The Gender Gap and University Careers

A special report on the academic gender gap: Or, the difference between how women professors and male professors do in their careers. A collaborative report with Investigative Reporters and Editors, on KBIA’s Exam, hosted by KBIA’s Janet Saidi.


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Women can be aggressive and men can be warm and fluffy. But, at times, lawyers need both masculine and feminine qualities, says MU associate law professor Stacie Strong. She’s worked as a lawyer and an associate director of the National Association of Women Lawyers. Strong sat down with KBIA’s Rebecca Wolfson and talked about gender barriers for people who work in law.


It’s a persuasive theory. As more and more women enter a field, eventually they will rise to the top. But, even though half of PhDs are women, only about one-third of tenured professors are women.

You’ve probably already heard about a deficiency of female professors in fields like Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Only 39 female professors have tenure in these departments at MU. Total. But what about other disciplines?

KBIA’s Rebecca Wolfson took a look at a few other disciplines and found this to be a pervasive problem.

In MU’s School of Law there’s twice as many male professors as female professors and only three female full professors.

In MU’s department of history there are more than four times as many male full professors as female full professors.


The English department has managed to reach parity in high-ranking positions this year, with female full professors outnumbering male full professors in this department. Still, 59 percent of female professors have tenure, while 89 percent of males enjoy the status and security of tenure.

So what’s going on? KBIA’s Rebecca Wolfson has this story.

It’s a Monday evening, and Rebecca Dingo just returned home from work. Stuffed animals and baby books are strewn throughout the living room. Her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Lucia, runs and giggles around the house.

Dingo is an assistant professor in MU’s English department. She says life since pregnancy has been one big balancing act.

“I had a midwife who would say—maybe you need to take a week off and rest. You know your blood pressure is really high and that’s something you really need. That’s hard when your body is telling you one thing and your career is telling you something else.”


In a couple of years Dingo will go up for tenure. The pre tenure period is one of the most stressful times in any professors’ career. For professors tenure brings both prestige and job security. If denied tenure Dingo will be dismissed from the university. She’ll have one year to find a job elsewhere.

Nine women and seven men are full professors in MU’s English department. Twenty-five years ago females made up only 10% of the English faculty, and English Chair Patricia Okker says the English depa rtment has clearly been very successful in hiring and promoting women.

Still, 59 percent of MU’s female English professors have tenure. That’s compared with 89% of the male professors.

A study released last year by the Modern Language Association shows female associate professors in English departments take about two years longer than their male counterparts to reach full professor.

Many factors explain the disparity. MU Educational Policy Professor Jennifer hart looked into faculty gender discrepencies.

“Women were teaching the larger lecture classes, where you might be in a class where there are 500 students and their male colleagues are teaching a 5 or 6 person seminar of doctoral students, so that has implications.”

Women, she says, also reported doing more independent studies. These extra obligations don’t generally count as part of a professor’s course load. Hart also says female professors are asked to serve on committees more often than men.

Mike O’Brien is the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at MU. He says part of the problem lies in retention.

Historically, women do drop out of the professor, university ranks at a more rapid rate than men do. Now why is that? That’s what people should be asking? Is it all discrimination? Is it competing demands that a woman finally says I can’t do both anymore so I’m gonna do this.”

Some people use the pipeline theory to explain the discrepancy – women haven’t been part of the equation long enough to reach the full professor rank. Hart says this theory doesn’t add up.

“Women have been more than half the undergraduate population since 1972. So if we are talking about disciplines like English, like Education, like Sociology, you know feminized areas of the academy, meaning that more than 30% of the population are women, you can’t make that argument that’s just not a fair argument to make.”

Christina Wells actually found the transition from associate to full professor easier than the tenure review process. She received tenure in 1997 and the law school promoted her to full professor four years later. She’s one of the three women who are full professors in the law school.

“I don’t think we have enough women on our faculty. I’ll be quite frank about that.”


There are more than twice as many male professors as female professors in the law school. It means there’s a one in five chance that law students will have a female professor in their first year.

In interviews, several female law professors at MU reported a lack of access to networks as a major challenge.

“If you don’t play golf or tennis or something along those lines… I happen to play volleyball not a whole lot of networking opportunities that go along with playing volleyball. But an awful lot of it goes on the golf course or other places like that”

Jennifer Hart is currently the lead researcher for the Mizzou Advance Grant, a program funded by the National Science Foundation. It aims to advance female professors in STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Hart’s research focuses on the transition from associate to full professor.

Hart interviewed male and female associate professors in STEM. Several of Hart’s female interviewees mentioned the existence of “Old Boys Networks,” where men socialize outside of work, but still exchange ideas and make decisions without including their female colleagues. Hart also found that male interviewees received more guidance from colleagues and department chairs than female ones during the promotion process.

“BILL:So. What do you want to see me about?

NANCY: Going up for full.


An interactive theatre troupe adapted the findings from the research to a series of short plays performed around campus. The playwright combined Hart’s research with outside feminist readings to create the situations and characters.

NANCY:It’s been four years since I made associate with tenure and I’d like to get an outside perspective on my chances.


NANCY:I sent you an email with my CV—

BILL:You know, I’m so busy, I didn’t have a chance—

NANCY:I brought a copy.

BILL: Aren’t we efficient.”

This skit was performed in late April at Memorial Union. The main character, Nancy, is an associate professor in organic chemistry who wants to go up for full professor. She meets with her mentor, Bill, who is a full professor of geology. He tells her she needs more confidence. In the end, Nancy’s less experienced male counterpart gets promoted to full, while Nancy’s chair tells her to wait another year.

Some members of the audience don’t buy it.

“It was entertaining, it was funny, it was unrealistic, but you know, a lot of laughs.”

That’s Ronald Plain. He’s a full professor in the agricultural economics department.

He also serves on MU’s tenure review committee. Plain serves on a panel after the performance to answer audience members’ questions about the tenure review process.

The panel speakers all happen to be white men. Audience Member Rebecca Dingo acknowledges the irony…

“and not only that but every time they referred to a dept chair they said ‘he’ that was something I noticed”

Jim Spain is the Vice Provost for Udnergraduate Studies at MU. Spain says he doesn’t think the challenges Nancy faces in the skit necessarily play out in reality.

“if they are real they have not been brought to my attention um certainly some… is there ambiguity in the process? We hope we’ve taken the steps to remove that ambiguity.”

Dingo says the performance did clear up a few things for her, but, overall, she’s still anxious about going up for tenure.

Though Rebecca Dingo has a lot on her plate, she’s ambitious. She says she’d like to eventually take on an administrative role at the university, and become a research dean, or a provost.

But, she’ll need to take things one step at a time. Tenure first.

Rebecca Wolfson, KBIA News.