Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Reaching Critical Mass: Women in Faculty and Administrative Roles

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Reaching Critical Mass: Women in Faculty and Administrative Roles

Article excerpt


In Chemistry and Physics, critical mass is defined as the smallest amount of a fissionable material that will sustain a nuclear chain reaction, or a condition causing an abrupt change in a quality or material property. In recent literature on underrepresented group status, critical mass is used to describe a minimum number of individuals with certain characteristics that can cause significant change or improvement in a given situation. In other words, when there is a critical mass of women, people of color, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic that differentiates them from the majority, a positive change of status occurs for the whole underrepresented group. The focus here is on the role of women in the academy, so the discussion will be confined to critical mass in terms of number and roles of women in higher education, but the concepts may, in some cases, translate to other traditionally underrepresented groups as well.

Critical mass is not necessarily the same as gender parity (equal numbers), but it should lead to gender equity (just or fair circumstances). When the number of women in a given situation reaches this critical mass, commonly thought of as some percentage of the total number of faculty and/or administrators, issues of isolation, tokenism, and role model paucity are significantly reduced. Has a critical mass of women in higher education been achieved, and, if so, are there tangible outcomes?

Faculty Administrative Link in Achieving Critical Mass

Achieving critical mass, whatever absolute value that may be, is important for achieving diversity throughout the institutional hierarchy. This diversity may be expressed in two broad areas: (1) the faculty, and (2) the administration. These pools of individuals are linked together in that many/most of an institution's administrators may be derived from the faculty pool, and many may return to it. (1, 2) As supported by a 2008 study by the American Council on Education, efforts to shape a diverse pool of candidates for top-level administrative positions should begin with faculty recruitment. (3) So in institutions where administrators rotate out of the faculty, that is tenured professors spend three years as an assistant or associate dean, and then return to their academic department, a high number of women professors deepens the pool for potential deans.

Writer Audrey Williams June describes the pipeline to college and university presidencies as beginning with the faculty pool. In this model, recruiting and retaining women faculty has a direct bearing on whether the administration may achieve critical mass in terms of women in positions that have a direct bearing on faculty, such as deans, provosts, chancellors and presidents. There is, of course, a lag time between hiring a woman in a tenure-track position, and her successful career trajectory to the point where she is ready to assume an administrative role. Following a traditional timeline of approximately seven years to tenure, and another six or seven to promotion to full professor, a woman faculty member may only be poised to move into the administration after fifteen years or so at the institution. It is, therefore, essential to ensure that gender bias or discrimination does not reduce the potential pool at the very beginning of the process. Affirmative Action or Diversity officers at an institution have an important role to play in ensuring that the playing field is level and open to all applicants right from the start. June notes that there is a "downstream problem" in terms of building a cohort of minority faculty to fill administrative posts, but that women as a group make up 45% of senior administrators in U.S. college and university campuses. (4)

Assuming that care is taken to ensure hiring equity, are academic institutions building strong faculty pools that reflect the number of women obtaining Ph.D.s (or the equivalent terminal degree) in their disciplines? …

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