relationship helped too. None of these correlations, however, reached statistical significance.

Holding constant for family status slightly “chipped away” at the difference in satisfaction between faculty women and men. While not the main story, responsibilities at home are part of the story of why faculty women are less satisfied.

Social environment

“Climate” is a broad term for the elusive sense that something about a university workplace may feel less welcoming to women than men. It’s much harder to measure than paychecks or number of children.

Serious climate issues include sexual harassment, discrimination and hostility. Perhaps more common and unnoticed are the actions of well-meaning colleagues who undervalue women without realizing they’re doing it.

Organizational fit is another nebulous but important aspect of belonging. Someone who values teaching may have trouble fitting into a department where the emphasis is on research. Isolation, collegiality, organizational politics, the informal grapevine and information dissemination are issues too.

They grouped these “soft” factors under the term integration: “feeling that one is a full and equal member of the institution.”

They measured it by five items from different parts of the survey:

  • Agreement that “I feel I am ignored in my department/unit.”
  • Agreement that “I can navigate the unwritten rules concerning how one is to conduct oneself as a faculty member.”
  • Extent of stress caused by departmental or campus politics
  • Satisfaction with opportunities to collaborate with faculty in other units on campus
  • Extent of having considered leaving to find a more supportive work environment

These were distinct measures, with only a moderate correlation among them. As a result, the researchers treated them separately to explore their influence on job satisfaction. By all five measures, women faculty felt less integrated into the institution than men:

Faculty Feelings of ‘Integration’ by Gender

 

WomenMenDifference
Feel ignored 2.302.070.23
Can navigate role 3.784.000.22
Stressed over politics2.111.930.18
Chances to collaborate3.473.730.26
Leave for more support1.901.650.25

Four, taken separately, showed a significant correlation with overall job satisfaction, and the fifth was close to significant. That’s a remarkable result, Clarkberg told WIHE. Those faculty who said they were largely satisfied with opportunities for collaboration, reasonably unstressed by campus politics, able to navigate the unwritten rules and not considering leaving for a more supportive work environment were substantially more satisfied in their work.

Moreover, these variables almost entirely explain women’s greater dissatisfaction in their faculty jobs. Holding the “integration” variables constant—even ignoring all the other factors like pay or workload or family—gave a result the researchers don’t see very often. “Boom! The gender difference went away,” Clarkberg said.

What does it all mean?

Satisfaction goes with integration for both women and men. The correlation is especially strong for women.

As the figures above show, women are less likely to feel integrated into their department or the university as a whole. And it has a larger impact on their overall satisfaction. “In short, female faculty members have less of something that matters more to them,” the researchers wrote.

Of course, the relationship may not be simple cause-and-effect. Perhaps faculty who are otherwise unhappy withdraw into isolation. An unhappy individual might interpret behavior as unwelcoming that wouldn’t bother her otherwise. More research may untangle the nature of the relationship.

In any case, a faculty member’s disconnection can be an early warning sign. Do you have faculty members who seem socially isolated, haven’t grasped the informal rules or don’t find ways to collaborate?

“It’s a big red flag,” Clarkberg said. “If you care about supporting women, take steps to help them connect.” Don’t wait ‘til they tell you they’re leaving to notice there’s a problem.

Beware of tokenism, which can isolate a faculty member in multiple ways. The new recruit who is “different” in gender or race may also bring less obvious differences in style or methodology. She may be less technically oriented, more interested in qualitative than quantitative studies or focused on nontraditional research areas. “Diversifying a department one person at a time can pose a challenge. You could be setting somebody up for failure,” she said.

To strengthen morale and improve retention of women and men, take steps to support new faculty from day one:

  • Promote opportunities for collaboration.
  • Communicate clearly on roles and responsibilities.
  • Offer training/mentoring to navigate the faculty role.
  • Provide info directly instead of leaving it to informal networks.
  • Build community within the department or unit.
  • Extend informal invitations to colleagues who don’t routinely come along.
  • Draw into conversational groups those faculty who aren’t bold enough to push their way in.
  • Pay attention. Notice if someone’s not part of the group and take steps to draw her in.

Women have long been excluded from the activities that build collegiality—the drink after work or the heated debate in the laboratory. Their alienation turns out to be a major factor in the leaky pipeline. Losing talented faculty is wasteful as well as inhumane. To address gender inequity in faculty turnover, start by helping women feel they belong.

Dr. Marin Clarkberg, who spoke at AERA,
is at
mec30@cornell.edu  

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