How “The Chair” Exposes the Truth About Women Faculty

How “The Chair” Exposes the Truth About Women Faculty
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
By Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on September 10, 2021

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Wood-paneled offices. Free peach pies. A Hollywood star in a Speedo. Netflix's "The Chair" makes academia look glamorous in spite of the crises piling up at the feet of Sandra Oh's Professor Ji-Yoon Kim.

But "The Chair" is more than an office dramedy set in the halls of higher education. It also exposes the harsh reality of academia for women –– especially women of color.

"The Chair" and Women in Academia

Professor Kim has a new title in the English Department at Pembroke University: She's the new chair. But the title comes with more problems than Kim expected.

She's the first woman –– and the first person of color –– to chair the department. And as the crises pile up, Kim worries. "I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes."

The series follows Kim as she rushes from one end of campus to the other putting out fires and trying to please everyone. When she manages to escape the campus, Kim cares for a daughter who expresses disappointment by screaming, "No wonder no one wanted to marry you."

And Kim isn't the only woman on "The Chair" barely keeping her head above water.

An untenured Black woman considers leaving Pembroke because she doesn't want to be the only Black faculty member in her department. And a senior female professor reflects on her past and wonders if holding her tongue destroyed her career.

But is life for women faculty really as chaotic as "The Chair" suggests?

Fact vs. Fiction About Women Faculty

The faculty on "The Chair" worry about tenure, job security, and student evaluations. But the show cannily reveals how these issues hit some professors harder than others.

Take the three female faculty members featured on "The Chair." Not one has reached the lofty title "full professor" –– not even Joan Hambling, who devoted 32 years of her career to Pembroke.

And that's no accident. At the assistant and associate professor levels, women achieved or were close to achieving parity with men in 2018. But women held only about 39% of tenured positions and just around 34% of full professorships, the highest rank in academia. The situation grows even more dire for women of color –– as "The Chair" captures.

Race and Gender in Academia

In "The Chair," the predominantly male and white tenured faculty kick back and relax, while two women of color scramble to stay above water.

Yaz McKay, the department's only Black woman, worries about her tenure process in nearly all of her scenes. In contrast, Elliot Rentz, the full professor in charge of shepherding McKay through the process, spends his days lamenting the unwillingness of undergraduates to sit still while he reads 30-year-old lecture notes.

If anything, the fact that women of color make up 2 of 3 women faculty members in the department is the most unrealistic portrayal on "The Chair." According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Asian women made up only 5% of full-time faculty in 2018, while Black women made up only 3%.

Asian women made up only 5% of full-time faculty in 2018, while Black women made up only 3%.

The overrepresentation of white professors more closely reflects reality. The NCES reports that white men made up 40% of all full-time faculty in 2018, with another 35% of positions held by white women.

On "The Chair," battles between the near-retirement, mid-career, and early-career faculty ring true. As of 2020, 37% of tenure-track professors were 55 or older –– significantly more than the 23% in the general workforce. And of those older faculty, women made up only 25% and people of color 16%.

Women and the Adjunct Trap

The Ivy League patina on "The Chair" does hide a dark reality in higher education: The increasing reliance on adjunct faculty who have no job security. As of 2015, non-tenure-track positions made up 70% of professor positions.

The majority of these contingent faculty members are women. In 2018, women held 57% of instructor roles, an underpaid role without job security. The adjunct trap also assigns Black and Latina professors to positions with less power. Black and Latina faculty make up a larger share of instructors compared to tenure-track positions.

Where are the adjuncts in "The Chair"? Perhaps they're the harried-looking instructors in the background scenes, carrying stacks of papers since –– unlike the tenured faculty –– they don't even get an office.

While faculty at department meetings debate enrollment numbers and the chair worries about securing tenure for the department's lone assistant professor, they conveniently ignore the contingent faculty. This fits with many adjuncts' reported experience.

The Reality for Women in Higher Education

"The Chair" shines a light on an uncomfortable truth often glossed over: Academia was created by and for white men. Anyone outside of that demographic runs into structural inequities and roadblocks.

Take Hambling's confession during a lonely meeting in the Title IX office. Thirty-two years earlier, she accepted a much lower salary than her male colleague. Instead of complaining, she bit her tongue. "I thought about saying something," Hambling says, "but I didn't want to be that woman."

Academia's pay gap problem persists. In 2018, women professors earned only about 81% of their male colleagues' salaries on average. In real numbers, that amounts to a salary loss of around $18,000 per year.

In 2018, women professors earned only about 81% of their male colleagues' salaries on average.

On campus, gendered expectations shape women's experiences. According to a 2016 study, women faculty take on more service work than men.

These tasks include serving on faculty committees, supervising programs, and mentoring students. And they typically come with no extra compensation. They also take time away from what matters for tenure and promotion: research and teaching.

Women also struggle to climb the academic ladder. At every faculty rank, the share of women drops. In 2018, women held around 53% of assistant professorships, about 46% of associate professorships, and only around 34% of full professorships.

It's no surprise that even in a fictional university, Kim is the first woman or person of color to chair her department.

Why It Matters for Students

College students might watch "The Chair" for a behind-the-scenes look at what life may be like for their professors. But "The Chair" also serves as a warning for women, particularly women of color, considering careers in academia.

In "The Chair," McKay ends the season considering a jump to Yale, where she wouldn't be the only Black woman in the department.

Representation in higher education clearly matters. But women and people of color pay a higher price for committing their lives to academia. As Hambling discovers, students rate female professors more harshly than male professors.

In "The Chair," Sandra Oh's character runs into the so-called glass cliff –– putting her own career at risk while prioritizing everyone around her. In contrast, McKay rejects the incrementalist approach. Which path shows more promise for women in higher education? We might need to wait for season two to find out.


Feature Image: Manu Vega / Moment / Getty Images

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