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Thursday, June 29, 2006

How we tackle the 'woman problem'

Following is an excerpt of a presentation that law Professor Deborah Rhode delivered to the Faculty Senate on May 18, 2006.

I will be brief because Pat Jones' presentation on the status of women faculty has been, as always, so thorough and ably presented that you don't need me to say more than a few words. My comments will be variations on the same basic theme that I have elaborated at other senate meetings on this subject. The takeaway, as they put it in corporate America, is that we have many challenges, but we have made, and are making, great progress.

You might think that this is a relatively safe, although banal, way to put an obvious point. But no. As I have learned from bitter experience, you can always offend someone with this brief and bland message. There may be reporters from papers—not Stanford Report—who run their own version of what the message was, and their version bears limited resemblance to what was actually said. There may be faculty who think that I have not put enough emphasis on how partial the progress is and how many challenges remain. There may be other faculty who think that I have not sufficiently recognized the enormous progress that has occurred since 1971, when gender equity statistics began to be published. Then, women constituted only 5 percent of Stanford professors, there was no gender equity panel, no Faculty Senate presentation on gender equity and no widespread consensus that there was a significant "woman problem." It was just how the world in general, and universities in particular, were.

Obviously, all that has changed. Signs of progress lie in the slow, but more or less steadily, upward direction of the percentages that Pat Jones listed. The evidence that progress is only partial and that many challenges remain is revealed by the significant inequalities that persist. Stanford is not, however, unique. In the nation as a whole, women now constitute about half of all college graduates but only a quarter of all faculty, and only a fifth of presidents. Only 3 percent of professors are women of color.

In short, it is good that Stanford, like other institutions, has recognized the problem, has established a gender equity panel and has regular Faculty Senate reports. What is not good is that we still need the panel and reports. In short, significant challenges remain.
However, I can also assure you, as did Pat Jones's presentation, that relative to other peer institutions, Stanford compares well and, on some dimensions, very well. One of those dimensions lies in its leaders. President John Hennessey has joined a group of peer institutions in committing the university to action and accountability. Provost John Etchemendy appointed the Panel on Gender Equity. Both the president and the provost are paying serious attention to what the panel reports and recommends. The university also has founded, and generously funded, a Forum for Women Faculty that sponsors programs, workshops and related events that women faculty say that they want. The Gender Equity Panel collects data on the issue and is about to sponsor focus groups to identify strategies for change. The panel also meets with the deans of all of the schools to discuss areas for improvement.


The value of all these initiatives and their importance as a model for other universities is best illustrated by a story rather than by more percentages. I will therefore close with the story, but also supply the percentages to anyone who wants to ask me later.

The story starts like this. In my day job when I am not worrying about the state of gender equity at Stanford or teaching about gender equity more broadly, I direct Stanford's newly formed Center on Ethics. It considers gender equity and diversity to involve issues of fairness, justice and therefore ethics. It accordingly sponsors conferences and programs on the subject. One such event occurred in two forms this past spring. There was, first, a conference at Stanford on women and leadership and a companion conference at Harvard. There will be a book collecting essays based on the two events. I suggested to the Harvard conference director that we invite Harvard's then president, Larry Summers, to give the keynote. I said, "President Summers cannot refuse, and although his remarks will be thoroughly vetted, his participation will attract attention to the problem and event." The director agreed and so did President Summers.

At the event, he delivered an address on gender equity that showed signs of many hands at work. The first challenge that he and his many helpers confronted was in formulating an appropriate opening. There was also the challenge for the Harvard male dean who introduced President Summers. That dean settled for, "Here is a man who needs no introduction here." This was true. So President Summers gave the keynote opening, and yet another male dean also gave the keynote closing. Because after all, even though it was a conference on women and leadership, at Harvard some male leaders believed that they could do these important things better than women and get so much credit for doing so. The irony of having a conference on women and leadership at Harvard being opened and closed by male leaders was noted by female conference participants.

There was also a memorable moment during one of the Harvard panels. I asked a question of Harvard Professor Evelyn Hammonds, a very distinguished scholar on African American women. During the recent unhappiness at Harvard, she became chair of one of the university's several committees on the "woman problem." The gist of my question to Evelyn, with whom I have had many discussions on this subject, was, "What can other universities learn from what Harvard is now doing with the many millions of dollars that it has now committed to the woman problem?" Evelyn chuckled. The gist of her response to me was, "Deborah, why are you asking me? We looked at Stanford's committee report and recommendations, and we are following you."

So, relatively speaking, Stanford looks good. But our progress is only partial and many challenges remain.

Deborah Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, is chair of the Panel on Gender Equity and Quality of Life and is co-chair of the Stanford Women Faculty Forum.