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Organizing Women Faculty

By Martha S. West

To be effective agents for change on campus, women faculty must work together. Women gain power through collective action, allowing them to overcome the frustration and isolation they often experience on campus. Organizing faculty is, however, difficult, and women faculty are no exception. As one colleague has said, "organizing faculty is like herding cats."

Organizational efforts can take many forms. The challenge is to find the right form for the issue at hand. For example, many campuses have established committees on the status of women under the auspices of the campus administration. Administration committees have certain advantages, such as some budget and staff support, which makes it easier to sustain these kinds of committees over a long period of time. The major disadvantage to an "official" women's committee is that the administration usually has a certain amount of control over the issues the committee can deal with, what steps it can take, and whether any of its recommendations are ever implemented. My experience on our campus committee has been disappointing. Our recommendations on faculty issues are rarely taken seriously and are seldom implemented, particularly if they require any substantial cost or change in the way the university traditionally goes about its business. Our campus committee has been much more effective on staff issues, such as career development for administrative staff; it has provided one of the few forums for the many women in clerical and administrative support positions to come together to improve their opportunities.

The most effective efforts for women faculty on our campus have involved short-term political organization around specific issues raised in our Academic Senate Representative Assembly. The most recent issue we organized around was a gender equity review of the salaries of women faculty. The administration proposed the equity review, but male colleagues sought to use the academic senate structure to block it. Women faculty were virtually forced to organize themselves, so they could operate on an explicitly political level within the academic senate. It was relatively easy in a short period of time, through use of campus mail, electronic mail, and campus meetings, to persuade over a third of the women faculty to participate in our activities. We were able to defeat the efforts of our colleagues who were attempting to stop the salary review. Now that the salary review has been carried out, however, the issue has died, and so has the ad hoc organization of women faculty. The organization was not institutionalized because there was no group of women faculty members willing to keep it going on a more permanent basis.

Perhaps the most successful model for a large research university, such as the University of California, which does not have a faculty union, is for women to "infiltrate," in a very systematic way, the academic senate structures. On my campus, women faculty have kept in touch with each other informally just enough to "bullet vote" and elect one or two women each year to the only elected faculty committee (a committee of six), which in turn appoints all other faculty officers and committees, such as our campus personnel committee. By this means, we have been able to shift the composition of our academic personnel committee, so it is no longer a major stumbling block for women faculty going up for tenure.

It is a constant struggle to persuade women colleagues that we need to work together if we want to change our institutions in any significant way. Because we tend to work in isolation as individuals, it is often a challenge to for us to put time and effort into a group process. Finding women faculty willing to take the time to lead a women's organizational effort is even more difficult. Women faculty are eager to work together if they perceive a threat or benefit to themselves as a group, as we saw in our efforts to protect our salary equity review. It is much more difficult, however, to get faculty members' attention when the problem is one woman faculty member fighting her individual battle for tenure or promotion. Many women faculty hesitate to get involved in such situations, not understanding that we are still facing systematic prejudice that affects us all. In my experience, the University of California system continues to operate under a double standard: ordinary men make it, but ordinary women often don't. Women must be outstanding to be assured of success. Since we all would like to consider ourselves "outstanding," we have little incentive to join the battle on behalf of those around us who may not have been anointed as the "rising star" in the department. Yet, what happens to ordinary women will determine our degree of success in integrating our campuses.

Finally, to paraphrase Abigail Adams, "Remember the gentlemen." We must continue to build coalitions with our male colleagues who understand the problems women faculty face. Although women faculty may have reached critical mass at some colleges and universities, there are many women who work in departments with only one or two women colleagues. In departments with few women, women faculty may not be supportive of each other, making the backing of understanding male colleagues even more crucial to women's success. Finally, whether we are white women or women of color, we will maximize our power if we work in coalition with male faculty of color, as well as with white male faculty who are also interested in change from within.

Martha West is a professor in the School of Law at the University of California, Davis. She is also a member of the AAUP's Committee W on the Status of Women in the Academic Profession.