What Israel Can Learn From the U.S. on Gender Equality in Academia

Paternity leave, parity in salary, day-care centers - U.S. campuses are trying to address women faculty members' needs, according to a recent Tel Aviv conference. But that 'culture of support' is lacking here.

Daniel Bar-On

In many countries, including Israel, women constitute the majority of students earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and even doctorates in certain fields. But their representation on the faculty of institutions of higher learning does not reflect this.

In Israel, for example, only 28 percent of academic faculty members are women, an increase of 5 percentage points in a decade. But the proportion of women in the highest-ranking teaching levels is far lower, only about 15 percent.

There are those who argue that women are relative latecomers to the pursuit of careers in academia, and that in 10 to 15 years equality will come about and there is no need to take any particular action. However, various estimates show that this assessment is not accurate, and that even in a decade the percentage of senior academic slots filled by women will probably not be much higher than 35 percent. Israel, for its part, also ranks quite low in terms of the proportion of faculty members who are women, as compared to that in European Union nations.

Universities throughout the world have been trying to address unequal gender representation on their faculties in a more thorough fashion. Last week, a two-day conference on this issue was held at Tel Aviv University, organized by the TAU president’s advisor on women’s affairs, Prof. Rachel Erhard, in conjunction with Israel’s Science and Technology Ministry.

Erhard, as part of her role, explores how leading universities in the United States pursue achievement of gender equality in their institutions, and she invited representatives of Harvard, Cornell and Stanford universities to the conference to discuss their programs. All three universities participate in a U.S. National Science Foundation program that awards generous funding to institutions of higher learning that present detailed strategic plans to reduce these gaps.

Prof. Myra Strober of Stanford is a labor economist who teaches at the university’s school of education and at its graduate school of business. Much of her research and consulting focuses on gender issues in the workplace and related family issues.

“When I got to Stanford [in the 1970s], women were less than 10 percent of the faculty. Today it’s 26 percent,” she said in an interview with Haaretz. “The more women there are in these positions, the greater the chances of having a ‘culture of support.’”

Strober explained that such a culture is important to both men and women and is still lacking at leading American institutions of higher learning.

She herself has been actively involved in advancing women’s issues at Stanford, resulting in policies that also help men balance academic life with family life. These include provision of subsidized day-care centers on campus, and making leave after birth available to both fathers and mothers.

With regard to women’s needs, there are several advisers on the Stanford campus to whom women can report sexual harassment, and a project in which deans are examining the salaries of faculty members, “to make sure that if someone is getting a low salary, there’s a reason for it, and it’s not just because they forgot her along the way,” Strober said.

Need for transparency

Dr. Yael Levitte, Cornell’s associate vice provost for faculty development and diversity, is one of the officers overseeing her institution’s diversity programs. Cornell has a clear and accessible website that tracks the demographics of students, staff and faculty as well as other indicators.

Transparency, she told Haaretz, is important when trying to effect change. “If the faculty, staff and students can all see the data, they can question the status quo and push for change,” she explained.

There are also special training sessions for faculty members who participate in academic search committees seeking to fill positions at Cornell.

“We want faculty to look critically at the applications, including teaching evaluations and recommendations, to examine whether they are gender-biased,” Levitte said. “Some of the faculty reexamined letters they received in the past and noted the gender biases in them. The session helps faculty understand gaps in resumes because of births and maternity leaves.”

Both Cornell and Harvard encourage their faculty to conduct active searches to increase the applicant pool for women and underrepresented minorities and enable them to fill vacant faculty positions. Some departments have special committees to oversee the search and evaluation process.

“A lot of it is awareness,” Levitte noted. “The moment faculty have to explain their decision-making process, they think about it deliberately and rely less on stereotypes.”

Dr. Judith Singer, Harvard’s senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity, said universities need to appoint a senior official to deal with the matter of inequality, and that person must develop allies among the faculty. She also called for more research on the issue of gender equality in academia, to provide a knowledge base and because “it’s a very important tool. When you show scientists that these phenomena are backed by research, and not just based on women’s personal experiences, they pay more attention.”

All three women agreed that American universities still have a lot more work to do in this area, as the proportion of female faculty is still too low. Singer stressed the need for the institutions themselves to change their organizational cultures to be more compatible with family life.

Strober added it was her impression that Israel was not keeping pace with advances in gender equality in general.

“This is a problem for all of society,” she stressed. “If we want women to advance at the university we have to let them advance in other areas as well. The entire society has to change its approach to the issue. From what I can see, Israel has a lot of catching up to do.”