A Woman’s Place—in the Academy

Talk about career setbacks.

Dr. Sherrill Adams came to Penn’s medical school two decades ago, expecting to work under the guidance of the department chair who hired her. Two months later the man died. “For the next seven years I was the department step-child,” Adams recalls. “I was the only person in the department without tenure, I had no laboratory space of my own, and I had no one to advise or mentor me.”

Now a professor and chair of biochemistry in the School of Dental Medicine, Adams seeks better treatment toward junior faculty—particularly women, for whom the academy is often seen as being “relatively inhospitable.” The good news is that, “when we do treat our faculty well, put them in a collegial environment with proper support and mentoring, they can thrive.”

Adams was a panelist during a Homecoming weekend discussion sponsored by the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women, “Stepping Stones and Hurdles: Managing a Career in Academia.” Made up of Penn alumnae, TCPW supports the goal of increasing the number and visibility of women faculty. 

After Adams was denied promotion in her first job at Penn, she was offered a research-track position in the dental school. Though that position had little job security, it did put Adams in a nurturing environment that eventually led to her current roles. With that in mind she created a mentoring program in her department a few years ago. “It hasn’t been in place long enough to know how it will affect the promotion rate. But I can tell you it has positively affected the morale of junior faculty, because I think they have a much better understanding of what they have to do to succeed.” Adams hopes to see a University-wide effort of this kind one day.

Beyond that, universities must establish “rational, family-friendly policies,” she says. “I don’t think we can realistically expect women faculty to spend 60 to 70 hours a week here at the University, which is what they’ve been doing, and then go home and spend 30 to 40 hours a week doing their other job, taking care of their children.”

Dr. Rebecca Bushnell, professor of English and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, negotiated her working hours up front when she took on her first job in the college administration. With two daughters at home, then 10 and 14, Bushnell decided, “I would serve the University in a way that fit the shape of my family life. I would get to leave at 4 [each day] and work at home on Fridays. What I gave in return were hours of email and phone calls at home.”

Her next challenge was working in a male-dominated culture. “There were times I felt excluded from the world of the locker room and the squash court where, it was implied, the real business was being done, the real conversations taking place,” she said. “I have learned how to make sure business happens in my place, at my time.”

Dr. Janice Madden, professor of regional science, sociology, urban studies and real estate and director of the women’s studies program, notes that Penn has designed some policies to help level the playing field for men and women, but they haven’t always worked in practice.

One policy adds up to two years to the tenure track for faculty having children. The extension means additional time to publish and bring in research dollars. But Madden adds, it applies “to all parents, regardless of what the parent’s involvement is in actually raising the children … ending any correction it might have for women who are primary caregivers.”


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