Gender inequality in BYU faculty more than just a numbers game

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Read in Spanish: La desigualdad de género en el profesorado de BYU es más que un simple juego de números

Read in Portuguese: Desigualdade de gênero no corpo docente da BYU é mais do que apenas um jogo de números

Data pulled from BYU college directories, BYU University Communications and the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. (Sydnee Gonzalez)

Numbers don’t always tell a complete story, but when it comes to gender equality among BYU faculty, the numbers may point at some deeper problems at the university, some female professors said.

Reports from the U.S. Department of Education show that university faculties in Utah were on average 47.1% female, a number almost identical to the national average of 47.4%. BYU, however, lags behind these averages.

BYU Media Relations Manager Todd Hollingshead said the most recent report the university has shows that 34.5% of BYU faculty are female.

According to Denise Halverson, a math professor and liaison for BYU Women Thrive, just looking at gender ratios isn’t enough to fully understand the issue.

“How many women there are as faculty or in a field is actually a lag measure,” Halverson said. “Often the way these things are approached is if we have enough women in the mix, that will check that box off that says we’re not discriminating. There can still be discrimination.”

In order to truly get rid of any gender discrimination, Halverson suggested that BYU try to delve deeper into the issue.

“When an organization is really willing to take on a discrimination issue, what they do is try to understand the dynamics that are driving it and to address the core issues, not just take care of surface things like numbers,” she said.

One of the key dynamics she highlighted was the social pressure women face to not outshine their male colleagues.

BYU associate astronomy professor Denise Stephens said she has seen this dynamic play out when it comes to rank and status advancements.

“I have seen men apply for full rank advancement who should not be going up for rank yet because they’re not prepared and they’re not ready, but they think they are. And I will see women not go up for full rank because they think, ‘I’ve got to hit this grant,’ or, ‘I have to get this paper finished,’ and they will wait and wait because they think they’re not good enough,” Stephens said.

She said another thing that often prevents women from receiving continuing faculty status is bias in the rank and status policies.

“The policies for rank and status were written primarily by white males, so they think, ‘This is how it is was for me, so this is how it should be for everyone.’ A lot of times when a woman comes along, she’s not going to fit the white male ‘my success first, team success second’ attitude, so she’s not going to hit all their marks,” Stephens said.

She added that even though a woman may exceed in other areas, she will hit a wall because the rank and status document is primarily written from the scholarly experiences of white males.

“There should be other ways to rank and status. There should be other checkmarks than ‘this is it’ and ‘this is a one size fits all,’” Stephens said.

Stephens’s sentiments align with the findings of a 2005 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which looked at how altruistic citizenship behavior, or a lack of it, is perceived in male and female faculty members.

The study found that the same altruistic behavior resulted in more favorable reactions to men but had little effect on reactions to women. The withholding of altruistic behavior resulted in negative reactions to women but had no effect on how men were perceived.

“Women, it seems, are truly disadvantaged when it comes to altruism: When they have acted altruistically, they do not benefit, and when they have failed to act altruistically, they are penalized as compared with identically behaving men,” the study states. “Whatever they do, women wind up less highly regarded than their male counterparts.”

For associate professor Julie Damron, altruistic behavior isn’t the only area where she sees a difference between how she is perceived compared to her male coworkers.

Damron recounted an experience where she attended a BYU event with a student host. As Damron was standing in a circle with other professors, the student host came over to introduce the professors to each other.

“The student introduced all of the men in the circle as ‘Doctor so and so’ and then introduced me as ‘Sister Damron.’ I was the only female in the group and the only one who was not awarded the appropriate title of Doctor,” Damron said. “It was quite uncomfortable for all of us.”

For many women on campus, the lack of awareness and the frustrating situations that come along with it are common.

Associate dean of undergraduate education Patti Freeman, for example, said she has consistently felt that although she has good relations overall with the men in her department, they do not view or treat her the same as they do each other.

“A simple thing that I’ve had two different variations of is a male faculty member saying to me, ‘you know, you and I, we will never go to lunch together one-on-one because I won’t go with a female.’ Now, that’s not discriminatory, but it’s kind of ignorant,” she said. “I’m not sure that they fully appreciate some of their attitudes at times.”

She said she sees a stark difference between how her male faculty at BYU treat her and how an out-of-state male colleague treats her.

He has always treated me as a human being. He sees me as a human who’s equal. He will be in a car with me; he and I can go to dinner when we’re out traveling for work,” she said. “It’s so refreshing.”

Her outlook is hopeful though, and she said she hopes faculty on campus will learn to see each other for more than their gender. She encouraged people to ask themselves, “Do I see them first by their gender and go, ‘I can’t get too close to you because of your gender?’ Does it keep me from having a working relationship with somebody because I can’t get past that?”

Another solution for improving the BYU female faculty experience revolves around putting more women in leadership positions and making sure those women are treated the same as a man would in the same position.

“We make it look like we are respectful of women, but then you see how they are treated in those leadership positions and the lack of respect they receive. A lot of times, women are judged right away, especially by men who didn’t get the position. People think ‘they’re just there because they’re a woman,'” Stephens said. “None of us want to be treated that way. I want people to say, ‘she’s there because she’s qualified for the position.'”

Halverson noted that the disrespect some female leaders receive on campus reflects underlying issues.

“It would be helpful if we could appreciate the unique talents women bring to leadership,” Halverson said. “We don’t need women to be men, we need women to be women and speak to some of the issues we’re facing as a society and that we’re well-positioned to speak to right now.”

Not all female leaders on campus have had negative experiences. BYU MBA Program Director Lori Wadsworth, who also chairs an inclusion committee for the Marriott School, said: “I can honestly say that I have never received direct negative feedback from faculty or students since I have been in the Romney Institute.”

“My female and male colleagues have been incredibly supportive of my role and responsibilities as department chair and director of the BYU MPA program,” she continued.  

She noted that during her almost 34 years at BYU, she has seen a lot of improvement in the general attitude towards female professors.

“Early on in my career, I received questions about working full-time, including the suggestion that I was taking a job away from a man who was providing for his family,” Wadsworth said. “In my lifetime, I have seen the world open up in incredible ways for women.”

In order to make sure more women have positive experiences like Wadsworth, Halverson said BYU needs to cultivate a culture of accountability.

“When you have accountability in a culture, it’s really hard to engage in discrimination,” Halverson said, adding that accountability is about defining purpose, aligning actions to that purpose, engaging in reflective behavior and acting on that reflectiveness.

“When people are behaving in discriminatory ways and the culture holds a context of accountability, there is a requirement for each person to account for what is their intention and purpose,” she continued.

For BYU, a culture of accountability would mean aligning how women are treated with the university’s aims.

“I’d love to see BYU be at the forefront in the country for equality for their faculty in terms of pay, in terms of promotion, in terms of respect,” Damron said. “BYU should be at the forefront.”

Halverson agreed. “We should (be at the forefront) because the gospel teaches that. We are not living the gospel when we have these issues,” she said.

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