Breaking through UAF’s glass ceiling

Andrew Sheeler / Sun Star Editor-in-Chief
March 29, 2011

Last week, I touched briefly on the subject of gender inequality at UAF. A subject as stark and serious as gender discrimination deserves more attention than just a few sentences under a bullet point.

I’ll start with the good news: we’ve made a lot of gender equality progress at UAF. In the 1970’s, more than 80 percent of new faculty hires were men. As of the 2000’s, the gender scale has tipped — slightly more than 50 percent of new faculty are female. This is according to the 2005 “Study of Faculty Work Life at the University of Alaska Fairbanks” by the UAF Faculty Senate Committee on the Status of Women (CSW). UAF history professor Carol Gold created the CSW six years ago.

The bad news is that most of those new female professors are starting out in low-ranking, less secure positions. That same CSW study found that of the 406 tenured or tenure-track faculty, just one-third were women. Tenured professors enjoy higher salaries and stronger job security than non-tenured professors. According to the CSW, a disproportionate number of female professors are adjunct faculty, a position that offers no benefits, no insurance and little pay. Quite simply, it’s nearly impossible to make a living as an adjunct professor.

There are also more women in term-funded positions than men. A term-funded position is a step up from adjunct in that it comes with benefits and better pay. However, term-funding means that a position is paid only for the duration of the school year. Term-funded professors, predominantly women, find themselves at the end of every school year wondering if they still have a job.

Kayt Sunwood, director of the Women’s Center and member of the CSW, said that the disparity in pay and positions of rank between men and women at the university is often shoved under the rug or explained away.

“That for me is very frustrating,” Sunwood said, “that it’s not taken seriously.”

A lack of a living wage is just one problem affecting many women faculty on the UAF campus. Another is blatant misogyny. According to the CSW study, a quarter of female faculty at UAF has reported being sexually harassed with 5 percent saying they’d experienced chronic harassment. Women who were harassed said their antagonist was frequently a junior member of the faculty, an administrator or a student. Distressingly, only a minority of men at UAF considers sexual harassment to be a serious problem. The CSW report says that a slim majority at UAF considers the university’s handling of sexual assault claims to be effective. That’s not a statistic to be proud of.

Yet another area where female faculty members face discrimination is in childbirth. When Melanie Arthur, a professor in the sociology department, came to UAF, she was pregnant. When her child was born, she was only able to take time off from work that semester because she had received a research grant that allowed her to devote time to research instead of teaching.

Professors without accrued leave or a grant must choose between working the semester and being paid or staying at home and bonding with their child. For single parents, this isn’t even a choice.

I grow weary of hearing phrases such as “man-hater” and “feminazi.” I am tired seeing men and women(!) happily buying in to the notion that a woman “deserved it” if she was raped or harassed or that women who protest their unequal treatment are being shrill. I am exhausted from the casual and omnipresent sexism and misogyny that pervades our society. But I am angry about the inequality women face at UAF. Why? Because I live here. Because UAF is my home and I give a damn about how my home behaves. I am angry because I have two daughters and I don’t want to see them grow up in a world that secretly fears and loathes them for their gender. I am angry because UAF, with all its lofty ideals, should know better.

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