Visions of Tomorrow: Academia still a boys’ club

April 26, 2012, 12:10 a.m.

Earlier this week, I received a Facebook invitation to Stanford 2020: Visions of Tomorrow. It looked awesome: “Come see 7 all-star professors talk about their research, why it matters, and what the world will look like in 2020.” I scanned the list of faculty with enthusiasm, noting how many of the professors I have admired or heard friends rave about.

But as I reached the end of the list, my enthusiasm quickly turned to confusion, then disgust. Of the seven faculty members who presented at Wednesday night’s symposium, exactly zero of them were women.

This level of gender disparity is unacceptable. And it’s particularly problematic for an event that explicitly looks toward the future. At last year’s symposium, there were two women; this year there are none. Maybe it’s just me, but in the future I’d like to see more gender equality, not less.

The more I thought about it, the more outrageous the discrepancy seemed. On Wednesday, I posted a sarcastic comment to the event page: “Visions of Tomorrow: Because in the future, there will be no female faculty.” Adam Adler ’12, who is listed as an event creator on the Facebook page, commented in response: “Because in the present, female faculty do not respond to email requests.” (He included a winky smiley face, too.)

It’s absurd and shameful that the nearly twenty groups that co-sponsored the event could not muster up even a single female faculty member to speak. I know from experience that planning academic events is a tricky business. The timeline of reaching out to faculty and hearing back about their availability can be stressful, especially if you seek a balanced diversity of departments, genders, races and backgrounds.

But that is not an adequate explanation for why there are no women on this panel. When people agree to organize an event like this, they are implicitly agreeing to the difficulties that such a task necessarily entails. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me if the event’s organizers had to email fifty female faculty members to secure three or four for this event. The planning process is invisible to the audience. The only thing we see is the end result, for which the organizers took responsibility. Simply put, I expect more – and I’m not the only one. (It took the staff of the Women’s Community Center, where I work, just a few hours to come up with seventeen all-star female professors who would have been a great fit for this event. We can help with brainstorming next time.)

It’s clear that event organizers gave significant consideration to securing faculty from diverse disciplines, including political science, religious studies, mathematics, and medicine. Why isn’t gender considered an important diversity concern?

It should be. Our culture’s consistent failure to position women as intellectual leaders contributes to stereotype threat, which impedes women’s leadership aspirations and reinforces stereotypic beliefs that men are naturally more fit for the academy than women.

Women comprise nearly 50 percent of Stanford’s undergraduate population; nation-wide, that figure is close to 60 percent. But as one moves into the upper echelons of academia, that parity disappears. At Stanford, women are 37 percent of graduate students, and a truly bleak 26 percent of faculty members. (So if the event organizers had passively represented the statistical reality of gender balance at Stanford – not deliberately provided a more equal vision, perish the thought – they would have had one or two women present.)

I would protest the lack of female faculty at an event like this no matter which university hosted it, but the absence is even more appalling because we’re not at just any university. The Stanford community prides itself on being a leading institution. We need to be setting the standard for gender equity in academia, just as we do for teaching and research. Our departments have their pick of the top scholars in every field. There’s no excuse for the exclusion of women from events like this one; female academics of exceptional renown are all around us.

My vision of tomorrow includes equal numbers of women in leadership positions and at decision-making tables. There’s nothing forward-thinking about an old-fashioned boys’ club.

 Miranda Mammen ’14

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