Chronicle of Higher Education: In Hiring and Promoting Female Faculty Members, It May Help to Have a Union

By Audrey Williams June, Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 September 2010

When it comes to increasing the numbers of female professors and promoting them up through the ranks, research institutions with faculty unions have an edge, a recent study shows.

“Representation of Women Faculty at Public Research Universities: Do Unions Matter?,” a paper written from a study of 101 research institutions over a 12-year period, reveals various ways in which academic unions influence the presence of female professors of all ranks on campuses. In short, “unions improve faculty life for professors of either gender, but women benefit from them more,” said the paper’s lead author, Ann Mari May, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Ms. May and her co-authors examined data from the 1993-4 academic year through 2004-5 and determined that female professors at unionized campuses made up a larger share of the overall faculty than they did at colleges without unions. In addition, unionized colleges also had higher percentages of female professors at all ranks, particularly on the associate- and full-professor levels, the report says.

The procedural clarity historically championed by unions seems to make a significant difference at the associate-professor level, said Ms. May, who is executive vice president and treasurer of the International Association for Feminist Economics. “The focus at that level tends to be tenure, and unions offer a mechanism that builds more transparency into the promotion and tenure process.” That’s beneficial to all professors, but especially women, who “tend to express the view that they’re less familiar with promotion and tenure polices and that they’re given less information on them,” Ms. May said.

About one-third of all faculty members at American colleges and universities are in unions. Unionized campuses among the research institutions in the study included Florida State University, Western Michigan University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of New Hampshire.

The co-authors of the article, published over the summer in the journal Industrial & Labor Relations Review, are Elizabeth A. Moorhouse, an assistant professor of economics at Lycoming College, and Jennifer A. Bossard, an instructor of economics at Doane College. None of the authors are employed at a unionized campus.

Ms. May said the research was driven by her concern about how women are underrepresented in the professoriate—particularly at research institutions—when compared with the number of them who have earned doctoral degrees. Indeed, in the 2008-9 academic year, women accounted for a majority of the Ph.D.’s awarded in the United States for the first time ever, the Council of Graduate Schools reported just this week.

Other studies related to faculty unions have typically focused on the effect a collective-bargaining unit can have on salaries or faculty governance, said Ms. May, but her group’s research is different in that it assesses the impact on female faculty members by rank in an attempt to tease out the differences at each level.

For instance, the study shows that institutions with a female president or chancellor—unionized colleges fit the bill about a quarter of the time during the 12 years studied—had an increase in the proportion of assistant and associate professors who were female. One of the reasons for that may be that “the presence of a woman in a leadership role at a research university may make women more likely to apply there,” Ms. May said.

Unions also play a role in retention of female faculty members, in part because of the explicit grievance procedures they provide. “If you have women who aren’t a dominant group, you might imagine that they would have more issues that might need attention,” Ms. May said. “Instead of having to leave, faculty have a way to express their concerns.”

Ms. May said the study’s findings should send a message to both women and unions.

“Women who are interested in advancing gender equity in higher education may need to look at this issue of unionization as an important vehicle for leveling the playing field,” she said. “Unions for their part may want to look more at this gender aspect in their recruiting.”

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