Diversity and Democracy

Breaking Ranks

Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research is sponsoring a postdoctoral fellowship from 2014 to 2016 to address the theme “Beyond the Stalled Revolution: Reinvigorating Gender Equality in the Twentieth Century.” Now in my fifth decade of trying to make higher education more equitable and inclusive for women, I tried to imagine the most radical proposal for addressing this theme—an approach that might propel a liftoff and get us unstuck from the plateau which so much organizing, hard work, scholarship, courage, leadership, legal advocacy, and policy have enabled us to reach. Taking a cue from second-wave feminism, but with a consciousness more deeply informed by recent multiracial and multicultural work and by the scholarship and practice of intergroup and deliberative dialogue, I have a proposal: all women working on college campuses need to break ranks and tell our stories.

By doing this, we would be embracing Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s insight that “well-behaved women seldom make history” (Harrison 2007). By claiming agency and voice, first with one another and then in the larger context of our institutions, we could open up new democratic spaces that lead to political and social alliances aimed at creating more inclusive colleges and universities. In doing so, we would be modeling transformative civic problem solving for college students, establishing within our own campuses—where the divides are stark—the kinds of reciprocal, generative partnerships we often build outside our campuses and beyond US borders.

Taxonomies and Stations

Higher education is governed by rankings whose differentiating, isolating, and subjugating distinctions keep women divided from one another and fracture democratic movements for full equality. Outwardly, these rankings are measured by such markers as initials before or after your name, whether you have an office (and whether it has a door), the amount of your pay, and whether you wear a uniform. They are reinforced by large structures—academic or student affairs, educational affairs or physical plant, professional or classified staff—each of which has rankings within rankings. They are also, importantly, enforced by unspoken rules, including assumptions about who can fraternize with whom. These rankings and rules have always kept women in our circumscribed places, and while they also affect men, the effects on women who have a precarious footing in academia have been more injurious.

As institutional researchers have documented, women in academia are dispersed quite differently than men by position and rank. Representing employment at the University of California–Berkeley graphically as a set of human bodies, Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden show men with a large head (representing faculty representation), thick neck (representing “non-ladder-rank academic personnel”), and broad shoulders (representing staff), with a tapered torso indicating men’s strong representation in positions of authority (On Campus with Women 2003). By contrast, women are represented with a small head, thin neck, and sloping shoulders, with a pear-shaped torso indicating concentration in positions of lesser authority. Similarly, at Pennsylvania State University, the university’s Commission for Women found that women were 22 percent of trustees, 18 percent of vice presidents, 26 percent of associate-level senior leadership, 18 percent of full professors, 55 percent of instructors, and 55 percent of full-time employees excluding faculty (2008, 5). The Commission for Women also found persistent pay gaps favoring men across all categories of employment except secretarial and clerical positions, and huge variances in pay between women in different positions.

Across institutions, the invisibility of women in non-administrative staff positions—those where they are most numerically dominant—is stunning. After only two years as a bottom-of-the-rung instructor, I, too, had learned not to see these women. Gathering data for my institution’s first Title IX report in 1973, I was keenly aware of how few women faculty there were, but shocked—and then deeply embarrassed—to discover, as data accumulated, that most employees at my institution were women. They were working in different but still prescribed ways and with even less power and influence, fewer perks and protective policies, and definitely less income than my faculty colleagues. These women were handing me food in the cafeteria line, working as departmental secretaries, and mopping the floors I walked on each day, but their numerical dominance escaped me. I had already learned to see only my own kind. It kept all of us less empowered.

Issues of Concern across Ranks

By breaking ranks and telling our stories, we can disrupt the behavioral codes and bridge the structural divides that segregate women from one another—discovering, among other things, what pressing issues each of us face as working women, where our issues differ, and where they cut across rank and level. Issues related to sexual harassment, pay inequities, parental leave, child care, elder care, and advancement are likely to be shared by all, if experienced with particularity. But some issues will be localized. While most faculty have a senate for collective governance, most staff have nothing comparable, unless they are unionized. And some gender-driven policies might not be equally applied: for example, parental leave policies that apply to faculty but not to staff.

It is exciting to think that the rebellious women on campus who dare to join ranks by defying their bounds might be able to invent or reinvent formal structures to accord women power and make sure all women’s voices are heard. Women’s commissions like Penn State’s are one such structure that, at their best, include representation across sectors. Alliances between women across dividing lines will allow us to begin working for each other’s issues: to ensure more expansive pathways for staff to earn GEDs and take college courses; to increase the wages of clerical, service, and maintenance staff; to support a slate of women in elections for important union positions.

Breaking ranks to address these issues would require beginning in small ways, in modest clusters, to step over the trip wires designed to keep us fearful about crossing boundaries. We could start by telling our own stories. How did we come to do what we are doing? How does that differ from what our mothers did? What kind of work did we do before being employed at this campus? What else do we wish we were doing or might do next? What do we hope for the next generation of girls and women?

Breaking ranks and exchanging stories will not be easy. It will mean working through mistrust, unease, and power differentials; it will require careful listening, especially by those with markers of greater rank, whatever those might be. But as we build alliances that quietly evolve over time, we can begin to conspire to make changes so that every woman (indeed, every person) working at our institutions is flourishing. As bell hooks asserts, “inclusive ways of knowing and living offer us the only true way to emancipate ourselves from the divisions that limit our minds and imaginations” (1994).

New Bonds of Freedom

Some might argue that breaking ranks and telling stories are only small gestures that affect too few individuals on campus. But the Global Fund for Women invests its funds in just this kind of work: funding small groups of women, believing that these groups can effect transformative change in their societies. The Global Fund for Women’s theory of change moves across the axes of the individual and the systemic, the informal and the formal (Global Fund for Women 2015). If higher education could be influenced by similar groups of multiracial, multicultural women who have broken ranks in order to enact shared goals, it might be more ready to be the institutional citizen that its local, national, and global communities need—and deserve.


Commission for Women. 2008. Report on the Status of Women at Penn State 2007–2008. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University. http://equity.psu.edu/cfw/docs/cfw_wn_report_panels_07_08.pdf/at_download/file.

Global Fund for Women. 2015. “How We Grant.” http://www.globalfundforwomen.org/apply-for-a-grant/.

Harrison, Kathryn. 2007. “We’re No Angels.” New York Times, September 30.

hooks, bell. 1994. “Black Students Who Reject Feminism.” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13. http://chronicle.com/article/Black-Students-Who-Reject/90392/.

On Campus with Women. 2003. “‘Do Babies Matter? The Effect of Family Formation on the Lifelong Careers of Academic Men and Women.’ Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden.” On Campus with Women 32: 3–4. http://archive.aacu.org/ocww/volume32_3/data.cfm.

Caryn McTighe Musil is senior scholar and director of civic learning and democracy initiatives at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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