Is academic tenure a gender issue? In the mid-1990s, a study of academic work produced responses like the following from women faculty members:

I’m a pretty strong person and I’m quite athletic. But I would say that this level of stress and fatigue really wears on me. And my health is pretty good but I think emotionally it wears you down and… it’s aging me actually… I think current, untenured academic life is quite stressful and draining and demanding. And that it fills all of your waking hours. It would fill every minute of my week if I didn’t walk from it. (Assistant professor)

Am I good enough? I’m not good enough. Constantly, not good enough. I constantly feel not good enough… This job makes one feel not good. (Associate professor)

The women seem to work harder and they’re more anguished than the men. I was so careful to cover all my bases for tenure: publications, research grants, supervising and teaching. I said to myself I can’t do more. But I was full of anxiety. I rewrote my tenure dossier ten times; the men only do it once! We [women] have a sorority of anxiety. (Full professor)

While recognizing that evaluations inevitably create stress, especially when a job is at stake, I wondered what was going on here that raised anxieties to these heights. After all, tenure is usually associated with the protection of academic freedom, surely a good thing and strenuously defended by academic unions and commentators over the years. Tenure means job security without fear of reprisals for unpopular beliefs or research topics. In rationalizing the existence of tenure, writers (mostly from the United States) sometimes reach for rhetorical heights: tenure has been defended as a guarantee of excellence, a gold standard, a force to preserve knowledge and democracy. Opposition tends to come from right-wing or neo-liberal critics who regard tenure as an outmoded inconvenience in the way of corporatizing academe. Yet, a search of literature also turns up concerns from those worried about fairness and social justice, especially for women.

First, there is the charge that women are less likely or slower to achieve tenure—substantiated in some American studies but, according to Ornstein, Stewart and Drakich, not in Canada. These researchers found that women and men achieve promotion to associate professor (close to or simultaneously with tenure) at almost the same time; but after controlling for disciplinary and institutional effects, the gender difference in the time it takes to achieve promotion to full professor remains, with men being promoted about a year faster than women.

Second, the timing of the tenure review is a problem. After years spent attaining a doctorate, the novice faculty member needs another five years or more to arrive at this point of evaluation. To the extent women still carry greater responsibilities for children, the subsequent coincidence of tenure and biological “clocks” is a disturbing obstacle. Women faculty with young children speak of high levels of stress, exhaustion, and sleeplessness, while driving themselves (or being driven) to demonstrate high and continuous levels of productivity.

Third, critics identify flaws in the process of tenure review. Junior faculty are overworked as they aim for these ever-rising standards; untenured women and minority faculty are often reviewed by older white males; criteria are unclear and mystified; conformity and pretense are (thought to be) required so as not to offend anyone powerful and to make sure students provide positive evaluations. The distress integral to the process may lead to fear and anger and feelings of powerlessness. As more women and other nontraditional faculty enter the academy, there are questions about whether the typical assessment process needs overhauling, for example to incorporate less traditional research topics and activities such as community service.

Fourth, the corpus of largely feminist research on academe points to the subtleties of differential treatment and expectations in a gendered academy. The various forms of appraisal and evaluation may incorporate unacknowledged gendered norms. Most of the assessors (senior faculty) are men, and the reward system is biased toward research and publications rather than teaching and service. In one study, the “successful academic” was described in interviews as “someone whose first priority was research, who worked long hours, who defined themselves in terms of their work, who had experienced no break in career, and who had an uninterrupted forward movement in their career profile.” Feminists have also questioned whether the work women actually do in the university is sufficiently rewarded. Several studies, including my own, suggest that women academics end up with taken-for-granted and uncredited responsibilities for nurturing and mentoring women students. Similarly, faculty from minority ethno-cultural backgrounds encounter an extra layer of work in counselling and supporting minority students.

Are any of these concerns reflected in viewpoints of university administrators and other personnel involved with tenure reviews? A current study provides an opportunity to investigate this question. Over the past few years, together with Michelle Webber and Elizabeth Smyth, I have been conducting research into tenure processes in the social sciences in Ontario. We started with web searches, which provide access to whatever documents on tenure are in the public domain for each institution, followed up by visits to seven universities chosen to provide contrasts in type and region within the province. We interviewed three or four “key informants” in each university, including senior administrators and faculty union officials, who could give us deeper insights into the practices and issues in each site. These interviews were semi-structured and qualitative, usually lasting 60-90 minutes. Participants were deeply involved in the topic and committed to improving procedures in their institutions. Currently we are interviewing junior faculty about their experiences.

A number of interesting and frequently contradictory discourses surfaced in the key informant interviews, for example: “hiring well” (if we hire carefully, we should not need to turn anyone down); “standards” (how can we raise academic standards if everyone gets tenure?); “peer review” (only peers should be involved in assessment); “administrative oversight” (the university must have mechanisms in place to make sure peer review is not too soft); “stress” (the process is lengthy, detailed, labour-intensive, and puts too much pressure on the candidates, especially in view of near-universal success); “we’re not the United States” (the Canadian process is less harsh, more transparent and better regulated).

To take one of the common perspectives, virtually everyone agreed that the process is unduly stressful for junior faculty. “This generation of [tenure] candidates are so distraught, they can hardly function,” in the words of one union official. Yet they appeared to be caught within a process that became more elaborate by the minute, contested over the smallest details, yet ending up with “success” for almost everyone:

How many ways can you measure people?… the work for junior people to put together their portfolio again and again and again [is extreme]— let them get on with their lives. The fact of the matter is that you have a certain number of hours every day… and some of those hours are coming out for the evaluations and… because they’re so highly [selected], there isn’t any deadwood around here. (Department chair)

It gets even more interesting when we look at response to questions about equity and diversity. Here participants often made reference to the four designated groups that are part of Canadian employment equity legislation: “In terms of the availability pool for the four categories we are good on everything but women, and we’re only not good on women in a couple of departments” (Union official).

While large-city institutions displayed a certain amount of ethnic and cultural diversity, universities located in rural hinterlands noted their difficulty of attracting and retaining minority faculty: “Other than the gender balance we don’t have a whole lot of diversity. I mean you probably notice walking around we don’t have a whole lot of diversity here.” (Dean)

One institution was hiring largely from outside the country (rules about searching first for Canadians having been relaxed a few years ago). A senior administrator argued that this practice, when combined with a short tenure clock and high expectations, led to difficulties for some new faculty with language and sometimes with acculturation in general. In another institution, students were described as resistant to faculty whose English was accented or imperfect:

Everyone with an accent is in trouble. When [X] went to tenure… some students wrote what I would consider openly racist statements… Among other things they said why should I have a teacher who doesn’t know English? (Dean)

Some interviewees worried about knowledge being defined too narrowly, putting Aboriginal scholars or others with nontraditional approaches at a disadvantage. A surprising number of participants commented about disability issues, usually mental health concerns: “Cases of accommodations around mental illness—that really needs a different way of thinking, and we don’t have that understanding…of what kind of stressful environment we work in” (Union official). Although not many people were actually turned down for tenure, some were, and others given extensions or other special arrangements, and a few participants believed that those individuals were more likely to be faculty who were for one reason or another outside the mainstream.

Although in a few cases, “women” were identified as a category facing difficulty, usually it was “women-plus,” i.e. someone with an additional source of difference, for example a minority woman in a male-dominated field. Common was the “gender inequity [for women] is a thing of the past” response:

We’re at the point of people being worried about having to hire males because we are so gender balanced the other way. (Dean)

In my mind gender should still be an issue—in some places, still to this day, only about 30 per cent of PhD graduates are women. It is, in fact, much less an issue than it was 15 years ago; it’s hard to stir up any passion about it anymore. (Senior administrator)

Several participants were aware of the issue of the timing of “clashing clocks” for young academics, particularly women (but note the reference to “women and men”):

I think one of the big problems with the whole tenure process is the timing of it. I mean when are women and men most likely to have children? Exactly at that time. So you’re measuring their work performance when they’re least able to excel and they’re also junior with relatively little experience and you’re increasing the pressure levels just extraordinarily. (Department chair)

Only one respondent, a union official with a background in a social science subject, made a reference to patriarchy, adding “you know we still live in a world in which men are able to organize their lives in such a fashion that they could be more dedicated consistently to research and scholarship than a woman who’s just had a baby.” Most of the concerns about unfairness, harshness, unequal, or gendered expectations identified in the literature, however, just did not surface.

We could be optimists and conclude that those issues were rarely discussed because they are less prominent in Canada. Our traditions of multiculturalism and social justice do help here, and our tenure and other assessment systems seem less harsh than those found elsewhere, in part because of the involvement of faculty unions. Perhaps we do indeed “hire well.” On the other hand, it may be that many of the participants are not steeped in literature that would alert them to the subtle ways in which gender divisions still operate in universities. A particularly egregious example in Canada is the story of Canada Research Chairs. Katherine Side and Wendy Robbins question how a program designed to reward “excellence”—federal government funding for Canada Research Chairs—ended up reinforcing gender divisions. As of 2006, women had been appointed to 16 per cent of the senior and 28 per cent of the junior chairs, in both cases well below their representation in appropriate faculty pools. The design of the program favoured large, research-intensive universities and the sciences and, furthermore, permitted positions to be filled without open competition, factors that Side and Robbins believe led to a preference for male candidates.

Overall, I do not think we should be complacent about our take on tenure. Despite the gaps in participants’ analyses when held up against the critical and feminist literature, there were still indications that interviewees often held an uneasy, though vague, suspicion that something about the procedures is not working for particular categories of people. This interpretation makes sense if one reasons that contemporary faculty members are more diverse than those of 40 years ago. They may lack the expected cultural and social capital resources (or have different ones) with which to survive the system successfully. Typical tenure review systems may be creaking under challenges to forms of knowledge, ways of working, and life-style priorities taken for granted when faculty were mostly white, able-bodied men, often married with a spouse at home to pick up the domestic and support work.

The various forms of appraisal and evaluation may incorporate unacknowledged gendered norms.

Moreover, we have created a small monster in the sense that going through tenure leaves so many people “distraught.” It is a process steeped in irony, both because so many academics are now contingent faculty and thus not on the tenure track, and because the outcome for those going through review is nearuniversal success. As one associate dean in our study commented: “Ninety-nine point nine per cent of people eventually are given promotion and tenure anyway, so one asks oneself, what is the point? It means nothing in terms of quality because everyone is promoted eventually anyway unless there’s something really grossly wrong that you ought to be fired for in any case.” Like the department chair quoted earlier, we could question whether the function of the review is something other than it appears—not simply a selection process, but a process that also underlines the insecurity of academics and the contemporary expectation of increased regulation and endless “performativity”—not only doing well but being seen to do well.

My sense is that tenure does give North American academics (those who have it) a level of protection against job loss that cannot be taken for granted. Other countries such as the UK and Australia have a tenure-like system but one that leaves academics more vulnerable to pressures to take “voluntary redundancy” or early retirement when the financial going gets tough. We could paraphrase Winston Churchill and say that tenure is like democracy, a flawed system until one considers the alternatives. At the same time, we need to be vigilant to ensure that the flaws do not compromise our principles of equity and justice. AM

Sandra Acker is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Her most recent book is Whose University Is It, Anyway? Power and Privilege on Gendered Terrain, coedited with Anne Wagner and Kimine Mayuzumi and published in 2008 by Sumach Press, now an imprint of Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.