New Study Examines Gendered and Racialized Perceptions of Faculty Workloads

Researchers, including UMass Amherst’s Joya Misra, say greater transparency, clarity in workload and assignments may grant women more success in wide range of occupations
Joya Misra
Joya Misra

AMHERST, Mass. – An exploration of how higher education faculty members perceive the equity and fairness of workloads in their departments may provide insight for creating pathways for women – and women of color, in particular – to be more successful in a wide range of occupations, according to a new study published online by the journal Gender & Society.

The team of interdisciplinary researchers, including sociologist and lead author Joya Misra of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, observed that workload transparency and clarity, and consistent approaches to assigning classes, advising and service, can reduce perceptions of inequitable and unfair workloads among women, among numerous other findings.

Using data collected from 947 respondents in 53 departments from 22 institutions of higher learning, Misra and her team explored how faculty members perceive workload in their department. Examining differences by race and gender, they identify mechanisms that can help shape their perceptions of greater equity and fairness.

Among their findings were that white women perceive that their departments have less equitable workloads and are less committed to workload equity than white men, while women of color perceive that their departments are less likely to credit their important work through departmental rewards systems than white men.

The team also found that the effects of white women and women of color perceiving inequitable workload and unfair evaluation of workload are reduced if they perceive their department as having transparent and clear workload criteria and fair workload assignment practices.

“Our research suggests that departments can identify and put in place a number of key practices around workload that will improve gendered and racialized perceptions of workload,” they write.

“One interesting insight is that white women recognize that the way workload is distributed is unfair, but women of color identify that their most important work is not valued by their departments,” says Misra, who is a professor of sociology and public policy and director of the Institute for Social Science Research at UMass Amherst. “This shows that both race and gender shape our experiences of workload.”

Misra and her team, which included Alexandra Kuvaeva, KerryAnn O’Meara and Dawn Kiyoe Culpepper of the University of Maryland College Park and Audrey Jaeger of North Carolina State University, also found that faculty members in departments with greater transparency in workloads – knowing not only what they do, but what their colleagues do – perceive their departments as having more equitable workloads. This is important, they say, because it serves as a clear indicator that there are ways to mitigate inequitably assigned workloads and unfairly evaluated performances.

Faculty members in departments with greater clarity in workload – for example, guidelines about what is expected by faculty members at different ranks – also see their departments as having more equitable workloads and fairer evaluation of workload, and fair approaches to workload assignment is another key explanation for how faculty members perceive workload equity and fairness in their departments, their research shows.

Finally, they found that incorporating good practices around transparency, clarity and assignment of teaching and service can help drive out the race and gender effects on perceptions of faculty workload.

“Women of color are more likely to be asked to do service, especially around diversity issues,” Misra says. “It is also harder to retain these faculty members. By identifying that women of color are less likely to think that the most important work they do is credited in their department's rewards systems, we better understand why retention is such a problem for colleges and universities.”

Although the researchers admit that they do not uncover a “magic bullet,” they say their research suggests that departments can identify and put in place key workload practices that improve faculty perceptions of workload. They hope these approaches will help departments retain and promote more white women and women of color.

The solutions that work in universities may work more broadly, they say, as creating greater transparency and clarity in workload and assignments of workload may allow women to be more successful in a wide range of occupations. They write that while women, and especially women of color, may still experience stereotypes from their co-workers, they may be able to compete with their colleagues on fairer terms when workloads are clearly spelled out and apportioned.

“There is substantial research that shows that faculty workloads are not distributed equally by race and gender,” Misra says. “Thanks to this National Science Foundation-funded research, we now know specific strategies that can be used to solve the problem of unequal workload.”

The article, “Gendered and Racialized Perceptions of Faculty Workloads,”is available online via Gender & Society.