December 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 9

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Women Move up the Faculty Ladder Slowly

by Roberta Spalter-Roth and Janene Scelza, ASA Research and Development Department

While female representation in sociology departments is increasing, the change is gradual. From Academic Year (AY) 2000/01 through AY 2006/07, there have been modest changes in female representation among sociology faculty, from 38 percent to 46 percent of all faculty, which is about a 1.3 percent per year increase. These are among the first results from the spring 2008 survey of U.S. departments and programs that awarded a bachelor’s degree or higher in sociology. The survey requested information about department size, structure, majors and graduates, graduate enrollment, faculty, salaries, assessment, and other information useful for departmental research, policy-making, and planning. It is a follow-up to the AY 2000/01 survey conducted in 2002.

Sociology Faculty by Gender


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In 2001, women held less than 40 percent of sociology faculty positions (Figure 1). This was during a period when about 60 percent of doctoral degrees in sociology (the gateway to faculty employment) were awarded to women. Female faculty presence was highest at Baccalaureate I schools (42 percent) and lowest at Research I schools (36 percent).

Within faculty ranks, women were least likely to be represented at the highest ranks (Figure 2). About 43 percent of associate professors and 26 percent of full professors were women. Scholars of the profession suggested that as women make up larger and larger pools for the higher faculty ranks, their share of these ranks would increase as long as departments continued to hire. This set of assumptions is labeled "demographic inertia."


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Since 2001, women’s presence among sociology faculty increased but not significantly. In 2007, women earned 64 percent of all doctoral degrees awarded in sociology. Figures 1 and 2 show a more equitable distribution of women across types of institutions of higher education and among faculty ranks, but women still do not hold half of all faculty positions, except at Baccalaureate II schools, followed by Baccalaureate I and Doctoral II schools. Female representation is lowest at research schools (and at Master’s II schools).

Demographic Inertia?

Between 2001 and 2007, women’s share of faculty grew at every rank but not dramatically. The largest percentage increase was at the level of lecturer and instructor. This is the only rank at which the percentage of faculty who are women reflects the percentage who were awarded PhDs. When compared to the percentage of women assistant professors in 2001 (52 percent), the percentage of associate professors in 2007 (51 percent) suggests that women are receiving tenure and moving to the next rank. When the percentage of associate professors in 2001 (43 percent) is compared to the percentage of full professors in 2007 (32 percent), the figures suggest that women may not be moving to full professor levels in a timely manner.

These trends do not fully support or reject the theory of demographic inertia. The findings suggest that women are moving from assistant professor to associate professors over the six-year period but are moving to full professor more gradually than expected. Perhaps women sociology faculty members are trapped at the associate ranks, as some critics of demographic inertia suggest. Women appear to have made greater strides at the rank of lecturer and instructor. This growth at the bottom of the hierarchy suggests that departments are not able to replace senior faculty who retire with tenure track positions but hire adjunct faculty instead. This pattern is supported by comparative data from the two surveys, suggesting that the number of tenure track faculty in departments has decreased or stayed the same since 2001, with relatively few exceptions. (For more on this topic, see the new research brief, What Is Happening in Your Department? at, which provides comparative data on hiring freezes despite growth in majors; lack of classroom space; competition with criminal justice departments; non-competitive stipends for graduate students; and demands for assessment.)

In conclusion, the comparative 2001 and 2007 findings suggest that women faculty members are progressively climbing the academic ladder but that at about 1.3 percent per year, it is taking longer than expected to reach the highest ranks. There does not appear to be a clear pattern in terms of whether women are gaining equal opportunities at varying types of institutions of higher education. small_green


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