How to Get Tenure (If You’re a Woman)

Seven peer-reviewed strategies female faculty can use to climb the ladder of academic success.

SWEET BRIAR, VA - MAY 16: Seniors stand waiting to walk out before the final commencement ceremony at Sweet Briar College, a women's liberal arts college in Sweet Briar, VA on Saturday May 16, 2015. The school is closing this summer due to funding shortfall. (Photo by )
SWEET BRIAR, VA - MAY 16: Seniors stand waiting to walk out before the final commencement ceremony at Sweet Briar College, a women's liberal arts college in Sweet Briar, VA on Saturday May 16, 2015. The school is closing this summer due to funding shortfall. (Photo by )

Foreign Policy contributor Stephen Walt recently published an article on how to get tenure. His 10 very reasonable points are rooted in more than 30 years of experience at top departments in the field of political science. He offers practical suggestions in a number of areas, advising those pursuing tenure to publish and take advantage of networking opportunities. But his article overlooks a critical issue for about half of the junior faculty out there — the fact that they are women.

Walt’s advice isn’t gender-specific — it could be applied to men or women in the world of academia. But there is, in reality, a stark disparity between the experiences of men and women seeking tenure in this world. So were both women and men to follow Walt’s advice, the likely effect of his recommended strategies would be drastically different.

To be fair, Walt does note that determining which research is “important” might be “gendered.” From sexism in science labs to lower citation rates for women’s research, a large body of evidence suggests that he is right on that count. But gendered biases affect women at every stage of the academic system. And when we say, “gendered biases,” we mean processes that may be biased against women, often due to implicit bias rather than conscious discrimination. We should note, too, that while we focus on gender, these issues also (and often more so) affect faculty of color and other underrepresented groups and are doubly difficult for women of color.

These biases don’t mean that Walt’s look at the tenure process is wrong, but it does suggest that if you are a young woman on the tenure track, your experience may be quite different from his. Collectively, we (the authors) all have gotten tenure and have seen the tenure process from the other side as well. Some of us have chaired our departments; some have served on fieldwide committees and working groups; and some have edited journals. Some of us have partners who are also academics, and some of us are parents and had multiple children before tenure. We are all women. And all of us have directly encountered the challenges of being a woman faculty member. This is our take on what the tenure track looks like for women and the uphill professional battle for which ascending women faculty need to be prepared.

How implicit bias affects women academics

Let’s start at the beginning: the process of applying for an academic job. According to a widely cited study conducted by anthropologists Frances Trix and Carolyn Psenka in 2003, letters of recommendation are characterized by pervasive, systemic gender biases. Letters about women tend to be shorter and focus on their personality traits, whereas letters about men typically feature superlatives about their aptitudes and abilities. Moreover, hiring committees who review applications tend to view women who are parents as less serious scholars. For example, experimental studies suggest that women who report PTA membership on their CVs (a proxy for motherhood) receive lower starting salaries, with respondents reporting perceptions that mothers are less competent than fathers with identical qualifications.

Expectations for male and female faculty both within departments and at universities as a whole can be different in the tenure track. For example, studies show that a male assistant professor who has published a great number of articles increases his chances of achieving the rank of associate professor — a significant increase in both salary and job security — whereas publication volume has no statistically significant effect on rank for a woman assistant professor. Studies show that women academics must produce far more than men to convince promotion committees that they will continue to be productive. Women tend to get diminished credit for the work they do, including lower salaries. Who produces the “smartest” or most “important” research is a subjective judgment likely to be influenced by implicit biases, much like attitudes about who are the best musicians in major orchestras. This essentially amounts to a discount factor for women’s accomplishments. Conversely, men get more credit than their female counterparts for co-authored work — a sort of unearned bonus. Women faculty members are also more likely to work in interdisciplinary fields, which can lead to a devaluation of the outlets in which they publish because tenure letter writers are typically experts in the single field that women go up for tenure in.

Recent research by political scientist Jeff Colgan also suggests that women’s scholarship is underrepresented on syllabi (an indicator of importance highlighted by Walt). For instance, his recent survey on the gender gap indicates that 82 percent of readings assigned in international relations pro-seminars have all-male authors. We’ve even seen a pro-seminar at a top IR department with a syllabus containing 100 percent male authorship. Several studies have found gender biases in scholarly citations. This, in turn, affects Google Scholar citations, h-indices, and other metrics commonly used to evaluate scholars’ current and future impact in their fields. 

Review committees often report the reputational or impact factor of publication outlets to assist higher-level university committees to evaluate its prominence and prestige. Unfortunately, women publish fewer books and articles than their male colleagues and tend to be underrepresented in the most highly ranked journals. Women’s representation in four of the highest ranked and most prestigious political science journals (e.g., American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, International Organization), for example, is much lower than among more subfield-specific outlets (e.g., Comparative Politics, Comparative Political Studies, International Studies Quarterly, World Politics).

Go ahead and let go of the idea that you can improve reviews of your teaching solely by allocating more time to your classes to improve your evaluations. Even though, according to a 1988 National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty, which surveyed 7,408 faculty at U.S. institutions, women spend on average five more hours per week than male colleagues on teaching preparation and advising, they generally do not reap the benefits of high teaching evaluations. It is more common for students to comment in anonymous evaluations about the appearance, clothing, and tone of voice, for example, of their women instructors or professors. In fact, these documented biases in teaching evaluations make the evaluations themselves highly suspect as indicators of true teaching quality.

Women are asked to engage in more service to their departments, universities, and professions than their male colleagues. Women faculty who seek to protect their time by saying no to these requests can also pay a penalty in terms of their likeability. Women tend to walk a “tightrope” — professional incentives suggest that they need to be assertive (or even aggressive) at the workplace to get ahead. Yet studies show that when they are seen as overly aggressive, they are penalized rather than rewarded. When junior women challenge senior figures, they are walking the tightrope in ways their male colleagues often do not experience.

In sum, as a woman assistant professor, it’s likely that you will be confronting bias at almost every step of your training and career. You’ll find that many of your male colleagues are sympathetic, but even the sympathetic ones can have a hard time relating to the experience or suggesting constructive pathways forward. Don’t be too discouraged. The good news is that people are talking about these issues inside and outside the field, and many are conducting empirical research to demonstrate the problem. Here is some constructive advice based on our own experiences for how to navigate life as a woman academic. 

  1. Get what you need at work.

Be ruthless in trying to get time off for teaching. Sometimes, this will mean pushing back against people who want you to teach something during specific semesters, including colleagues and administrators. Other times, it means finding and developing trusted friendships among colleagues you can talk to and socialize with to keep things light and fun at the workplace. Reach out to senior faculty for mentorship, and be assertive about trying to build personal relationships with your colleagues. Be selective in how much service you do for the department, university, and your profession. Decide whether local or disciplinary service will provide better payoffs in the tenure track.

  1. Get what you need at home.

If you have young children, and don’t have a stay-at-home partner, invest in child care, preferably a nanny, to minimize unpredictable sick days. If it means less saving for retirement now, so be it — it’s an investment in the rest of your career. Even with child care, there are things that only a parent can do. Insist on full equality in these “second-shift” activities. If your partner is not an academic, it can be easy for these things to fall to you, because academics’ schedules tend to be flexible. If you end up doing more on the homefront during regular working hours, insist on time in the evenings or during the weekend to go into the office to make up for it. Negotiate for summer research salary for multiple years in the probationary track. Seek out other junior colleagues with children to trade daycare for research time. Just because our hours are flexible doesn’t mean our jobs aren’t demanding.

  1. Create time.

Contract out all jobs that you can afford to at home and at work. This means house cleaning, lawn work, etc. at home. At work, spend extra time training a research assistant. Only do the parts of the job that you need to do and direct or delegate the things you don’t. This is a learning process, but make the investment early on. Women faculty need to protect research time more carefully and put limits on teaching preparations and other office contact hours with students.

  1. Set boundaries with others, but make them ones you are comfortable with.

Some advise that women faculty members shouldn’t bake. Others say: Don’t talk about your kids. Realistically, this is your life, and you need to be yourself. Most importantly, be able and willing to talk about your research projects with your colleagues. Keep them informed of your successes. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about your kids, marathon running, etc. Just make sure that you aren’t the one selling the value of your work short.

  1. Filter commentary and criticism.

Don’t read the comments sections of op-eds, anonymous message boards, or other anonymous public fora. Nothing good will come from this. Even reading comments from student evaluations can be an exercise in futility (unless you need some snarky input on your hairstyle or fashion decisions). The only anonymous commentaries you need to read are manuscript reviews. Even then, get a senior colleague to read them with you, help you learn to distill the useful parts, and review your revision memos when you resubmit your next article.

  1. Network.

Studies have found that women faculty benefit strongly from mentoring and networking programs, including increased article and grant production. The field of international relations has seen a proliferation of programs to mentor women, including Journeys in World Politics, Women in International Security (WIIS), Women in Conflict Studies (WICS), the Society for Women in International Political Economy (SWIPE), and the International Studies Association’s Pay It Forward program. We also recommend organizing panels and inviting senior scholars in your field to participate as chairs or discussants. Send copies of papers to senior scholars before conferences and ask to meet with them for coffee. All of these strategies will increase scholarly visibility and help you seek out advice for publishing frequently in the most reputable outlets and ensuring that others read your research.

  1. Get your work out there.

Although Walt generally does not favor public engagement, writing for popular audiences can be a good avenue for increasing visibility for your research and expanding your networks. However, as a woman scholar, you might have to put yourself out there, as studies show that women are far less likely than men to pen op-eds, write blogs, post on Twitter, etc. Create a website that people can visit when they read your work, and make your replication datasets easily accessible so others can build upon your work. Add your name to websites like Write a blog post or op-ed about your research when it is published (or accepted for publication), and promote your work on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. That said, as a pre-tenure colleague, we’d suggest that you focus your expert analysis on your research area, avoid opinion pieces, and resist the temptation to blog about disciplinary issues.

Suggestions for allies

All of our colleagues can adopt standard practices that help mitigate these biases. For example, we encourage our colleagues to revise their syllabi on a regular basis. Rotate through newer works if you can’t give up all your old favorites. Work to address citation bias in your own work. When you review articles for scholarly journals, take a look through the reference list and make sure that relevant contributions by women are not getting short shrift. Letter writers can work to ensure their letters are not gendered in ways that disadvantage women. Some clever online resources, such as this automated gender bias detector, can help letter writers craft more gender-neutral letters. Chairs and committees need to know about gender biases in student course evaluations, but it’s also incumbent upon senior faculty to take into account the strong likelihood of gender bias if they decide to use student evaluations as metrics for teaching effectiveness. To stay in the loop about women researchers in the field of IR, add your name to listservs like those maintained by WICS or #womenalsoknowstuff. And, by all means, feel free to refuse to serve on (or attend) all-male panels. 

Some of our women graduate students find this ongoing conversation depressing, and it is not hard to see why. We think this subject may be even more critical for new Ph.D.s that are coming up in gender-balanced graduate cohorts, only to find themselves systematically undervalued at the next stage of their careers. Yet, mercifully, common knowledge about these issues today is much greater than it was even 10 years ago. The field is making progress. If you are a young woman trying to navigate the tightrope, you are not alone. What the six of us hope to convey here is that there is no secret to success and certainly no single path. We all share belief in the value of our scholarship, strong, well-maintained networks of supporters (both inside and outside the career), and a willingness to pay it forward.

Photo credit: JABIN BOTSFORD/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Erica Chenoweth is the Berthold Beitz professor in human rights and international affairs at Harvard University.

Sara Mitchell is a professor of political science and department chair at the University of Iowa.
Burcu Savun is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh.
Jessica Weeks is an associate professor in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kathleen Cunningham is an assistant professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland.

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