Climate change
Department chairs Cathy Cohen and Amanda Woodward discuss how the division is trying to “think differently” about gender and diversity.
In Pick Hall, the walls of the political science chair's office are lined with framed photographs of distinguished scholars from the department. Nearly all are white men, but that doesn't faze Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green professor and, since July 1, department chair. Across the University and the Social Sciences Division, says Cohen, many chairs are trying "to think differently" about questions of gender and diversity, "trying to diversify the faculty and graduate students, trying to make sure the best people from across a wide range of characteristics are in our departments." A 2010 report on the status of academic women at UChicago noted that 28 percent of the tenure-track faculty in the division were women, higher than the 25 percent for the University overall. This year Dean Mario Small appointed Cohen to lead a faculty committee charged with developing "actionable" recommendations to advance the status of academic women in the division. The committee will build on the 2010 report, produced by the Women's Leadership Council and endorsed by Provost Thomas Rosenbaum. Dialogo sat down with Cohen and committee member Amanda Woodward, the William S. Gray professor and department chair in psychology, to talk about their work.

How does UChicago stack up as a place for women to succeed in the social sciences? 

Cohen: From the data that we have, we don't see massive gender inequality with regard to promotion. We can easily identify areas where we want to take a deeper look, like administration. For example, the division has never had a woman as dean, and it's a bit lopsided in terms of the number of women who have been chairs. Also, while we may not see women in visible points of administration, women often do bureaucratic, invisible work in departments, such as supporting students as they write their MAs or BAs, at a disproportionate rate.  Woodward: Another problem relates to recruitment of female faculty members. My department, psychology, is about fifty-fifty, women and men, and we have been for some time. But we're not representative of the division, so that's a concern. The committee plans to analyze the distribution in the pool that applies for jobs: how many women make it forward and what proportion are interviewed, made an offer, and recruited, to figure out whether interventions are needed in that system.

What other issues will the committee focus on?

Woodward: In the initial meetings we had last year, we outlined the committee's scope of work. A couple of us were particularly concerned that compensation be part of the discussion. That is obviously a sensitive issue, and I think we've found some good ways to look at that data and get a view of what's going on while preserving confidentiality. Cohen: The data out there is helpful but incomplete, especially around questions of climate—that is, how both women and men feel we're dealing with issues of gender in their departments. We'll be mounting a survey of faculty to ask about climate in the classroom and in departments, to identify places that need support and areas where we're doing well—best practices we can share across departments and the rest of the University.

How does the academic culture of the social sciences create challenges for women?

Cohen: I'm not sure the things that I would identify as challenges would be specific to the social sciences. We talk about basic things: not all women have children, but women most often have a deeper responsibility for the care of their children. So one challenge is making sure that you have time to do your research while you're also taking care of your kids. 

Do you both have children?

Woodward: I have a 13-year-old daughter.  Cohen: I have a seven-year-old daughter. My female colleagues will often approach me around issues of child care, maternity leave, or the scheduling of meetings. There was a point when we were having really important meetings from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., and a number of us would have to leave at 5:00, and we said, "OK, we have to rethink this." Woodward: In my department, a number of the younger faculty have become parents in the past year. Most of those people, as it turns out, are men. It's kind of nice to see parenting concerns decoupled from gender issues. We're seeing this attention to the time commitment of parenting play out in new ways. 

What conditions help women thrive as social scientists and faculty members?

Woodward: Having strong colleagues who are women, senior colleagues who are women—in my own experience that's been enormously important. I can see it in students and postdocs coming up.  Cohen: We want to have senior women in leadership positions to ensure—although it's not just the responsibility of senior women—that junior women and all women have access to the resources necessary to succeed as social scientists: equal start-up packages, equal course relief, credit for all the work that they do in the department, a climate where we support the choices and the responsibilities of young female scholars, and family-friendly environments.

Are there issues that minority women face on top of the gender issues?

Cohen: There are so few women of color in the academy that all of the issues we've talked about oftentimes can be exacerbated. All women, and especially senior women, are asked to sit on lots of committees. I'm on a lot of committees, and I'm also trying to mentor graduate students of color both in and outside of my department— Woodward: Who are seeking a role model— Cohen: Or trying to figure out how to navigate questions of gender and race through the academy. Woodward: Women faculty members have an obligation and a responsibility to do that. It's time consuming, but it's also rewarding.

What have you learned from younger women?

Cohen: There has to be work-life balance. You have to figure out ways to protect your social life and your life with partners and children but also to be a productive scholar. Younger scholars are thinking about it as they enter the academy. Woodward: One thing that's different about this generation of women graduate students is that many of them are married. When I was in graduate school, nobody was married. You got your career going first and then you figured out the rest.  A few studies argue that women may fail to advance because they're intimidated by academic culture; they hold back in discussion or forego opportunities to promote themselves. Do you see that here? Cohen: Most of the women I encounter at Chicago are not intimidated by academic culture. They may forego opportunities to promote themselves, but not because they are intimidated. For many women, the idea of self-promotion is a bit distasteful. They often prefer a more collaborative style of work and advancement. Woodward: Maybe there's a style of discourse or presentation that often goes along with being male, but not always. Sometimes that "put-yourself-out-there, look-at-me" kind of style can carry more weight than it should. One of the things I have always loved about the University of Chicago is that we are not usually fooled by things like that. Frankly, it's about the quality of the ideas and the argument, and it's not about the show.

What are the committee's next steps?

Cohen: We have a lot of work to do including the survey, focus groups, and in-depth interviews with faculty. We'll be asking committee members to go back to their departments and have important conversations about climate issues and opportunities. We're trying to gather new data to give us real insights into these questions so we can develop interventions that will make a difference at the departmental level. Woodward: Our hope is that at the end of this academic year we will have a report and a set of recommendations for the dean.

Why does this work matter?

Cohen: Although the focus or unit of analysis might seem to be women, all of these initiatives have an impact for everyone in the division. By asking questions that might originate when we think about women—questions about work-life balance, about providing all our colleagues with the resources and support they need to be productive scholars and healthy, happy contributors to our departments—we will gather insights that undoubtedly will affect the men in our departments also.

Woodward: The Social Sciences Division is in a real position to lead because we ought to understand the factors at work in this domain, to think about both qualitative and quantitative data in an intelligent way. We have more women faculty than some campus divisions and fewer women than others. We have successes and challenges. That puts us in a good position to do something that will be important, beyond the division, for the University.   Interview edited and adapted by Elizabeth Station