equity · job notes · promotion

Guest Post: Heliopause: Becoming a Female Full Professor

In 2007, I received the Letter from my Dean. Like my favourite spacecraft of all time, Voyagers I and II, I was approaching the equivalent of the Heliopause. I think that Heliopause fits the problem of promotion in the academy better than the idea of the Glass Ceiling. The Heliopause marks the very edge of our solar system, the place where the magnetic field generated by the sun declines, and magnetic fields coming from beyond the solar system become stronger. Beyond the Heliopause, there is interstellar space. Nothing made by human beings has ever travelled so far and no one thought that it was possible to approach this boundary. And even Voyagers I and II weren’t built to travel there. They were supposed to break down after their missions to the outer planets in the 1980s, but they did not. Their intelligent design meant that ten years into the millenium, decades after they transmitted the most beautiful pictures ever made of the planets Saturn, Neptune and Uranus, they are still out there, providing new data about what is largely unknown.

Okay, back to the letter from the Dean. It told me that I qualified for promotion to Full Professor and it invited me to apply for promotion. After more than a decade at my university, I knew what the letter really meant: I was approaching the end of the pay scale for Associate Professor and was being “invited” to make the jump to Full. Like the Voyagers, I wasn’t “supposed” to get this letter this early in my career. But there I was, staring at my the evidence of my own Heliopause, a magnetic field I couldn’t see but which nevertheless powerfully determines the direction in which I move.

Like magnetic fields, lines of power and authority are hard to detect, but they move through everything we do. This is particularly evident in the mysteries of tenure and promotion, processes which affect everyone who has a permanent position in the professoriat but which are little understood. For example, it is not a given that every professor becomes a full professor in the Canadian system. In my institutions, there are few overt benefits: our pay incrementation does rise, but only for a few years and the standards for getting increments rises too. And there isn’t a bonus for getting promoted. But the hidden benefits are considerable. Even though the criteria for promotion primarily are based on research record, it is tacitly assumed that full professors can take up all kinds of leadership roles in the university. This isn’t actually true, because I know a lot of Associate Professors who are better at administration and teaching than many Full Professors. But it’s a common assumption, and so in the academy it takes on the force of truth. Becoming a Full Professor is a personal milestone, but it also brings cultural capital with it. Cultural capital is what guarantees other kinds of capital in the academic world.

So, I knew that I was being “invited” to apply for promotion, but the invitation was not really all that open. I didn’t have to apply. If I did, there is no measurable way to ensure that I would be successful. Like everything else in the academy, getting a promotion depends on the evaluations of my colleagues in my department, my faculty and my field. I would be judged and hopfully not found wanting. It was scary just thinking about what being turned down would mean, professionally and personally. I asked myself: “is my record good enough?” I didn’t know.

Many academic women answer this question by not going for promotion. Fewer women than men apply for promotion to full professor. Of those who pass through the Heliopause of promotion, most are men: in 2007, the Canadian Equity Audit reported that only 20% of Full Professors in Canadian postsecondary education were women. Compare that to the level of Associate Professor where 35.8% were female, and Assistant Professor, where the figure was 42.9%. The figures are only slightly better in English, my area. The Modern Language Association found out in 2009 that only 32% of Full Professors in their membership were female, but almost half of the Associate Professors were (49%). That survey also reported that on average, women take between one to three and a half years longer than men to apply for promotion. In research-intensive institutions, that figure jumps to more than eight years longer.

It’s clear from these figures that there is a significant gender gap in the professoriate, and that women wait longer than men to make that trip through the Heliopause. There are a lot of reasons why this might be true. The magnetic lines of force in the academy can make the idea of promotion unthinkable for those women who have to juggle more responsibilities at home than some men do, and who spend more time teaching than doing research, the thing which–like it or not–is the key factor to getting a promotion. It’s also about self-confidence and time: women in the MLA survey reported that with collegial colleagues and mentorship, release time for research, a clear system for promotion and the confidence they gained from going to conferences, it was easier to believe that they could apply for promotion and be successful.

Meanwhile, back at my institution, I wondered what to do. I knew about the Equity Audit statistics. So I asked the last woman in my department who became a full professor to visit my office and talk to me about whether I should go for promotion or not. We got out a list of faculty in my department and counted the number of full professors who were women. Guess what: in 2007, there were twenty-two male full professors, and only six female full professors. Only six! My colleague and I looked at each other. “Okay,” she said, “you had better do it.” I thought so too. Another colleague told me that about fifteen years before, the number had actually been higher because there had been eight women.

So I applied, and I got the promotion. Even though it was “early” for a woman like me to apply, I decided to buck the statistics and show other women that we didn’t have to wait until we were in our 50s to become full professors. Although I don’t think that there were immediate benefits other than the temporary increase in salary incrementation, I’d say that the supportive letters in my file from my referees and the fact that my junior female colleagues have said that they can see that it’s possible made it worth it. On a personal level, I’m glad that I took this step because I proved something to myself. Now I evaluate tenure cases, and I recently had the satisfaction of fighting for one woman in another institution who almost didn’t get tenure because the criteria for her were made much harder than for her male colleagues. I know that I got to weigh in on that issue because I’m a full professor, and I got to make a difference.

What lies beyond the Heliopause? I’m only beginning to find out. But I know as my junior female colleagues and all of my colleagues who belong to minority groups join me out there, I’ll be in good company as we make that journey together.

– Julie Rak
University of Alberta

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Heliopause: Becoming a Female Full Professor

  1. Thank you for writing about this. I have personally encouraged 2 women with excellent research records to consider applying for full professorship. They had either not even considered it or thought it inappropriate for some reason. These were not women who had doubtful research records but women clearly excelling. I think many just don't really consider it an option and that really does have to change.

    Your last point is also a good one. Full professors have the power to influence how certain processes work from positions within the processes. This is not insignificant. If we want processes to change, we need to be in a position to help change them.


  2. Julie thank you for writing this. First, you've demystified a process I am no where near experiencing, yet hope to experience at some point. Second, you've underscored the importance of two other things we've talked about her: the necessity of celebrating your own success and the importance of creating networks of discourse among women at all levels of the profession. And you mentioned the Heliopause! Seriously, this post is incredibly informative and so appreciated.


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