Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

With Support From

Contingency and Gender

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Image: Willesden Junction, UK (via Wikimedia Commons)

I was at a reception for non-tenure-track faculty at my old university when it first occurred to me that contingent labor might be a gendered phenomenon.

My fellow lecturer (also a woman) and I entered a room filled with many, many women and few men. Our university was trying hard to be equitable to those of us off the tenure track. The reception was a meet-and-greet with one of the vice provosts, who was in charge of establishing a promotion system for lecturers. As I looked around the room, I was struck by the abundance of women in lecturer positions from all over the university, not just in the humanities. For instance, most of the lecturers in mathematics were women. Contingent labor appeared to be synonymous with women.

When critics lament the adjunctification of higher education, gender and race are not necessarily at the forefront of the discussion. While contingent labor is clearly a problem for academia, it is not a problem that affects everyone equally. What does it mean for departments, institutions, and academic disciplines if contingency is a problem that affects more women than men? How does, or should, that fact change our approach to contractual labor? More important, what does it suggest about the gender politics of higher education more broadly?

Women make up the majority of contingent faculty nationwide. Recent estimates of the proportion of contingent workers who are women range from 51 percent to 62 percent, while men account for 59 percent of full-time tenured faculty. In a 2012 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, 61.9 percent of the respondents were women, which was almost 10 percent higher than the previous survey in 2009. Writing in The Nation, Kay Steiger described contingent workers as “the pink collar workforce of academia,” and noted there was a long history of women working off the tenure track with the wives of male professors often finding themselves in these untenured teaching roles.

I’m not sure there’s a rise in the number of “lady adjuncts” so much as a sustained majority of women off the tenure track. Cultural assumptions that continue to code teaching as feminine and research as masculine don’t help. Additionally, contingent labor is touted by some as family friendly, which suggests that the tenure track is not.

Marisa Alison, a researcher at the New Faculty Majority Foundation, noted a disturbing trend: The rise in contingent faculty coincides with the rise of women enrolled in, and graduating from, doctoral-degree programs. There’s a similar argument to made about race. Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, writes that African-American scholars are 50 percent more likely to end up off the tenure track. Cottom supported the growing concern about “adjunctification,” but pointed out that black faculty and students had been protesting the “ghettofication of black scholars in adjunct roles” since the 1960s. (The American Association of University Professors only started issuing reports on adjuncts in the 1980s.)

We’ve heard much talk about fixing the “leaky pipeline” that runs from graduate school to tenure, but less attention is paid to the fact that women are actually staying in higher ed but working off track in contingent positions. As I’ve written elsewhere, the pipeline is not really leaky, but broken.

Ashley Finley, a professor of sociology at Dickinson College, writes that women in academia don’t face a glass ceiling, but a glass wall: “A disproportionate number of female faculty members currently reside in contingent positions, where they are effectively cut off from even the opportunity to seek tenure promotion and associated pay increases.”

To be blunt, women are more likely than men to end up in unstable low-paying positions. Even more striking: Findley found that there are more contingent faculty hired in fields dominated by women. Contingent labor, then, is feminized by the overrepresentation of women, which leads to lower pay and treatment as lesser academics. Contingent workers emerge as second-class citizens in academia. Ask anyone who has been an adjunct or lecturer, and she will likely attest to unequal treatment and disdain. Ask me how many times I’ve been called “just a lecturer” as a method to inform me of my place in the academic hierarchy.

Gender, then, matters greatly in the problem of contingency. Let’s take my field of religious studies as an example.

In 2009, women earned about 30 percent of the Ph.D.’s awarded in religious studies, which is roughly the same as in philosophy. Now, because of the interdisciplinary nature of the field, that figure doesn’t quite capture the actual number of women who study religion but it does suggest that religious studies is still a male-dominated area of study. In a 2014 membership report, the Society of Biblical Literature noted that women make up only 23.9 percent of its membership. Women account for roughly 34 percent of the membership of the American Academy of Religion (based on a crude estimate of its membership data).

If my field is only a third women, how many of those women end up in contingent positions? More important, are women more likely to end up in contingent positions in religious studies?

I don’t have good answers to either of those questions. I tend to think that, yes, more women end up off track in religious studies, but my evidence is only anecdotal.

While I was on the job market, I noted who received tenure-track jobs in my subfield of American religions. In one year, all available positions went to white men. That felt more than coincidental, but I lack the data to back up my feeling. Many of my female colleagues in my field have ended up in contingent positions or have opted out of academia altogether. Two years ago, when I took time off, many female friends and colleagues did the same. That, too, could be coincidental, but I am not so sure. Charles Haws, the director of programs for the Society of Biblical Literature, analyzed the number women earning degrees (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral) in religious studies over the past 15 years and noted that the pipeline has become leakier. Coincidence seems less and less likely.

Religious studies has a labor problem that is gendered, and higher ed does, too. We can no longer overlook the gendered and racial implications of contingency. We need to do something about it.

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