It’s Women’s History Month. The month where we all celebrate the strong women in our society who have helped paved the way to get women to where we are now. In the academic world, it wasn’t until 1840 that the first American woman, Catherine Brewer Benson, graduated with an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan College in Georgia. It took another 26 years for a black woman to earn a degree, and over 30 years for the first woman to earn a Ph.D.
In the fall of 2018, almost 180 years after Benson received her degree, there were over 11 million women attending college. This puts females at just over 56 percent of the student population in the United States. While women have fought to get to where they are today finally representing a large portion of the student population, there are still areas of academia where women continue to fight to break through the glass ceiling.
According to Catalyst, a non-profit organization that works to advocate for women in the workplace, only 38.4 percent of women hold tenured positions at universities. There are numerous reasons why tenured positions are preferable to adjunct or non-tenured positions. Tenure offers greater job security, greater pay, benefits and the ability to pursue research opportunities. The number of female tenured professors becomes even more abysmal when looking at women of color, with Asian and Pacific Islanders, the largest group represented, coming in at only 4 percent of the tenured population.
As far as the University of Maine goes, these numbers are even lower. While the University of Maine System boasted that in the 2016-17 academic year that 43.7 percent of the faculty statewide are women, only 37 percent of the faculty at the System’s Orono location were women and of that, only 30 percent were tenured. To give you an idea, there were over 500 professors at UMaine and just over 320 had tenure. The number of women who had tenure: 100. While the number of minority women tenured at UMaine isn’t given, there were only 50 in total, meaning that the number of women of color working for UMaine was likely below 15 (assuming it follows the trend of 30 percent women to 70 percent men). While the numbers of female professors increase slightly when looking at untenured faculty (from 30 percent to 37 percent), this number is still way below what it could be. These women, who are untenured, likely also face job insecurity, lower pay and the other benefits that come with being a tenured professor.
This leads to the important question: what does it really matter? Isn’t the overall improvement that we’ve had enough? Not really. In a world where women are fighting for greater representation, whether it’s on the big screen, in STEM fields or in politics, we’ve started to realize that everyone in society deserves to have somebody they can look up to. Not only as an idol but somebody who they see a part of themselves in. As an international affairs student, I remember being so excited when Tammy Duckworth was elected to the House of Representatives. Even though she was Thai and I’m Korean, I felt a sense of pride and hope that there are other Asian-American women who are blazing the trail for women like me.
Everyone deserves to have someone to look up to and be inspired by, including people in academia; that includes all women, especially women of color. So when it comes to the diversity of the faculty at UMaine, we could do better and the student body deserves to see themselves reflected in those they look up to academically.