Stanford professor examines promotion barriers in academia

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Stanford professor examines promotion barriers in academia

New study asks why there are so few female full professors

by Lindsey B. Trimble on Monday, August 19, 2013 - 9:26am

Fifty years ago this summer, President John F. Kennedy introduced a bill to Congress that ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among other accomplishments, this historic piece of legislation prohibited discrimination in hiring, firing, and promotion on the basis of gender. Thanks in part to the Civil Rights Act, women have made impressive strides in the last half century. Even so, Stanford psychiatry professor Cheryl Gore-Felton thinks there is still much work to be done before the goals of the Civil Rights Act are fully realized.

Lyndon Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights ActAt a recent talk at the Clayman Institute, Gore-Felton explained that women are woefully underrepresented in the senior faculty ranks of American universities and colleges. At Stanford, for example, just 22% professors are women.

Gore-Felton believes gender differences in rates of promotion to full professor help to explain this disparity. To test this idea, she is launching a new research study of Stanford faculty to identify the unique barriers that are slowing women’s climb up the academic career ladder. Her ultimate goal, she explained, is to “help individuals and also institutions develop systems and structures that help to diminish this gender disparity we’re seeing at the senior ranks.”

Based on preliminary focus groups with junior female faculty, Gore-Felton believes she has pinpointed two factors that impede women’s ascent into the full professor ranks: the “old boys club” and gendered communication patterns. 

Women disadvantaged by male networks such as guys' poker night

Research in the social sciences shows that women struggle to break into male-dominated “old boy” networks and Gore-Felton believes that women in academia are no exception to these findings.   

"I don't play poker, and I don't drink beer, but I asked to come to poker night because I wanted to make a point."

Gore-Felton had her first taste of the old boys club several years ago when she learned that some of her male departmental colleagues at Stanford had a weekly guys' poker night. “I don’t play poker, and I don’t drink beer,” said Gore-Felton, “but I asked to come to poker night because I wanted to make a point.” When women are excluded from informal events, like a guys' poker night, they miss out on networking opportunities that can lead to research grants, publications, or conference presentations. While dealing out cards and upping antes, Gore-Felton explained, the guys talked over current and future research projects, and provided informal help to one another—help their female colleagues were not privy to.     

To the guys’ credit, poker night turned co-ed after Gore-Felton explained to them that their old boys club marginalized their female colleagues. Still, Gore-Felton believes women’s exclusion from the majority-male networks of academia is a major setback to their career advancement. “If most of the senior ranks are still men, how are women able to… navigate that? Who will they network with? Who is going to guide them and mentor them?”

Participants in the focus groups echoed Gore-Felton’s experience and concerns in forming connections with male colleagues. Gore-Felton also explained that focus group participants felt they were held to different expectations by the people in their networks than their male peers—a finding that is consistent with previous researchAhniwa Ferrari's photo from Flickr

Gore-Felton told the story of one woman who felt like her male mentor gave the same advice to her and her male peers, but that he held her to different expectations. “She was expected to be in a helping role, getting speakers together, mentoring, teaching… where her male counterpart wasn’t held to those same requirements.”

Being expected to fulfill the stereotypically feminine “helping role” is problematic for women because promotion decisions are based on research and grant activity, not engaging in helping tasks. As a result, even when women are able to break into male-dominated networks, their experiences in those networks are markedly different from men’s and can result in slower rates of promotion. 

Women's ideas may go unrecognized in mixed-gender settings

Gore-Felton also believes the promotion gap stems from gendered communication patterns in which female faculty members struggle to be heard and are seldom given credit for their ideas, particularly in mixed-gender departmental gatherings.   

It’s not that men prohibit women from speaking, they just take up all of the space and time.” - See more at:

"It's not that men prohibit women from speaking, they just take up all of the space and time."

The women in Gore-Felton's focus groups explained that their male colleagues tended to talk more than them at departmental functions. This finding confirms social science research that shows that men dominate conversation time and topic in cross-gender conversations. Gore-Felton explained, “It’s not that men prohibit women from speaking, they just take up all of the space and time.” Not feeling like they have the opportunity to speak up may leave some women feeling voiceless about important departmental and university matters. 

Female junior faculty also reported being ignored at departmental gatherings, even when they did express their ideas and opinions. “Even when women feel like they speak up and are their best assertive selves,” explained Gore-Felton, “they still are not heard.” Gore-Felton recounted the story of one woman who said her ideas were routinely disregarded at faculty meetings, only to be applauded when the same idea was suggested by a male colleague, just minutes later. 

Not being heard is not merely a cause of personal frustration. According to Gore-Felton, it is also potentially damaging to the careers of female faculty, because they do not get credit for their contributions. Over time, gendered communication patterns can slow the promotion rates of women.   

With women now making up over half of bachelor, master's, doctoral, and professional students, today’s college campuses look remarkably different than they did just fifty years ago before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 

Now, Gore-Felton wants to make sure that women students are able to take classes and find mentors who are their same gender. Ultimately, she hopes her research will contribute to the goal of getting more women into senior faculty positions. 

Cheryl Gore-Felton
Stanford Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Cheryl Gore-Felton, PhD became the associate chair of faculty development and academic affairs in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in 2011. She has been a faculty member at Stanford since 2005. She is the co-director of the Stanford Psychology and Biobehavioral Sciences Laboratory, which is dedicated to research and education that focuses on the psychosocial sequelae of chronic, life-threatening illnesses such as Cancer and HIV/AIDS. She is also the co-chair of the Appointment and Promotions Committee and is a member of the Executive Committee in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Lindsey B. Trimble
Postdoctoral Fellow

Lindsey Trimble was a 2012-13 postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute and is a member of the Resdesigning Redefining Work group. Her primary research interest centers on peoples’ use of social network contacts, like friends, family members, and acquaintances, to search for jobs. Specifically, she is interested in identifying how this job search strategy maintains occupational sex segregation and gender inequality in the labor market, more generally.