Status of women in academe assessed

5 min read

More than three decades of championing better opportunities for women has yielded critical changes, but there is still work to be done.

That was the message from the faculty and staff of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Harvard School for Dental Medicine that met Oct. 27 to honor the 35th anniversary of the Joint Committee on the Status of Women (JCSW). The organization was founded in 1973 to expand opportunities for women at both institutions and help them “achieve their maximum potential.”

In a series of panels at the Inn at Longwood Medical, past and present committee members recounted their struggles and successes and explored the continuing challenges faced by women in the academy.

In the opening panel, Eleanor Shore M.D. ’55, senior consultant to the Medical School’s Office of Academic and Clinical Programs, reflected on her own career as a young primary care doctor and one of the first women to take care of Harvard students as part of University Health Services (UHS) in 1961. She recalled an awkward moment when one of her early patients stopped short at her door.

The young male undergraduate hesitated, she said, and then remarked that if President Kennedy could have a woman as his doctor, so could he.

“I was eternally grateful to … Kennedy,” she said, “for having picked a woman physician to be his back doctor.”

Continuing to provide a historical perspective, Shore traced some of the significant contributions made by the JCSW in past decades.

In the 1970s, the committee advocated a concrete maternity leave policy for faculty at HMS.

“I give high marks to the joint committee for pushing this mountain. Even though it is not perfect yet, it was a breath of fresh air in a very unregulated area.”

In the 1980s, the committee worked to ensure that there would be a choice at the UHS of male and female doctors, particularly in the areas of obstetrics and psychiatry.

“They made a stir that I will never forget,” said Shore.

Persistence and the occasional hardball tactic were used to push measures through, said Ann Georgi, life sciences research administrator and co-master of Leverett House, who was the staff chair of the committee from 1994 to 1995. She shared her efforts to get a lactation room at HMS.

After meeting with some resistance, one of her colleagues, she said, suggested putting a chair outside the then-dean’s office door.

“We didn’t do it,” said Georgi, “but we let the concept float in the air. We had a room pretty quickly,” she said with a laugh.

While the room was just a small space, noted Georgi, it quickly came to represent something more.

“It was just a simple thing that helped create a climate that said, ‘It’s OK to be a woman working at Harvard.’”

Much of the day’s discussion focused on balancing career and family. In an effort to support working mothers, the committee has developed daycare programs and maternity leave guidelines, and has advocated flexible work schedules.

Other committee efforts include the creation of an ombudsman’s office, the inclusion of women on faculty search committees, a salary equity survey, the development of sexual harassment polices, the creation of various awards and fellowships for women, and The Archives for Women in Medicine, a joint effort of the JCSW and the Countway Library to document the history of women in medicine.

In assessing the current status of women staff at the two Schools, panelists noted that there have been significant advances in the numbers of women in the top levels of management positions. In 1994 there were no women in top tier management levels, compared with close to 50 percent today, said Beth Marshall, acting associate dean for human resources at HMS.

“One of the most powerful techniques of giving women the ability to aspire and move ahead with their careers,” Marshall said, “is to see themselves represented at all levels of the organization.”

The status of women faculty has also moved in a positive direction, but more needs to be done, observed Ellice Lieberman, dean of faculty affairs at HMS and faculty chair of the committee from 2003 to 2004.

In 1980, 15 percent of full-time faculty were women, compared to today’s nearly 40 percent, said Lieberman, who stressed the need for better attention to faculty searches.

“Only 10 percent of the last 30 searches for professors identified a female candidate. This is an area that is really ripe for intervention.”

In the final panel of the day, Judith Singer, James Bryant Conant Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education and senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity, pointed to the broadening influence of women University-wide. A fundamental shift has occurred in academic leadership she observed, not only with the appointment of Drew Faust as Harvard president but also with the increased number of women deans. There are also, she noted, currently five women vice presidents at the University.

Singer offered a good news/bad news scenario to the audience. Diversity in the junior faculty is better than at any time in Harvard’s history, she said, but in the senior ranks it remains an issue.

“It’s very clear that we need more women senior faculty … who can be in positions to make decisions about the next generation.”

Singer urged the crowd to contact her to let her know how the University can make a difference.

“I am really in listening mode right now,” she said, adding, “There is really a commitment to working together.”