Engineering Equity

The reports of the Task Force on Women Faculty (WF) and the Task Force on Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), released on May 16, share a common introduction: “In spite of more than three decades of concern, Harvard has made only limited progress in its efforts to create a genuinely diverse faculty.” Aiming to “identify how Harvard can build and nurture the very best faculty,” the writers propose change in the ways Harvard recruits, appoints, and develops members of the professoriate. The reach of the proposals reflects the task forces’ view of what is at stake for the University. “This is not a set-aside for women,” said Radcliffe Institute dean Drew Gilpin Faust, in an interview after the reports’ release. Faust, who oversaw both groups, continued, “This is about building the best community because we have the broadest scope of exploration for talent, and the best support of it.”

Drew Gilpin Faust, Barbara J. Grosz, and Evelynn M. Hammonds at Massachusetts Hall
Photograph by Kris Snibbe / Harvard News Office

The recommendations arrive amid heightened attention and expectations. Much of the academic year was given over to sharp debate prompted by the declining number of tenure offers to women in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and by President Lawrence H. Summers’s remarks last January on reasons for the paucity of women professors in elite universities’ science and engineering departments (see “At Odds,” May-June, page 55, and “Women and Tenure” and “Gender Gap,” March-April, page 62).

Task Force on Women Faculty Recommendations

Oversight. A new senior vice provost of diversity and faculty development reviews junior faculty appointments; participates in tenure decisions; recommends changes in policies and procedures.

Information. Survey faculty members’ perceptions and attitudes; gather and publish comprehensive data on faculty composition, hiring, leadership, resources, and progress.

Recruitment. Design training on bias and diversity for University leaders, deans, department chairs, and search committees. Fund efforts to hire diverse faculty members and support their research expenses. Help accommodate dual-career couples.

Retention. Increase availability of childcare and financial support for such expenses; institute minimum 13-week maternity benefit (at full pay); extend tenure “clock” automatically upon granting of maternity or parental teaching leave.

Summers launched the task forces on February 3 (at the height of the controversy over his remarks about women’s interests and aptitudes) and charged them with reporting in May so proposals could be implemented for the 2005-2006 academic year. The many recommendations address schools’ procedures and budgets, departmental norms, and, ultimately, individual professors’ attitudes and willingness to mentor younger colleagues. Effecting these changes, Faust said, requires “a combination of direction and inspiration from on high, and support from every part of the University’s operations.” The effort also presents many uncertainties—not least because the deadline meant the reports were published before the task forces could calibrate costs and other details. (Links to the complete texts appear with the Web edition of this article, at

Faust and the task-force chairs—WF’s Evelynn M. Hammonds, professor of the history of science and of African and African American studies, and WISE’s Barbara J. Grosz, Higgins professor of natural sciences (in FAS’s Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences) and dean of science at the Radcliffe Institute—highlighted several overarching themes. Perhaps none is more important than what Faust called the “structures of oversight and accountability.” These include a powerful new senior vice provost for diversity and faculty development, and an invitation to the visiting committees to engage the Board of Overseers in regular reviews of diversity efforts and the climate for women and minorities.

Those authorities will have to grapple with what Hammonds described as “the broad differences in procedures and policies related to recruiting and retaining faculty across the schools”—perhaps the biggest surprise in what she learned. From maternity leave to search procedures, she said, and across different categories of personnel (professors, teachers on fixed-contract appointments, those supported only by research funds, postdoctoral fellows, and the thousands of academic workers in affiliated hospitals), the University lacks uniform policies, procedures, and even usable data.

“These things are just too important for Harvard to leave to each school to figure out, when and if they figure it out,” Hammonds said. Hence the focus on what she called a “monitoring and accountability structure”: the new central-administration officer; senior diversity and faculty development officers in each school; and comprehensive data collection and reporting of the sort found at MIT, Princeton, and Stanford—but not at Harvard to date. The whole community, Faust said, would have to be, and would be enabled to become, “aware and vigilant.”

The WISE report makes graphic the underrepresentation of women in the sciences at Harvard. Women hold 8 percent of tenured positions in FAS’s science departments; 25 percent of the much smaller number of junior-faculty positions; and a declining proportion, from 42 percent down to 20 percent, of undergraduate concentrators, doctoral students, and postdocs. (The proportions are higher, but decline in the same way, at Harvard’s schools of medicine and public health). At each stage of this narrowing “pipeline,” the report observes, women find that they lack female peers and role models. So the task force recommends improving students’ experience from the first year of college study into and up the steps of an academic life—thereby addressing comprehensively, for the first time, the challenges facing women learning and pursuing careers in scientific research.

Task Force on Women in Science and Engineering Recommendations

Sustaining Commitment. Combat attrition with better support from initial undergraduate courses (create study centers, develop summer research programs) through graduate study (promote mentoring and professional development).

Mentoring and advising. Improve substantive freshman advising, train teaching fellows about gender bias, and track the progress of and mentor graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty members.

Enabling careers. Pursue paid maternity leave and childcare support for graduate students and postdocs; fund research-enabling grants for primary caregivers.

Faculty development. Design programs on diversity. Revise search processes to increase recruitment of women and minorities. Fund research and other support at key points in academic development.

Grosz said she was startled by the “large, difficult postdoc problem in life sciences”—in some ways, more challenging than the issues facing FAS departments. Given fellowships that can last five years, during a woman’s prime family-forming years (the late twenties to early thirties), at annual salaries in the low $30,000 range, attrition is a serious problem. Moreover, the report notes, most scientific work requires being in a laboratory, often around the clock. Hence the task force recommends novel kinds of research- and career-support funding, and extending leaves and childcare subsidies to these prospective scientists.

In the news release accompanying the reports, Provost Steven E. Hyman, who directs University science planning, noted, “We are planning major investments in science at Harvard. It goes without saying that the most important investments we can make are in the lives and careers of the scientists themselves. …[T]he recommendations of the WISE Task Force are a crucially important means of enhancing the scientific enterprise itself.”

That endorsement reflects the administration’s embrace of both reports. Some recommendations will be implemented now: searching for the senior vice provost (intended to be a senior faculty member, to be named before the fall term begins); creating a leadership training program for senior administrators and deans this summer; preparing to survey junior faculty on conditions they face; and planning for undergraduate science-study centers and summer research internships.

President Summers and Hyman said in a joint statement that Harvard would commit $50 million in the next decade “to support the proposed initiatives” while conducting “feasibility and cost analyses that will enable us to further shape and implement the proposals.” At the May 16 news conference, Faust characterized the $5 million to be spent annually as “earnest money to get started with the most important initiatives.” Pending appointment of the senior vice provost, she, Grosz, and Hammonds will form a transition committee to begin implementation.

Hammonds noted that the “comprehensiveness” of the proposals characterized the task forces’ work. She and her colleagues drew on programs and procedures at peer institutions, but no one institution has tried to implement them so broadly. How will administrators, deans, and department chairs take to education about “current research on bias and successful approaches to incorporating this research into faculty decisionmaking”? Will search committees adopt the WISE procedures to identify candidates, define positions broadly, and vet applications fairly? Will such procedures “build outward to the rest of our faculties,” as Hammonds suggests they should? And will deans adapt their schools’s budgets to enhance leave policy and childcare?

Beyond those implementation issues are others the task forces did not fully address. Given the different challenges facing women and minorities—who are scarcely represented in some scientific fields—WISE recommends conducting a separate study on the barriers facing minorities. The WF report notes that 55 percent of women teaching at Harvard are fixed-contract faculty (professors of practice, preceptors, lecturers, adjuncts, and so on)—versus 36 percent of male faculty; their situation was not addressed. Nor, to any significant degree, was the very large population of researchers, not yet members of the faculty, in the affiliated hospitals. Finally, Hammonds underscored the importance of making sure that “what we provide for teaching faculty is not way out of line with what we provide staff” throughout the University.

As the task forces reached out across Harvard, Faust said, she was particularly struck by what she learned from Harvard Business School (HBS). “Business just takes for granted that you invest in the human capital you bring to your enterprise,” she said, whereas much of the University has long sought to appoint distinguished professors established elsewhere, at the expense of developing junior faculty members and promoting them to tenure from within. That suggests an especially broad change in institutional norms.

HBS dean Kim B. Clark, a product of the College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said he understood how FAS’s strategy for hiring and tenuring senior faculty from elsewhere worked well when disciplines were well defined and pursued in equivalent ways at different universities.

But while noting it was “too strong” to say that approach might not suffice in the future, Clark said, “I have my doubts.” He cited problems of implicit bias in searches and in developing junior faculty colleagues. More broadly, he said, in considering external candidates, “what is observed and measured is not exactly what you need” in terms of the ability to mentor graduate students or engage with colleagues in cross-disciplinary research. And if the system discourages the best junior faculty from coming to Harvard in the first place, because they see it as a dead end, then the cycle reinforces itself. HBS, he said, makes about 80 percent of its appointments to tenure from internal personnel and only about 20 percent by recruiting outside—nearly the reverse of FAS’s past practice. As the task forces briefed him and other deans on the experiences of women faculty, he said, “It suddenly hit me that this is about faculty development systematically.”

In that vein, Summers noted upon the reports’ release that several of the recommendations—on junior-faculty development and undergraduate research, for instance—emerged from analysis of issues that “bore on diversity but also bore on the quality of the University” as a whole.

Speaking of the reports’ overall conclusions, Faust said, “They raise fundamental questions about how all of us do our work. If we eliminate people who want full family lives, we leave ourselves not open to their talent.” And of a career in science, she said, “If it requires people to lead constrained, deformed lives,” the University, and other employers, risk driving talented people away.

From task forces formed under the pressure of addressing issues of gender equity among professors, it appears, have emerged recommendations that could, at their most expansive, enhance the academic experience and prospects of all faculty members and students.

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