Change Begins at UM

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Change Begins at UM

By Arlene Walker-Andrews

So many comments made during our lives reverberate forever. For me, most of these are ones that smack of sex discrimination or bias. The first statement that sticks in my memory was made by a graduate student when he saw my GRE scores as I was applying to graduate programs in Psychology: “Oh, you’re smart. I thought you were just an aspiring young secretary.” My second reverberating memory is from when I applied for a higher administrative position: “[Others] just don’t think you have the right temperament for the position.” But the memories start even earlier. A guidance counselor at my new junior high school seemed skeptical of my ability to handle Algebra. With the grades I came in with, I am fairly certain that were I a boy, the counselor would have simply put me in Algebra. (As an as-yet timid girl, I opted for the middle choice, Modern Math. That meant that throughout high school and in college I was a year behind.) And there are everyday examples as well. Two young men who rushed on board a flight just before take-off openly suggested I should move from the aisle seat I’d requested to the middle one so they could sit more comfortably in the window and aisle seats because . . . I’m not sure.

And yet, I’ve persisted, like so many other women. I completed my Ph.D. at Cornell University in 1980 and started as an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University the following year. I was promoted to full Professor in 1995. I published more than 50 papers and chapters in the most prestigious journals in my field and brought in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the March of Dimes. I was on several Editorial Boards and served as an editor for Child Development as well as secretary of Division 7 of the American Psychological Association. I taught large undergraduate courses and mentored dozens of undergraduate and graduate students, mostly female. I came to the University of Montana as an Associate Provost in 2003. At UM, I had the honor of collaborating with faculty, staff, and other administrators on curriculum, advising, assessment, the Franke Global Leadership Initiative, and student support initiatives such as the Writing Center. I retired four years ago, but keep in touch with many friends and colleagues on campus.

The most difficult and frustrating attitude I’ve faced as a professional woman is the simple belief by many that women are “less than” men. Countering this attitude is hard because, after all, women make less, rarely sit at the top of the hierarchies, and are assigned by society to be caregivers, assistants, and those who clean up after others. Men perform better than women in one arena. They are stronger: women are about 2/3 as strong, given that their muscle mass is approximately 2/3 as great. What this fact has to do with value, especially in our technical and service economy, escapes me. At the same time, women excel in other areas important to the workplace: better memories, better at multi-tasking, and more productive. Surveys suggest that women are better leaders as well.

Every woman knows how the mistaken assumption that women are not to be taken seriously is manifested. In the workplace, we are talked over, we are ignored, our ideas are given to the man next to us, promotions are more apt to go to the guy, and we are still are told that men need to make more to support a family. These are important realities that men may not see and certainly don’t experience, and their effects are serious. The merely irritating social realities are things like a guy taking both arm rests in the plane, expecting a woman to move over on the sidewalk, or men bonding by verbally harassing a woman walking down the street.

My experiences suggest that this bias is less pronounced in academia. But I arrived at the university first as a work-study student, then as secretary, graduate student, professor, and administrator. As a secretary I could see people subtracting 10-15 points from my IQ just because I sat behind a desk with a typewriter (long ago). When I was a professor I saw male faculty discouraging young women from applying to prestigious graduate programs, especially if the female students didn’t have perfect credentials, rather than encouraging them to attempt to remedy any deficiencies and apply widely. As an administrator, I’ve seen female faculty and staff take on much more service, coordinate the demands of work and home life, and yet not be seen as accomplished as their male counterparts.

What can you do to make a difference under the auspices of the current S.E.A. Change project? As with most things, I believe you need to start at home, at UM. Make UM female-friendly and, by extension, family- and worker-friendly. Over the past two decades UM has accomplished much. But look into the roles and difficulties of staff, who are primarily women. Faculty women and men enjoy family leaves and flexibility. Do staff? At the level of an entering administrative assistant or even as a director? Are women promoted as quickly as men (staff and faculty)? Do women serve on committees commensurate with their numbers? Who is asked or assigned to take Minutes and notes at those meetings?

As individuals you can make some inroads. If on a search committee, insist that all applications are blinded as to the sex of the candidate. Keep track of your own choices. Do you recommend as many women as men for positions or for graduate or professional study? Do you mentor female staff and/or faculty? Do you go out of your way to inform women at the university about job opportunities? Is the language you use to discuss candidates or describe those you are supporting differentiate between men and women in sexist ways?

As a group, you may be able to transform many practices at UM and provide opportunities for other women on campus. I make several recommendations.

First, pick a particular area of concern. Equal opportunity and compensation might be one topic. Others might be implicit bias, unaddressed family stress, or the lack of an inclusive workplace.  But I recommend a systematic approach: identify the larger question, figure out specific areas to address, divide the work, prioritize, and start the work.

RECRUITMENT

  • Positions advertisements. What do these ads say, where are they made available?
  • Position descriptions. Is there any flexibility in work hours? Are the descriptions written in a gender-neutral way? Does the language in some ads set up expectations for particular skills and rates of pay that are not essential for the position?
  • Can UM offer women help to improve their interviewing and negotiating skills? (AAUW advertises workshops on this topic.) At the other side of the table, what are the questions that applicants are asked? Are these devoid of bias?
  • Recruitment/Search committees. Who serves on search committees? If there are women, how many? One isn’t enough. Would it be useful for female committee members to contact female applicants?
  • Are applications “blinded” with respect to sex of applicant? Do members of the search committee question gaps in service? And, if so, what kinds of gaps are “permissible”?

THE WORKPLACE

  • Are promotion and bonus requirements transparent?
  • Do staff have family or child care leave? Men and women?
  • Does UM offer workshops for employees that address writing skills, computer and other technological skills, and/or “soft skills”? Could all employees be required to attend a workshop in alternate years or some other timetable (with time off to attend the class or workshop, as well as a payoff [promotion, bonus, time off] for participating?
  • Is it possible to give employees “stretch assignments,” but without simply giving them more to do? Such an approach means figuring out whether something can be set aside as the employee tries a hand at a more demanding task.
  • Does UM have an unbalanced organizational chart? Everyone needs role models.
  • Can employees work from home on occasion? If not, why?
  • Are the expectations for “service” equal for male and female employees?

COMPENSATION ITSELF

  • Is there “occupational segregation”? Are the lower-level positions mostly filled by females? How many Directors or other higher-level staff positions are filled by females and is their pay commensurate with that of males, across sectors?
  • Is there a gender pay gap? Many analyses have been completed looking at faculty pay and titles, but are these up-to-date and has this been done for staff and administrators?

COACHING

  • Do all employees have an opportunity to work with a mentor? Do people in high-level positions support others seeking career opportunities? Can managers and others receive “credit” for successful mentoring?
  • Can UM offer networking opportunities for women? And open it up to men as well?

In closing, I’d like to quote from Amy Irvine:

"And for parity’s sake, let’s find out what it means to live like women. Or perhaps we should say, let’s find how women like to live. I don’t think we’ve ever been asked that question. The results could be revolutionary. Evolutionary. We might become a new species entirely." (Orion magazine, Autumn 2018)