An Academic Woman’s Rant of the Week: Service Discrepancies

12 April 2017, 1653 EDT

There’s a new article today on Inside Higher Ed that talks about recent research in the journal Research in Higher Education on discrepancies in faculty service loads.  Not surprisingly, the article finds that “women faculty perform significantly more service than men.” I think this is known; it’s why a lot of women are counseled to just say “no” whenever possible.  As the article states, women are just more likely to “take care of the academic family.”  Groan.

What is, perhaps, somewhat surprising are the differences in the types of service that women and men perform.  Women are more likely to perform internal service (“participation on campus-wide committees, faculty councils, task forces, projects, etc.”) than men but there is not a similar gendered discrepancy when it comes to service work that relates to professional organizations (ie service on journal boards, program chairs, committees related to professional associations like APSA or ISA, etc) or service at the international level.

I think we need to focus on this one a bit more.  I hypothesize that professional organizational service is “better” service when it comes to promotion, outside offers, clout in the field, etc.  It’s the type of service that gets you noticed and can lead to requests to apply for positions, attend invited conferences, be part of grant proposals, etc.  Although internal service on the University Library Committee is important for the working of the university, it is much less likely to get you noticed by your discipline peers.  These dynamics could contribute to issues of a leaky pipeline and the lack of women in full professor positions.

Why are women doing more of the internal service but not more of the external service in professional organizations?  Are women more likely to be asked for one and not the other?   Are men more likely to turn down requests to serve on internal committees but not requests to serve in professional organizations?   Is the message to “just say no” that is often given to women (and, perhaps, not as explicitly to men) regarding service being used too frequently on requests outside the university and not on requests from inside the university?  I’m not sure and the article doesn’t give a lot of insights into these questions.  Luckily, Sara Mitchell (Iowa) and Vicki L. Hesli (Iowa) have some excellent research on the topic  where they find that, within political science:

“the service women provide is more typically “token” service, as women are less likely to be asked by their colleagues to serve as department chair, to chair committees, or to lead academic programs. ”

Double groan.  We should all be encouraged to do our part to “take care of the academic family” and, like the Research in Higher Education article concludes, there should probably be more awareness in university administration on how gender is associated with the type of service burdens faculty face.  Also, I wonder to what extent we should be telling our students to consider both their own self-interest and discrepancies in service loads when deciding whether to accept or decline both internal and external service.  “Just say no” may not always be wise advice for all service work.  And, “do your part” should probably be advice given to all scholars, too.