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Stanford Report, March 15, 2000

Women faculty suggest ways to improve gender equity

BY DIANE MANUEL

Those are a few of the suggestions for improving gender equity at Stanford that emerged from a March 9 forum at the Law School.

Sponsored by the Faculty Women's Caucus, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the forum drew more than 90 participants, most of them women faculty, staff and students.

"This is not a time to be complacent," Provost John Hennessy told those who turned out. "We've made progress, but I think in most parts of the university we still have a ways to go, to continue to have a wider representation of both women and minorities on the faculty."

Barbara Babcock, the Judge John Crown Professor of Law, moderated a panel of faculty members who talked about the problems they had encountered.

Echoing the comments of several women faculty who responded to Hennessy's remarks, Babcock said, "I think that takes us a long way toward solving the problem, to say openly, 'Let's recognize that there's a serious problem that's been going on for a long time, and let's put our resources together to deal with it.'"

At a time when the U.S. Labor Department is investigating complaints by present and former women faculty and researchers that Stanford violated federal affirmative-action law and engaged in gender discrimination, the panelists suggested that the concerns Hennessy alluded to continue.

Estelle Freedman, a professor of history who came to Stanford in 1976, noted that between 1986 and 1996, the increase of female faculty at the university was 7 percent -- "very, very low." Today, when the national pool of doctoral candidates in her own discipline is 44 percent female, Freedman said, only 16 percent of the History Department at Stanford is female.

Freedman also said that women would be better served at the university if all junior faculty -- male and female -- received better mentoring.

Babcock and several other panelists referred to President Gerhard Casper's "State of the University" address, which he delivered March 2. In that talk Casper said he could not "be sure about all the answers to questions involving affirmative action." He then added, "The request I have to make of those who would be critical is that they also make the effort to understand the great complexity of the issues."

Babcock, who in 1972 was the first woman hired by the Law School, said she is "impatient with all the complexities of getting more women."

Noting that her school now has 10 tenured women faculty members and that "the place is run by women," Babcock said, "What happened at the Law School is that the faculty at some point became determined to do something [about the lack of women faculty].

"What I draw from the experience is, like the Nike ad, 'just do it.' If you make up your mind to do it, you can do it."

Panelist Cecilia Ridgeway, professor of sociology, said she is worried about "the backing-off from collective determination" she says she has seen here in the last few years.

Noting that the biggest complexity is the low turnover rate of faculty, Ridgeway said, "That only means that we have to make every decision count because we have so few opportunities to change the system."

She said there also is a "hidden subtext" in discussions about "the complexity issue."

"It suggests that concerns about diversity, with regard to women and minorities, will somehow water down excellence, rather than enhance it," Ridgeway said. "If that is what is meant by complexity, I think that's a falsehood. I think that's a misunderstanding."

Ann Arvin, the Lucile Salter Packard Professor of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine, noted that a Council on Diversity had been created at her school to respond to concerns there about gender equity.

"Complexity from a clinical perspective is when you know that you need to bring in your best diagnostic abilities," Arvin said. "When we look at the data, we can do some diagnoses, and we can say that a particular field has very few women on its faculty because the pool is small or because the individuals making the decisions are unconsciously choosing men candidates."

Arvin argued that the search process needs to be thoroughly reviewed and made "amenable to specific interventions."

Hennessy said that gender equity "starts at the searches."

"That is the place where we have to focus," he said. "The administration and chairs and deans and provost can say, 'This search was not an adequate search, and you didn't bring in a big enough pool.' But in the end we really have to depend on the faculty search committee."

When Babcock called for "affirmative ideas" aimed at improving the status and working conditions of women at Stanford, audience members had a number of suggestions:

Directing her question to Hennessy, she said, "So I've been wondering if you've had the chance to think about ways in which the provost's office might help schools think productively about how to set up those kinds of procedures?"

Hennessy said that he and Pat Jones, professor of biological sciences and vice provost for faculty development, have been meeting with junior faculty members to listen to their concerns.

"We do have challenges in some areas," he noted. "But we're all in this together, and I think that's the way we should try to approach it. I'm certainly open to hearing new ideas to try to solve some problems -- and I do read my e-mail." SR