Kate Bahn

PhD in Economics at LadyEconomist.com

The Rise of the Lady Adjuncts

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Since the tragic death of lifelong adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko, adjunct professors—and the conditions under which they work—are finally getting their moment in the spotlight. It’s no secret that adjuncts are paid measly wages, and that lifelong adjuncting is a sentence for poor economic well-being, rather than an entrée into the allegedly “cushy” life of the tenured professor. But most of the media attention on adjuncts has failed to highlight an important feature of this labor force: A disproportionate number of its members are women.

The proportion of women earning Ph.D.’s in the United States has steadily increased over the last three decades as more women have pursued advanced degrees. According to a recent National Science Foundation report on U.S. doctoral recipients, women obtained only 32 percent of all earned doctorates in 1981, but by 2011, that number had climbed to 46 percent. That’s good news! But it also means that fewer than 46 percent of all Ph.D. holders are women.

And yet more than half of all adjuncts are women—51 percent, according to a 2009 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. A 2012 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce puts the number of female adjuncts even higher, at nearly 62 percent. While women are indeed earning more Ph.D.’s, they’re greatly overrepresented among adjuncts.

We already know from my last column that women are less likely than men to move up the professorial ladder. So it seems like a lot of really smart ladies are stuck on the bottom academic rung in lower-paying jobs, often without benefits. While some women (and men, too) gladly take adjunct jobs because such jobs may afford them more flexibility and time with family, or because they were offered a part-time position as a trailing spouse, what’s alarming is that many of them remain trapped indefinitely in adjunct purgatory.

The Vojtko story is a case in point: She was an adjunct at Duquesne University for 25 years without job security or benefits, and her longtime affiliation with the university didn’t stop officials there from dismissing her. In fact, according to a 2010 report by the American Federation of Teachers, 41 percent of all adjuncts have been at the same institution for 11 years or more! But that doesn’t make their employment any more secure.

Why are there more Margaret Marys than Marks in this position? There’s no evidence that it’s because women are inferior as professors, of course. In fact, there’s not even much reason to believe that adjuncts as a whole are less effective.

You’ve probably read about this much-discussed paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which suggests that adjuncts might outperform their tenure-track and tenured counterparts. Admittedly, the survey on which that paper was based might not be a great indicator: The instructors at Northwestern University probably aren't your typical adjuncts, if typical adjuncts exist.

Still, the findings are interesting. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that so many women are adjuncts, and adjuncts may be better professors in many contexts. On the other hand, the entrance of women into teaching in the late 1800s, albeit at lower levels of the education system, was thick with rhetoric about women’s natural teaching ability. Teaching, the theory went, requires a certain amount of nurturing and a moral propensity—two stereotypically “feminine” strengths.

It’s these outdated feminine ideals, in fact, that are continuing to hold many women back in previously male-dominated fields like academia. Women have made headway in the academy, to be sure, but they’re still haunted by this history, even at the highest levels of teaching.

For starters, there’s the long track record in the academy of women working as adjuncts. Male professors’ trailing wives often assumed adjunct roles, and part-time positions were, and still are, sometimes touted as more family-friendly (read: female-friendly).

And then there’s those longstanding biases popping up. Sociologist Marcia Bellas, for example, has found that much more emotional labor (the work of caring or acting like you care) is expected of female professors than their male peers. Likewise, students often hold female professors to a higher standard: Women who seem unfriendly, unapproachable, or disengaged from advising face more criticism than men. Bellas reminds us that the “gendered reward structure” in the labor market as a whole replicates itself in academia.

Ultimately this means that female academics may exhibit behavior that garners them higher student ratings and makes them better teachers, even if it doesn’t win them a tenure-track spot. It is hard to fight the expectations others place on you. And it doesn’t help that the skills associated with tenure—research and publishing—tend to be coded as masculine. Teaching and service work, two valuable contributions to the academy that hold less sway in tenure hearings, are often viewed as relatively “feminine” tasks.

These are broad generalizations, to be sure, but sadly there’s more than a hint of truth in all this. So what’s going on here? Why does a field that is supposedly based on intellectual rigor and merit succumb to plain old sex discrimination and gender stereotyping? There are few easy answers, and one daunting one: Perhaps we’ve just never really gotten over such biases in any corner of society and the labor market.

Kate Bahn is a doctoral student in economics at the New School for Social Research and a writer and co-editor at LadyEconomist.com.

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