Learning to Thrive: How These Three Female Social Work Academics Reached the Top

November 10, 2015 @ 1:38 am

When law professor Carmen Gonzalez visited the Columbia School of Social Work to talk about her book, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, one of her takeaways was that at each full-time academic rank, women are:

  • hired at lower salaries than men (a recent study found that female faculty in the United States on average earn 6.9 percent less than men in similar academic positions),
  • receive less career support than men (such as research leave, relief from service work and research assistants), and
  • are tenured and promoted at lower rates than men.

(For women of color, these figures are even worse.)

But is this bias found to the same extent at the nation’s schools of social work, where roughly two thirds of faculty members are women?

According to a review of the available data on women in social work academia that appeared in the Journal of Research on Social Work Practice (JRSWP) in August of this year, a female-centric academic environment does not necessarily make it easier for female scholars to ascend the professorial ranks and receive compensation on a par with that of their male colleagues.

The authors of the review, Dr. Michael Holosko and two of his colleagues at the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work, went on to examine the citation impact of women academics at the top 25-ranked schools of social work. In the top five of their list of the “best of the best” were three of our School’s most esteemed faculty members:

  • M. Katherine Shear, Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry in Social Work
  • Jane Waldfogel, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor of Social Work for the Prevention of Children’s and Youth Problems
  • Nabila El-Bassel, Willma and Albert Musher Professor of Social Work

CSSW decided to ask Drs. Shear, Waldfogel and El-Bassel to weigh in on some of the points raised in the JRSWP article. What hurdles did they have to cross to achieve success? And what advice can they offer to up-and-coming female scholars in social work and related fields?

Here is what they had to say.

Did you ever feel any special pressures while pursuing a tenure-track position? For instance, did you have to work more than your male counterparts to balance your home and work lives?

KS: My pressures were primarily internal ones. I grew up in the home of a very active feminist—my mother sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment in the Missouri State legislature, where she served for several decades. In my generation, most women who had a family and a career did need to work harder than our male counterparts, to balance work and career. That said, I had the advantage of a wonderful, supportive husband who was also a loving and attentive father.

JW: I think the challenges male and female junior faculty face are very similar. I had a young child when I first started at the School of Social Work, but the same is often true of male faculty, too. Columbia was incredibly supportive of me as a junior faculty member, including being very supportive of my family responsibilities. I was never required to teach a course at a time that would interfere with when I had to drop my daughter off at day care or school, and it was understood that I would not attend evening meetings because they would interfere with my family life.

NE: I sought a tenure-track position soon after I earned my Ph.D., and don’t recall that I needed to work any differently than my male counterparts. Most of the pressure I felt came from the need to find a university setting that would support and enhance my research interests—while also reflecting my strong commitment to a multidisciplinary orientation. I wanted to find a setting with enough resources and infrastructure to support the initial stages of my research so that I could seek external funding in the future, and with an appreciation for intervention and prevention science in social work. In the end I decided to stay on at Columbia. That said, once I joined Columbia’s faculty and began to go through the various steps of the tenure process, I think I did have to work harder and devote more energy to finding a balance between my home and career lives.

What factors have been key to your success? For instance, did you have a mentor?

KS: I did not have strong focused mentorship but rather a series of partial mentors and a group of peer mentors. I believe the two main keys to my success were luck and determination. In academia you get a lot of no’s; it’s the way things are. It’s easy to get discouraged or angry and say, “I quit.” But I am kind of a bull dog. I don’t take no for an answer.

JW: I came to Columbia with a research agenda and experience applying for grants, so I started applying for funding right away. This enabled me to take some time off from teaching and spend more time on research. Another key factor is that I had a great mentor, Irv Garfinkel, as well as wonderful senior colleges and collaborators, Sheila Kamerman and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. Finally, none of us can do this work without great students. I’ve had some fabulous Ph.D. students and post-docs working with me, and that makes a huge difference.

NE: I am fortunate to have had a number of accessible mentors as well as role models whose careers I followed—and then, as my research and academic career matured, they invited me to collaborate with them on research projects. I think it helped that, from the beginning of my career, I had a clear research agenda in mind. From the start, my scholarly interest has been to use “the best science” to design and implement evidence-based solutions to social and public health problems affecting vulnerable populations in the U.S. and globally. It was the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and I focused my attention primarily on HIV, drug use, and gender-based violence. Looking back, I strongly believe that the multidisciplinary nature of my research has been the key to its success. Social and public health problems are complex and require multidisciplinary collaborations to address them. I have spent a number of years collaborating with researchers and scientists from different disciplines and have published in numerous multidisciplinary journals.

What advice would you give to female students interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in social work or a social work-related area?

KS: I started out during my undergrad years thinking I wanted to be a social worker. After a summer internship, I changed my mind and I became a medical doctor and a psychiatrist. And now here I am, a tenured scholar in a school of social work and very proud to be here. Social work is a natural home to interdisciplinary scholars. Its clear, single-minded focus on social justice is unique in academia and very refreshing. Social work focuses on understanding people as both having their own unique make-up and history of experiences and as part of a social community. It considers interventions from multiple perspectives. This is important and exciting. I would advise both women and men interested in improving the lives of disadvantaged people to stick with social work. By the same token, young people with advanced degrees in other fields should look for jobs in schools of social work. Recruiting talent from both inside and outside the field enriches the educational opportunities within social work schools.

JW: Whether you get your Ph.D. at a school of social work or in another field, get as much training in research and methods as you can. There are tools you will be using going forward. Also, get some experience writing proposals and applying for grants because you will need these skills too.

NE: Just as Kathy and Jane said, research experience and multidisciplinary preparation are absolutely critical to success in social work academia in the 21st century. To prepare to excel in a tenure-track faculty position at the best universities, I encourage our Ph.D. students not to end their graduate education with their doctorate but to get involved in a post-doc program for two more years before they move on to a faculty position. I also encourage our students to initiate collaboration with multidisciplinary researchers as early as they can during their Ph.D. program, during their post doc, and beyond. Finding the right mentors and learning networking skills—these are crucial parts of Columbia’s doctoral program curriculum. In fact, I would say our Ph.D. curriculum is an excellent model and one of the strongest in the United States and globally. I am very happy that I earned my Ph.D. from CSSW. Our curriculum is research- and multidisciplinary-oriented, which may explain why many of our faculty come from related disciplines. The program prepares its graduates to successfully compete for the widest range of the best jobs in the marketplace and to collaborate with researchers from other areas.

Thank you, Kathy, Jane, and Nabila for answering our questions—as well as for serving as such positive female senior faculty role models.

—Compiled and edited by ML Awanohara and Eryn Ashleigh Mathewson

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