Madame le Professeur: Her Own Worst Enemy?

By Melissa Wittmeier.

Published by Journal of the World Universities Forum

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Studies abound on women in academia. While many recent articles offer statistics to prove that female representation in higher education is on the rise, most insist on a bias, whether measured or unintended, in favor of the promotion of men. Yet, data from a 2006 survey of 1,500 professors in the United States demonstrates that 75% of the population questioned believed that a difference in interests accounted for the predominance of male professors in many fields. That 75% of the entire professorial population in America is also male is merely coincidental: a full two-thirds of the women surveyed likewise felt that interest played the largest role in advancement.
Something is amiss. In the sciences, where the ratio is least balanced, more women receive Bachelor’s degrees in America than do men. Nor can “innate differences”, as Lawrence Summers so famously suggested, be considered a factor. Women earn nearly 40% of all doctorates awarded in science and engineering; yet they hold fewer than 10% of those professorships.
Literature on women in academia refers to the industry’s gender specific invisible ceiling. This obstacle, however, acts more like an invisible hand, as it functions during a faculty member’s entire ascension, rather than merely capping it. The insidiousness of this invisible hand makes it all the more difficult to eradicate. How, after all, does one empower an individual who does not feel un-empowered?
The obstacles women face in academia constitute a collective phenomenon rather than an individual one. They are the result of a structural rather than a psychological construct. This paper explores the reason why discrimination in higher education has proven more resilient than in other industries.

Keywords: Women in Academia, Female Representation in Higher Education, Women Professors, Faculty Promotion, Invisible Ceiling, Structural Discrimination

Journal of the World Universities Forum, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp.143-160. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 749.480KB).

Melissa Wittmeier

Lecturer, Department of French and Italian, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA

Melissa Wittmeier is currently on the faculty of Northwestern University in the department of French and Italian. She earned her Ph.D. in French literature from Stanford University, where she specialized in 19th century literature and popular culture. She has a strong interest in female authorship during the revolutionary period in France. Her current research project, entitled “Managing the Revolution: From Father to Son at the Château de Villevieille,” focuses on both male and female testimonials of the era as related through largely personal correspondence and other unpublished documents of the Villevieille family. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Melissa Wittmeier holds several degrees in addition to her doctorate, including an MBA in finance from U.C. Berkeley, an MA in French from Duke University, an MA in French Studies from Stanford University, and a Diplôme Supérieur from the Sorbonne. She has also been a visiting student to Dartmouth College, L’École des Hautes Études Commerciales, and l’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris.

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