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Sociology Departments Can Now Vie for “Seal of Approval” for Gender- and Women-friendliness

SWS ranks PhD-granting institutions on equity

by Lee Herring, Public Affairs Office

Higher education institutions are subject to an ever-widening range of assessments of their performance. “Accountability” is the buzzword on the corporate street, and new variants of accountability are filtering into academia. Scrutiny of performance, as well as progress toward societal goals (e.g., gender/racial/ethnic equity, reporting corporate profits) intensifies as researchers tap new data. And, organizational assessments are being devised to meet “transparency” demands of a wider range of institutional stakeholders and audiences, be they students, parents, taxpayers, or philanthropists.

In a new twist to academic department accountability, Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) recently attempted to assess the demographic fidelity of graduate sociology departments’ faculty across rank and sex—relative to the marketplace of PhDs—and openness to gender as an intellectual field. Sociology researchers Sharon Hays, University of Virginia, and Barbara Risman, North Carolina State University, with assistance from Evren Savci and Carey Sargent, University of Virginia, and Rena Cornell, North Carolina State University, produced a report in August 2004 on their findings on behalf of SWS, Report Card on Gender- and Women-friendly Sociology Departments (Among PhD Granting Institutions).

The Good and Bad

“Despite substantial progress . . . women remain seriously underrepresented in the academy,” the SWS report states. This is out of sync with Richard Chait and Cathy Trower (2001) having found ever-higher levels of gender and ethnic diversity among college students compared to the relatively static level of diversity among faculty. In addition, as documented by many researchers, the underrepresentation of women in the academy increases the higher institutional prestige level.

According to ASA research on sociology, as of 2001, women earn 58 percent of PhDs, yet they make up 26 percent of full professors in graduate programs, and they are overrepresented (at 61 percent) among low-level instructors and lecturers at PhD-granting schools (ASA 2003a, 2003b). As Chait and Trower write, “…one might expect [universities] to have a better track record on faculty diversity. But the prospects for self-correction are bleak, . . . change will have to be initiated from the outside.”

The SWS report was in response to Chait’s and Trower’s admonition and belief that a market-like approach might trigger the systemic changes needed to bring academic departments’ demographics into better alignment with the marketplace of talent. Specifically, SWS aimed to establish a national ranking of sociology departments based on the departments’ relative “friendliness” to women and to gender and inequality scholarship, yielding “seals of approval” for successful departments.

Although women are underrepresented in sociology departments overall, there is wide variation among departments in the extent to which women and gender scholarship are established. By rewarding those departments that excel in their openness to women and gender scholarship with seals of approval, SWS hopes to guide prospective graduate students and new PhDs toward the “best” departments for women and gender research, as well as offer a useful tool to administrators seeking to diversify. SWS hopes to generate a baseline data report each year.

Every 10 years the National Research Council issues its mammoth and rigorous assessment of PhD-granting science departments in U.S. institutions. This highly respected tome is supplemented annually by, among other independent rankings, the U.S. News and World Report rankings of departmental prestige and merit. But SWS’s seal offers information that neither of these well-established, though not universally revered, evaluations provide. SWS aims to recognize those departments that excel in creating a welcoming climate to women and feminist scholars. To rank departments, the SWS researchers used data from the 2003 ASA Guide to Graduate Departments, making use of two simple departmental variables:

  • Percentage of full-time faculty who are women, and
  • Percentage of full-time faculty with research and teaching specialties in the areas of gender and inequality.

Good Department Seal of Approval

The SWS authors acknowledge, “there are no simple, unambiguous, or fully ‘objective’ means of measuring the gender-friendliness of any given sociology department. We also recognize that women students and students interested in gender issues can receive excellent training from one or two outstanding scholars even in departments with few other women or feminist scholars . . . .” But, to promote gender equity within sociology, they proposed the establishment of three SWS Seals of Approval: (1) The Seal of Approval for Faculty Gender Equity will be awarded to those departments in which 40 percent or more of the faculty are women, (2) The Seal of Approval for Gender Scholarship will be granted to those departments in which more than 25 percent of faculty specialize in gender or inequality scholarship, (3) The Seal of Excellence “will be the most widely coveted of the SWS seals,” and will be awarded to those departments that meet SWS standards for both faculty equity and representation of gender scholarship.

For the past 20 years, more than 40 percent of the doctoral degrees in sociology have been awarded to women, and since 1994, women have received more than half the PhDs in sociology. The SWS authors conclude that “based on the pool of available sociology PhDs, along with the recognition that labor market and organizational barriers impact the employment of new faculty . . . 37 graduate departments, representing 33 percent of the doctoral-granting sociology departments in the country, meet the standards” for its Gender Equity seal by having 40 percent or more female faculty. Another 30 percent of departments (33 departments) have fewer than 30 percent women among their ranks. A total of 24 departments (21 percent) meet the standards for the Gender Scholarship seal. Only 15 departments (13 percent) had no faculty who listed gender as a research or teaching interest.

Departments meeting both criteria (representation of women faculty and representation of gender/inequality scholarship) “are likely to be the most gender- and women-friendly departments in the country,” the report states. Twelve PhD-granting departments met these criteria. One especially interesting finding is that schools rated highly in U.S. News and World Report ranking and/or the NRC decennial report do not necessarily rank well in the SWS evaluation.

The SWS report, including the complete departmental rankings, will be published in the winter 2004 issue of SWS’s newsletter, SWS Network News. For the full listing of sociology graduate programs ranked according to their representation of women faculty, see

The authors welcome suggestions for next year’s report for devising additional incentives to advance the goal of equality and justice. They state, for example, that “this is only an initial assessment and there are many other criteria that could be used to measure gender-friendliness” but hope the seals of approval “will become widely recognized standards of excellence within the discipline.”


American Sociological Association. 2003a. Distribution of Full-Time Faculty in Graduate Departments of Sociology by Rank and Gender, 1997-98 and 2000-01.

American Sociological Association. 2003b. Sociology Degrees Awarded by Level of Degree and Gender, 1966-2001.

Chait, Richard and Cathy Trower. 2001. “Faculty Diversity,” Harvard Magazine.