The March 16th edition of Inside Higher Ed’s Daily News Update contained a story with the headline, “A Win for Academic Mothers”. Evdokia Nikolova, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin sued the school because the administration denied her tenure. Nikolova believes she didn’t receive tenure in the engineering school because she is a woman and was pregnant at the time of the decision.
A federal jury agreed with her and awarded her a million dollars for past pain and suffering, two million in further damages and another $50,000 for back pay and benefits. The four page article goes on to detail the points that both Nikolova and UT Austin made at the trial.
A few points that Nikolova’s legal team made stood out to me. An expert witness discussed the conflict between the ideal mother and the ideal academic scientist. A science professor must show complete devotion to their research, writing and teaching while a mother is supposed to do the same while caring for and raising her children. There are probably not enough hours in the day for the ideal women to do both jobs at the same time.
We often assume that misogyny and sexism are the most prevalent during the hiring phase. This usually means that white men are privileged over everyone else in getting higher. Nikolova’s case showed that such privilege becomes even more pronounced when colleges have to uh decide on promotions and other financial rewards for any given professor.
The most damning aspect of Nikolova’s case against UT Austin were the following statistics. In her engineering department there are 53 tenured faculty members but. only four are women. Since 2014 UT Austin began considering hiring Nikolova to the present, 9 male assistant professors got tenure while the two women who also went up for tenure did not receive it.
Nikolova’s case made me think about some of the women I discuss in my manuscript Dames, Dishes and Degrees. Arthur Schlesinger, a tenured professor at Harvard University, told Constance Green that she cannot pursue a graduate degree in history because she was a mother of three who lived in Holyoke. He didn’t think she would be able to make the trip and do the work. Green later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her pioneering urban history of Washington DC.
A generation, after Constance Green, Miriam Slater did manage to have a successful academic career at Hampshire college. At the beginning of her educational journey when she was an older student returning to school at Douglass College, she became pregnant. Her female professor and mentor assumed Miriam’s pregnancy was the end of her aspirations for an academic career. Miriam proved this professor and many misogynistic men wrong.
Nikolova story reminds me of an experience I had when I was attempting to gain academic employment. I went for an interview for an assistant professor tenure track position at Wesleyan University. It was going OK when the white male professor interviewing me asked if I thought I would be having any distractions in the coming year. I had no idea what he was talking about, and I tried to answer the best I could. After the interview ended, I realized he want to find out if he was pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Asking me this in a direct and easily understandable way would have been illegal.
I didn’t get the job. I don’t know if my failure to provide an answer to his ambiguous question made any difference in the decision. Years later the misogyny embedded in that interview is still stunning. In researching and writing Dames, Dishes and Degrees, I realized that I, as well as society, have many misplaced assumptions about how much things have changed for women since the 60s and 70s.While it is true that many women have made tremendous strides in in professional employment, Nikolova’s case indicates that misogyny and the patriarchy are still alive and well.