Commission on the Status of Women

Annual Report: 2005 – 2006


The leadership of the commission on the Status of Women changed in the fall of 2005, as co-chairs Carolyn Mutter (Assistant Director, IRI) and Victoria de Grazia (Professor, History) took over from co-chairs Kim Kastens (Senior Research Scientist, LDEO) and Christia Mercer (Professor, Philosophy).


The commission met on a monthly basis from October to May and had as its focus two primary areas of concern, both of which had been signaled during the Academic Year 2004-5. The first regards a study on attrition of PhD students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, for which Kim Kastens and Lucy Drotning provided significant leadership, with contributions from a number of others. A brief summary of preliminary findings and draft recommendations of the study are provided at the end of this report.


The second area considers efforts and analyses underway on childcare needs at Columbia University, an initiative being led by the Office for Diversity under the leadership of Jean Howard, with consultants from Bright Horizons. Here, commission roles have included participation in consultant presentations (leadership), discussions of findings (all), and recommendations for areas of particular concern (all). The study also provides an assessment of options for the University in consideration of childcare, most focused on the following five areas, for which the commission provides input:


Options in consideration of childcare at Columbia University

University policy – in addition to the policy areas under consideration from the report, the commission reiterates the need for more equitable policies regarding maternity leave, especially as concerns graduate students. The financial burden of students taking maternity leave is likely to be small, given the many other considerations that go into decisions to start a family while under significant demands from school. Accordingly, this is an area in which the University can intervene to create a much more positive role with respect to the family, at relatively small cost (in future, it would be better to have the data to back this up).


Information services – information is needed at many levels, and not just for women with children. Information is needed for departments undertaking recruitment, for people considering childbearing, and for current parents and the departments that employ them. University investments in areas that enable such a balance are likely to go a long way to recruit and retain staff, as well as making them happier at Columbia. The commission recommends the creation of a full-time work-life office to improve information flow across multiple levels of the University, as needed to inform and maintain needs of departments and staff, especially regarding issues in support of attracting and maintaining diversity in the ranks.


Financial support options – the commission recognizes that this is an area that requires further analysis and consideration, but recommends inclusion of graduate and early professional staff in consideration of financial support for childcare, whether implemented through scholarships awarded by centers, or through a sliding scale subsidy. The commission notes that UAW has implemented a childcare subsidy for its Columbia support staff rank, and urges the University to consider the near-term incentives for retaining young professionals as well as current longer-term incentives (e.g., tuition benefits for dependants).  It may be that a time variable benefit structure with incentives that can be realized at different critical points may result in better outcomes for the University and the professional over the long run, given the different times at which the professional staff may feel the most need.


Community partnerships – the involvement of the community is a critical element in any solution the University considers. The commission endorses a multi-prong approach to meeting needs in childcare, and this has to include roles for community partnerships.

Direct provision of childcare – in addition to other support structures, the commission agrees that direct provision of childcare by Columbia University is an important area for investment. The commission feels that such support communicates the perception that the institution puts a high value on its employees’ quality of life, and that this is important to building a comfortable environment for faculty, staff, and students – whether they would be using such facilities or not. The preliminary survey of childcare needs suggests that a Columbia University Center would serve real needs as well as having an important symbolic value.

Related areas for consideration


Sustaining diversity – beyond recruitment, what are the most important factors for retaining women professionals as a targeted diversity group? With the creation of a Diversity Office led by Jean Howard, and the ADVANCE initiative underway at the Earth Institute, the University has made great strides in identifying issues and processes affecting diversity. Further, the recent announcement by the University administration to continue the Diversity Office is an important commitment, especially if the mandate for diversity extends across ranks, including researchers and other faculty, as well as graduate students. How does this translate into perceptions of a better work environment for all, but especially regarding the targeted individuals who bring diversity into the ranks? The commission feels there are at least two important areas of work and investment: a) continued effort toward transparency in work and career processes, and b) heightened investment in monitoring and reporting – information gathering and analysis that provides the evidence upon which the best informed policies and decisions can be made (see also below).


Analytics in a world class university – the other area for which the commission has continued concern regards an apparent underinvestment in University self-analytics. The analytics staff on board have been invaluable contributors to the studies undertaken by the commission to date, but the study areas are limited by the very limited number of excellent staff able to undertake these. Columbia is a world-class research university and should apply the rigor of its research centers to its consideration of its own achievements. It appears to lag other world-class research universities in this regard. Data in support of self-analytics are needed in consideration of the very important standing issues around salary equity, as well as for consideration of student attrition, gender balance, and beyond. Consideration of future status reports, and the data necessary to assess whether progress in priority directions is being made, are within the grasp of this great institution. Consistency is needed in reporting, data capture, and quality control that cannot be provided by ad-hoc commissions or committees. These groups can review and interrogate the data on new concerns and ideas – but only if the data exist in the first place. This investment, however large it may have to be will repay itself amply by enabling the University to demonstrate the equity of its policies and eventually to anticipate, as well correct inequities as they arise.


Male and female PhD students in the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Highlights of preliminary findings and draft recommendations


The below derives from a much more detailed report that has been completed and will be presented to various members of the University Administration in the near future. It provides key areas of awareness for the Senate, with the substantive basis remaining in the report itself. Following presentation and interaction with the University Administration, the report will be posted to the University Web Site for open Senate access.

Preliminary findings


Overall numbers– A large number of young scholars and scientists are not receiving the degree they came here to get. Of the cohort that entered ten years ago, 164 individuals (44%) left Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences without the PhD, for reasons that are not known. In general, Columbia’s PhD attrition statistics are similar to other universities across the country; however, unlike other universities in its class, Columbia does not collect data on students who exit prior to receiving a degree and it consequently does not have an ability to investigate trends, consider policies or introduce interventions to lessen future losses.


Attrition among divisions–The strongest signal within this data set is the impact of disciplinary division on the pattern of attrition and graduation. Across the data set, Natural Science students are more likely to graduate and less likely to attrite than Social Science students, who in turn are more likely to graduate and less likely to attrite than Humanities students. In all divisions, there is a high rate of attrition in the first three years post-matriculation in most cohorts. In Natural Sciences the attrition rate tends to level off thereafter. In Humanities and Social Sciences attrition tends to nibble away at the cohort across the entire trajectory; this, coupled with long average time to completion in those divisions, means that students have attrited after investing 8 to 10 years of their lives in a Columbia Arts & Sciences PhD program.


Attrition and gender– Women are unevenly distributed across the three divisions, most heavily concentrated in Humanities, least well represented in Natural Sciences. In other words, women are most strongly represented in the division with the worst graduation record, and least well represented in the division with the best graduation record. As a consequence, if we compare the graduation trajectory for men versus women across an entire cohort, women show more attrition, less graduation, or both, for almost all years post-matriculation in all cohorts from 1993 to 2002.


Attrition by gender within divisions– There is no pattern of one discipline having consistently more attrition among its women than among its men or vice versa. Men’s and women’s attrition curves follow the same general shape with most rapid attrition in the first three years; it does not seem to be the case that men and women tend to drop out at different stages in the graduate school trajectory.

Draft recommendations


Enable departments to gather data on exiting students– It is critical for Columbia to better understand why students leave without attaining the degree they came for. This is best accomplished by creating a standard set of tools for surveying and tracking students, to be administered at the departmental level, and to inform institutional analyses at a central level. These analyses, in turn, provide an investigative basis upon which better decisions about students and student policies can be considered. Incentives may be needed to ensure the regular provision of high-quality data by departments.


Enable students to take leave for compelling personal reasons without penalty– A student in good standing who is faced by a compelling personal challenge should be able to take advantage of a regular process of application for a formal leave of absence, during which time he or she should, at a minimum, be eligible to pay to continue regular student benefits during that period. The current loss of university status, including benefits, housing, and access to libraries, is anticipated to present a significant disincentive for students to take leave for legitimate purposes. The ambiguous policies regarding students considering medical leave, presumably including maternity leave, may also represent disincentives. With regard to maternity leave in particular, the commission notes that competitor institutions (Stanford University and MIT) have made strides in policies to enable students to continue their studies. The commission strongly recommends consideration of a maternity leave policy for graduate students. The commission notes also that the adoption of policies that limit the period over which the PhD can be attained should be paralleled by further consideration of acceptable rationale and transparent processes for consideration and granting of formal leave without penalty.