Glass ceiling still a factor for women in academe, but change is on the way
By Bernice K. Noble
UB Professor of Microbiology
Having spent nearly three decades of my professional career at UB as a student, teacher and research scientist, I thought I knew a great deal about the "climate" for women here. I was, nevertheless, filled with trepidation when I agreed to serve as cochair of the President's Task Force on Women at UB.
Illustration: Neville Harvey
The charges given to the task force were dauntingly comprehensive: We were asked to assess policies and practices in hiring, advancing and compensating women and to review and/or recommend strategies for addressing inequities, propose mechanisms for coping with sexual harassment, suggest methods for identifying and promoting women leaders at UB and propose ways to ensure accountability in achieving equity goals. Community expectations were high for a scholarly, detailed yet relatively rapid response to those charges.
Membership on the task force, which included students, faculty, staff and management, was widely representative of UB constituencies. Early in our discussion, we agreed to a multipronged approach. First, we set out to collect and evaluate similar reports prepared by institutions like UB. Our goal was to learn as much as possible about the climate for women at other large public research universities, to understand how they had dealt with equity issues and to develop some insight into life for UB women compared to others in academe. In addition, the task force held regular plenary sessions with people at UB who had special knowledge pertaining to one or another of the individual charges. From those experts we became informed about demographics, hiring, promotion and compensation practices, affirmative action policies, student life, athletics and curriculum issues as they affected UB women.
From my reading of the literature on women in academe, I quickly came to appreciate that American academic institutions are largely derived from centuries-old monastic models that excluded women entirely. Viewed from that perspective, women are relatively recent interlopers in the academy. It is not surprising that full gender equity remains elusive. The community of UB women has been very appreciative that President William R. Greiner initiated a systematic analysis intended to accelerate the process of modifying deeply rooted social and institutional patterns.
Since our report was issued in February 1997, response to its recommendations for improvements and changes has, in many respects, been reassuring to UB women. The president has made a public commitment to correct gender-based salary inequities, taking advantage of discretionary increase funds provided by the new United University Professions contract. The establishment of adequate child-care facilities on the North Campus appears to have become a major priority. A special subcommittee of the University Committee on Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action has convened to formulate university-wide policies and processes for dealing with sexual harassment.
The establishment of an Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender has been an especially exciting recent development that bodes well for UB women. The Gender Institute, described at length in this issue, aims to promote synergistic interactions among women faculty, professionals, students and managers on the North and South Campuses. Another tangible product of task force efforts has been continuing UB participation in Take Our Daughters to Work Day. Now in its third year, the UB celebration has reached out to girls from schools throughout the region.
In other areas, the response of the administration to task force recommendations has been disappointing. Numerous high-level appointments to academic and managerial posts were made in the last year, but the vast majority of those jobs went to men. The "glass ceiling" at UB does not seem likely to crack anytime soon. Women at UB are still awaiting concrete plans to regularly monitor the demographics of employment, with an emphasis on the retention/promotion record, and the introduction of clearly stated policies to ensure accountability for improving the circumstances in which UB women work and study.
We are optimistic that those changes will come. We believe that full equity and respect for women will have a lasting, positive impact on UB's future prosperity and academic stature.
Bernice K. Noble served as cochair of the President's Task Force on Women, which in 1997 released an extensive report on quality of life for women at the university.