Wednesday, September 15, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 17

Cougar Comics Online
Ihrig on Students

Staff Editorial

Editorial Cartoon


About the Cougar

Where have the women gone? They're still hereBy 

Angi Patton
Guest Columnist 

Admittedly, there are times when Houston journalist Tim Fleck should rename his Houston Press "Insider" column "Lust for Disgust."

Occasionally, though, Fleck stumbles upon something truly newsworthy while he is rooting around. "Where have all the women gone" was one of Fleck's midsummer columns that revealed the absence of women in leadership positions at UH.

This was a follow-up piece to his earlier column, "Circle Those Wagons!" in which Fleck used the University's recent entanglement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as kindling for his pyrotechnic antics.

The summer heat could not satisfy Fleck's fondness for sensational sizzle. In his incendiary fashion, Fleck aimed his magnifying glass at UH, and impishly watched as it fried on the pavement. As autumn approaches and the flames have died down to the level of old news, it seems an opportune time to stir the smoldering debris and rekindle some of the heat.

Had Fleck dug past the topsoil and suspended his scorched-earth policy, he might have unearthed a more fertile story. As he attempted to incriminate further the central administration at UH, Fleck focused his article on senior-level positions, noting that women are conspicuously absent from the president's Cabinet and the Deans' Council.

While it is true that women are woefully missing from both of these executive bodies, Fleck's assumptions that this is evidence of an executive plot were short-sighted. Fleck failed to ask one critical question: "Where do senior level administrators in higher education come from?"

Had he done so, Fleck would have broken through the dense clay that was bending his investigative shovel.

Question: How many ranked female faculty are at UH in comparison to their male counterparts? Answer: in the fall of 1998, there were 197 ranked female faculty (23 percent) in comparison to 659 (77 percent) males. Additionally, of the 363 full professors on campus, 42 (11 percent) are women.

Digging the hole deeper, only five of the 44 academic departments are chaired by women (11 percent), and of the 24 associate deans of academic divisions, four (17 percent) are women.

Individuals on an administrative track often begin their careers at the level of department head or associate dean. In addition, senior-level positions are typically reserved for those who have achieved the rank of full professor.

Taking these criteria into consideration, the opportunity for a woman to achieve a senior-level leadership position in higher education is statistically remote at UH. These circumstances, while incriminating, serve to undermine rather than support Fleck's theory that absentia femella is a consequence of executive bias.

For insight into the gender imbalance at UH, Fleck needs to replace his mischievous magnifying glass with a panoramic viewfinder that will bring into focus the pervasive, but camouflaged, issue of diversity.

Experience tells us that the head and heart are not always in sync with one another. Our heads nod in agreement to the ideal of diversity, both in gender and ethnicity, because it appeals to our sense of reason.

Our hearts are slower to act, holding tightly to custom and fermented belief systems. On the conversational level we cordially accept, and even graciously promote, an egalitarian work environment, but words stop cold at the border where the reality of differences shines brightly and we are momentarily blinded by uncertainty and fear of change. 

Unable to recognize the value of differences, we cover our eyes, turn away and walk back toward the comfort of familiarity and sameness. In many respects, those of us in academia are all guilty -- men and women alike. Our collective bias is based on our adherence to academic rules of conduct whereby we define excellence based on an antiquated paradigm that was developed by and for a homogeneous culture.

Diversity is accepted as long as it conforms to existing standards. And yet, conformity is the antithesis of diversity. Under these conditions, distinctiveness is not digested and metabolized, but swallowed whole.

The potential for differences to add color and flavor is lost to a ravenous appetite for meat and potatoes. The academy is left with a bad case of indigestion because diversity, consumed in this way, turns acidic and loses its nourishing potential.

Unaware, we unwittingly continue to write job descriptions with established levels of expertise and credentials that exclude not only women, but other talented individuals who don't fit the mold. Meaningful change will require the reconsideration and broadening of standards and criteria that shape the academic culture.

We must resist the "lowering of standards" assumption that arises whenever an existing paradigm is challenged. Rather than squint and retreat in the face of differences, we must find the courage to advance with an open and steady gaze.

The fact that there are fewer women in empowered positions at UH is obvious. We could choose to address this situation in an obvious way, by hiring and promoting more women. The more subtle revelation is that these inequitable circumstances reveal a systemic myopic condition.

The danger of tolerating our nearsightedness is that we will ultimately be blindsided by events that are out of our range of vision. If the institution is to move forward, it must open its eyes and bring focus to the blurred conditions that underlie gender imbalance. The senior administration may not be the cause of this inequity, but it could help facilitate the cure.

Where have all the women gone? At UH, they're still here. They have no place to go. This will change, however. It is only a matter of vision and courage.

Patton is an associate professor of art.
She can be reached at patton@uh.edu.

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