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Likins calls for gender equality study

By Michael Lafleur
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 5, 1999
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UA President Peter Likins said a conclusive study on gender equality is needed because some women faculty may experience discrimination in their academic careers.

"Subjective impressions don't provide conclusive answers," Likins said. "But gender bias is a very real and continuing problem in America and it wouldn't surprise me if it was present at some level in the University of Arizona."

Likins' comments came in response to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, released late last month, which found systemic bias against women in its science department.

The study also produced a definition of how discrimination manifests itself in the post-civil rights era.

"I think women all over the country, when that (study) hit the listserv, sat back and nodded their heads," said Mary Poulton, head of the UA Commission on the Status of Women. "MIT was certainly not an aberration."

While the MIT study focused on the science department, the university's officials said it was representative, to varying degrees, of the entire institution and probably colleges nationwide. MIT officials also took immediate action to rectify the uncovered problems.

"The fact that the MIT administration acted on the study presented by women scientists is very important," said Kari McBride, chair of the UA CSW subcommittee on compensation and equity. "It's certainly going to make all administrators pay more attention to claims that there is inequitable treatment."

The MIT study found that female science instructors faced prejudice arising from powerful but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes about women.

The gender-based discrepancies that resulted were seen in such areas as salary, office and lab space, awards, distinctions and appointments to important committees.

Judy Gignac, Arizona Board of Regents president, said there is "strong" support within the board to take a comprehensive look at gender equity within state universities, despite problems with previous studies.

"We are sensitive to it and we will continue to work on it," Gignac said. "Instinctively, I believe that there is a problem."

While major UA studies have been commissioned to gauge whether there is unequal distribution of salaries between male and female faculty, all have contributed inconclusive data.

"We found it hard to make any gross generalizations about women being uniformly underpaid," said Poulton, a UA associate professor of mining and geological engineering.

The studies did not consider differences present at the department level, such as market value and experience.

The 1998 Annual Faculty Report Summary found that full-time female professors made an average 8.7 percent, or about $7,000, less than males at the UA.

"Time and rank is not a figure kept in most of the data at the university," McBride said.

Poulton said despite the inconclusive studies, she believed sexism is present to some degree at the UA.

"If you look at all of the factors effecting job performance, I'm not convinced men and women are treated equally," she said. "Certainly you see it (a discrepancy) in terms of headcount."

McBride, a UA women's studies lecturer, said she thinks the UA does not engage in intentional discrimination.

"Certainly there is inequality at the UA, but I think we're working on it," she said. "I think, for instance, President Likins has been very proactive in his support of women and minorities."

None of the UA gender equality studies have mirrored MIT and looked at specific departments.

"We're coming to the same conclusions that MIT did, that in order to come to a meaningful conclusion about salary differences, you have to look at more variations than just degree, department and years of service," Poulton said. "The only way you can get that information is at the department level."

Likins said, however, that it would not be feasible for the UA to examine each individual department within one study.

"Because it would be really extraordinarily expensive to do this (the MIT study) for the entire university, and also would take forever, I would not recommend it," he said. "It would make more sense for us to identify a couple of areas and then see if we have similar problems."

Saundra Taylor, vice president for campus life, is heading a committee with the potential to design such a study. Taylor said she had no firm details on the future of any possible research.

Gignac said, however, that funding for studies could become a problem.

"All of this stuff takes money," Gignac said.

The MIT study's findings of subconscious prejudice against female faculty may be because the sciences are traditionally male-dominated fields, McBride said.

"The sciences are the last place that women have broken into," she said. "There is a long-standing tradition that men are more rational than women, are smarter than women."

McBride said ideas about women that both males and females would reject are deeply ingrained in American culture.

As an example, McBride mentioned a talking Barbie doll that hit the shelves in the early 1990s and blurted "math is hard" when a string on its back was pulled. The whining Barbies were removed from stores after protests.

"All of us have internalized these sexist and racist ideas," she said. "They permeate our world. You don't just pass a law that women won't be discriminated against and think that it's fixed."

Poulton said that she did not believe sexism at the UA is as pervasive as at MIT, but added that changes still need to be made.

"At MIT, the discrimination was blatant - most institutions are not that obvious," she said. "In some respects, we're 15 years ahead of MIT in recognizing that women are not treated equally, but we have not been as swift to act, in many cases, as MIT was."

But the UA has seen some gradual changes. In 1989, 17.95 percent of the faculty were women. In 1998 that figure increased to 25.7 percent.

"Even though we've made progress, we've got a ways to go and it gets harder," Poulton said.