Progress, But Not Equity: A Look at the Gender Equity Council at Texas Tech

The President’s Gender Equity Council studies issues related to gender and sexual orientation and recommends changes to make Texas Tech friendlier to these groups.

Gender Equity Council

(L-R) Elizabeth Sharp, Judi Henry and Charlotte Dunham

In August 1971, Judi Henry left her hometown of Lovington, New Mexico, for the big-city life of Lubbock, enrolling at the newly minted Texas Tech University.

Also in August 1971, the United States celebrated the first Women's Equality Day – Aug. 26, the anniversary of the day in 1920 the 19th Amendment was certified, giving women the right to vote.

It's been 35 years. Henry has stuck with her alma mater, earning a doctorate in education and working as dean of students before becoming the senior women's administrator in athletics. Equality for women has been less linear – progressing in fits and starts, with women still lagging in pay equity, promotions and management opportunities, even in higher education.

Texas Tech, while struggling with many of these issues, is proactively looking for solutions, led in part by the President's Gender Equity Council. This council, of which Henry is a longtime member, works to provide support and a voice for women and the LGBTQ community on campus, who remain underrepresented at the highest levels.

"I'm optimistic right now," said Elizabeth Sharp, chairwoman of the council. "I think we're living in a time when more and more people are starting to speak out; they know things are not equal."

The past

When Henry was in Student Affairs in the 1990s, she and the director of Women's Studies worked with then-president Donald Haragan to create a committee focused on preventing sexual harassment. That morphed into a provost's committee on gender, with Charlotte Dunham, director of Women's Studies, completing a survey on Texas Tech's performance in terms of gender equity.

"It's what you expect, what you find in most major universities: women clustered in the lower ranks, with lower salaries, even after controlling for time and rank," she said. "There was clearly a need. It clearly wasn't equity."

Judi Henry

Judi Henry

That report included a recommendation that a standing committee be appointed and given resources to address gender equity. In 2004 the President's Gender Equity Council was created, with Dunham as the first chairwoman. Sociology professor Martha Smithey succeeded Dunham, and Sharp, associate professor of human development and family studies, took over as chair in 2014.

While the activities of the Gender Equity Council have shifted in the last decade, the focus on employment, climate and family have remained central to its mission. Although committees took on major issues that affect the entire university and culture, they also looked at ways to help individual women succeed. Sharp, who was a member of the committee before she was chair, was part of the family committee that documented the need for mother-friendly rooms throughout campus.

Henry remembers the early days when male and female athletes were in separate departments and appreciates seeing the university adapt as the council did.

"What's neat about it is it grew into something bigger," Henry said. "I don't think the goal became accomplished, but the mission became broader and more encompassing."

The present

When Henry started working, both in Student Affairs and athletics, she was the only woman. At a recent meeting of senior athletics administrators, it was about even.

"You're beginning to see some recognition of diversity in leadership teams," she said. "We're beginning to see small increases in women and minorities in upper-level administration. Part of that is a matter of the fact that we're behind in history and it takes time to make up for that lag."

"I've seen progress, but it's not equity," Dunham added. "There's been some progress, and there's been some going backwards."

That improvement has come in the form of salary, more women in administrative positions and in typically male-dominated fields like business and engineering.

"One of our best features is we work really well with several entities at Texas Tech that are already doing amazing things," Sharp said.

Sharp, who is in her third year as chairwoman of the council, pointed to a number of developments the Gender Equity Council has implemented. Last fall she and several others organized the Women Faculty Writing Program, which is designed to help female professors set aside time every week for research, writing and publications. Research is critical for tenure-track professors, but often it is pushed aside by other needs, especially by female professors. This has resulted in fewer female professors promoted nationwide.

She also highlighted the Women's Leadership Institute, a program for undergraduate students. These women are already leaders, and the institute, now starting its third year, allows them to network with each other and other women leaders, such as Marsha Sharp, the legendary Texas Tech women's basketball coach, hone their leadership skills and access opportunities they may not have otherwise had.

Charlotte Dunham

Charlotte Dunham

The institute also is planning a conference for Texas Tech women undergraduate students and local high school girls and will invite similar leadership institutes from universities throughout the country. While the conference will take place in April and has not been finalized yet, Elizabeth Sharp said it will include workshops about leadership and negotiation and opportunities to see what women's leadership institutes at other universities are doing.

"It appears there are growing numbers of women leadership institutes at universities responding to large inequity issues," she said. "We see gender disparities really intensely with leadership roles."

To that end, when Texas Tech University System vice chancellor John Opperman was interim president at Texas Tech earlier this year, he signed the Moving the Needle pledge, a national campaign to achieve the goal of women making up half of the country's college and university upper-level administrators. President Lawrence Schovanec, who continues to be a staunch advocate for the Gender Equity Council, is upholding that commitment as well.

"It is the responsibility of administrators, faculty, students and staff to proactively support an environment of gender equality," Schovanec said. "I am encouraged by progress made at Texas Tech, but we must continue to work to ensure an equitable and inclusive environment for all."

The future

How is Texas Tech doing?

This question, posed to Dunham, is met by a pause, then a long sigh.

"We're trying," she said at last. "Can I say that? We're trying. Climate is really hard to change, but improving representation of women is going to help that."

Sharp worries society at large looks around, sees Hillary Clinton running for president, female athletes having the big storylines at the Rio Olympics and women running a few Fortune 500 companies and believe the United States offers equal opportunities to everyone.

"The assumption is we're there. We've achieved it," she said. "Really, a lot of people believe everything is already equal socially, economically, politically. Unfortunately, if we look at the data, that is inaccurate on almost every level."

Elizabeth Sharp

Elizabeth Sharp

The good news that each woman echoed is that she is hopeful for the future. Again, Sharp is optimistic – more people are paying attention to sexism, gender equality, sexual assault and the gender pay gap. Texas Tech, just by having the Gender Equity Council, groups for women staff, faculty and students and supportive administrators, may be above average.

"I like to think Texas Tech is making great strides," Sharp said. "Other university councils are amazed at how much we're doing. We're also at a great time right now inasmuch as there's just wider public realization that, 'oh, maybe everything's not equal.'"

Henry also emphasized the importance of including men in the march toward gender equity. She mentioned Haragan and then-vice president of student affairs Robert Ewalt in the committee's early days and the support of Schovanec and Juan Muñoz, senior vice president for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement and vice provost for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs.

Dunham, as she considers the future of gender equity in higher education, takes comfort in data, which does seem to demonstrate a continued march, however slow, toward that goal. She's not sure the women of her generation will overcome the inequity they faced early in their careers, but she's more optimistic about women entering higher education now.

"Research shows when a department reaches a critical mass of women, that's when you see real change," she said. "As more and more programs get to that critical mass – and it doesn't have to be half – I think that's going to be a good thing."