By Tyler Brandon and Lucy Caplan
This past September, the class of 2012 stepped through the Harvard gates for the first time, feeling the university’s history weigh upon their every step. In their excitement, they could easily name over a dozen famous alumni to impress their friends, their relatives, and themselves- from historic figures including JFK, FDR, Robert Frost, Ted Kennedy, and Ralph Waldo Emerson to more recent graduates including Bill Gates, Al Gore, Conan O’Brien, Michael Crichton, Matt Damon, and even Mark Zuckerberg.
If you haven’t noticed a problem with this list, look again. Where are the women? The role of women in Harvard’s past is one aspect of Harvard’s history that goes continually and consistently unacknowledged. When asked for examples of famous alumna, several students realized that they could name only Natalie Portman. There is not a lack of accomplished female graduates, but their history has been overlooked from the beginning of Radcliffe College. Although Radcliffe women did not enjoy the same privileges as their male counterparts, they too pursued great careers and made stunning achievements. So where on the list is Gertrude Stein? Maxime Kumin? Benazir Bhutto?
Flashback again to Freshman Week. “You’re ugly!” “Die!” screamed enthused Crimson Key Society members during the annual Freshman Week screening of “Love Story.” “You fat b*****!” they yelled passionately at the film’s leading lady, the Radcliffe student Jennifer Cavalleri. While many freshmen were initially shocked and uncomfortable with the sexist humor, they quickly relaxed and joined in the laughter. In under ten minutes, the historical image of the Harvard woman was diminished, albeit comically, to that of a superficial, unattractive, and incompetent student. As funny and harmless as the Crimson Key’s original soundtrack may seem, it is disturbing that today’s satire was once, to a considerable extent, a reality.
Radcliffe College was founded in 1879 “to furnish instruction and the opportunities of collegiate life to women and to promote their higher education.” Named after Ann Radcliffe, an Englishwoman who created the first scholarship fund in 1643, Radcliffe was physically and figuratively separated from Harvard College for the first several decades of its existence. From 1879 to 1943 Harvard professors traveled to the Radcliffe Quad to replicate lectures they had already given to their male students. For the better part of the twentieth century, women studied at the Radcliffe Quad, an area intentionally built far away from the male students on the Harvard campus. In 1943, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences assumed responsibility for the education of all Radcliffe students, and in 1946 most courses became coeducational. However, the playing field remained far from level. It wasn’t until 1967 that women were allowed to enter Lamont Library because the administration was concerned that co-ed stacks would sidetrack male students from their studies. In 1972, women were finally welcomed into Harvard dorms, and three years later an equal-access admissions policy was implemented and the admissions offices were combined. Over a century after Radcliffe College’s creation, Harvard and Radcliffe united to create one formal institution on September 14, 1999.
Although the 1999 merger appeared to officially mark the end of institutional gender differences at Harvard, reality tells a vastly different story. While the changes of the second half of the twentieth century marked considerable advancement toward gender equality, they were not indicators of universal progress.
For example, Patricia Albjerg Graham became Harvard’s first female dean when she was appointed Dean of the Graduate School of Education. Because she was a woman, however, she was denied the privilege of entering the Faculty Club through the front door. This story cannot be relegated to the status of a distant memory; Graham was appointed in 1981.
In the twenty-eight years since, of course, times have changed.
The appointment of women to so many prominent posts in Harvard’s administration represents a marked shift, and one that has occurred mainly within the last five years. The 2007 appointment of Drew Faust as President was certainly a milestone for women at Harvard. Formerly Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Faust oversaw the 2005 Harvard Task Forces on Women Faculty and on Women in Science and Engineering, and has worked to decrease the gender gap since. Evelynn Hammonds is Dean of Harvard College, Kathleen McCartney is Dean of the Graduate School of Education, and just this month, Cherry A. Murray was named Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Also, until her recent appointment as Solicitor General, Elena Kagan served as Dean of the Law School. In addition, every Vice Presidency at Harvard has been held or is currently held by a woman.
Women comprise 56% of the undergraduate student body, and are on track to receive over 60% of the university’s master degrees and almost half of the doctoral degrees.
The progress that has been made has been celebrated, and rightfully so. But while these achievements are commendable, they are not representative of larger-scale, university-wide progress. Despite the presence of women in several prominent roles, the average percentage of women across Harvard’s entire faculty is thirty-two percent. The gender gap is present at every level of the faculty. Forty-four percent of lecturers are women, the highest percentage of any group. The percentage diminishes at higher levels, and only twenty percent of tenured faculty university-wide are women.
Surprisingly, even these low percentages represent substantial recent increases. Twenty years ago, only seven percent of tenured faculty were women. While that percentage has increased since, its progress has not been smooth. The discrepancy between male and female professors did not diminish consistently over time, but rather escalated under the watch of President Lawrence H. Summers. In 2004, twenty-six female faculty members signed a letter informing Summers that since he took office in 2001, the number of tenure offers for female faculty decreased from thirty-seven percent to eleven percent. The letter claimed that only four of the thirty-six tenure offers made in 2003 were to women. Although those numbers are somewhat disputed, they nonetheless highlighted an urgent and critical need to make the hiring of female faculty a priority.
The current percentages of female faculty at Harvard are similar to those at its peer institutions. However, while Harvard falls comfortably in line with peer institutions, it is rarely a leader in the field. Only in the Business School and in FAS Social Sciences does Harvard place first among its peers with respect to tenure-track female faculty percentages.
Within Harvard, the gender gap varies widely across different schools (see chart). The gap is greatest in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Business School, where only eleven percent and twenty-two percent of faculty are female, respectively. FAS shares the university-wide average of thirty-two percent. Only in the School of Education do women comprise more than half of the faculty, where fifty-four percent are women. Interestingly, the School of Education’s student body is also nearly eighty percent women.
Of course, numbers alone cannot tell the whole story of women’s experience at Harvard. Not only are women vastly underrepresented as faculty, but as a group they are also less positive regarding their experience at the university. A 2008 “climate survey” by the Office for Faculty Development and Diversity revealed that among faculty respondents, “Women are less satisfied than men with Harvard and their individual schools.” The survey concluded, “Tenured and tenure-track women find their departments to be less of a good fit than their male counterparts do.” While these findings are extremely broad in scope, they are indicative to some extent of a pervasive sense of gender inequality among faculty.
At a recent event entitled “At the Cusp of Change: Women Leaders at Harvard,” sponsored by the Harvard College Women’s Center and the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity, the mood was upbeat yet serious. The speakers acknowledged that although women’s presence in the administration has improved significantly, individual appointments are not an indicator of systemic change. Drew Faust’s position as Harvard’s first female president is certainly an important step both practically and symbolically, but it neither negates nor excuses the fact that four out of every five tenured faculty are men.
While women’s sparse representation among tenured faculty is problematic in itself, the lack of public knowledge surrounding the issue is equally startling. During “At the Cusp of Change,” moderator Barbara Kellerman, a lecturer in public leadership at the Kennedy School, asked the audience what percentage of tenured faculty university-wide are women. No one knew the answer. If such knowledge is absent from a self-selected group of mostly of female students concerned with women’s leadership at Harvard, there is an obvious dearth of active campus-wide discussion on this issue.
As Audre Lorde writes in her essay collection Sister Outsider, “In a world of possibility for us all, our personal visions help lay the groundwork for political action.” Though women remain underrepresented at Harvard, the university has made significant improvements and has shown its potential to be a “world of possibility.” With the help of continued discussion and proactive efforts by both students and administrators, Harvard can continue to move toward becoming a truly equal environment for men and women.