A graduate PhD student and a tenured professor walk into a coffee shop—sounds like the beginning of a hackneyed joke. Instead, it’s the catalyst for an experiment on the state of gender in creative writing academia.
The semester was in full swing, and we’d agreed to meet to discuss a small curricular matter. But our conversation wandered from poetry to gossip, then from gossip to the state of the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. The students, we agreed, seemed happy with the professors and the professors happy with the students. The environment was indubitably supportive, sociable, and aesthetically diverse.
Though the glaring problem, we agreed, was gender parity, especially in the poetry program.
Due to a perfect storm of recent hiring and faculty departures, UH became a large MFA/PhD program with a poetry faculty that was 80% male. To make things stickier, a quick count revealed that our graduate student body in poetry writing is about 60% female. Despite pleading the case to university higher-ups, there was little chance that we were going to be able to fix things soon.
Of course, Houston is hardly the only school with this problem. For the past few years, Erika’s MFA alma mater has had zero female poetry professors on its faculty, and both could name other prominent programs with similar problems. Was this just a run of bad luck or symptomatic of a pattern of inequality?
Others have published studies on gender parity in English departments or the humanities in general. But what, we wondered, was the ratio of male to female professors across the discipline of creative writing? How did it break down by rank and genre?
We were pretty sure that a couple evenings of work could confirm what we suspected—that gender parity is a discipline-wide problem.
We started with the 2012 Poets & Writers list of “Top 50” MFA programs, certainly a flawed study, but a solid test sample from which we could gather data. This way, our information would come directly from the public face of each university (i.e. what they report on their own websites).
Along the way, we discovered all sorts of complications. Some programs didn’t list ranks; some departmental websites seemed almost purposely obfuscating, implying unreasonably large faculties that, after a few clicks, were revealed to be padded with adjuncts, part-timers, visiting professors, and temporary writers-in-residence. Ultimately, we managed to shake out a good sample of 45 programs that clearly communicated their faculty profiles.
Tallying by genre also proved complicated. We looked into past and present course offerings, but how could we really report someone who had written seven novels and a book of poems? What about the many, mostly younger, faculty working in unclassifiable, hybrid genres?
(We’ve put the genre count on hold for now, although initial reports suggest that this imbalance among faculty is much more severe in poetry programs than in fiction programs.)
For the sake of conversation, here’s what we found:
Total Male Faculty: 188
Total Female Faculty: 152
Total Assistant Professors, Male: 19
Total Assistant Professors, Female: 25
Total Associate Professors, Male: 45
Total Associate Professors, Female: 31
Total Full Professors, Male: 123
Total Full Professors, Female: 97
26 programs have more male professors than female professors
13 programs have more female professors than male professors
6 programs have an equal number of male and female professors
If you are an assistant professor at an MFA program, you are statistically more likely to be female than male (though statistically less likely to exist! The vast majority of professors at top ranked creative writing programs are tenured associate or full professors.) For every other rank and category, you are more likely to be male.
We discovered that at least two other schools out of the 45 surveyed have zero permanent female poetry professors of any rank. Four other schools have zero permanent female full professors in any genre.
The problem of gender parity increases dramatically with rank, with possibly serious consequences for aspiring female academics, graduate students, and faculty colleagues.
There are all kinds of ways that literary “power” is handed down from one writer to another. One of the most obvious is through publication, a topic VIDA has covered (and continues to cover) in detail and at length.
It’s also passed along through prestigious academic appointments. Employment at an MFA program affords a writer not only the power to help students, colleagues, and friends find publication, awards, and jobs—but also puts him in a position that furthers his own literary career. Many full professorships come with lighter 1-1 or 2-2 teaching load, giving the (mostly male) MFA faculty members more time to write, travel, and cultivate readerships.
Much of the committee and administrative work of English departments lands on untenured professors, who generally are not in a good position to say no. Thus, a disproportionate amount of this kind of work is likely to land on women faculty at exactly the time they need to be focusing on their own writing and publishing—that is, on earning tenure. And, assistant professors may have trouble finding tenured women in the field to act as mentors.
For students, graduate mentors can be classroom instructors, professional advocates, and personal counselors—helping students navigate their budding careers and encouraging development across the board. After all, a graduate program can be a pressure cooker experience, requiring novel strategies to handle transitions, to adapt to ever-evolving expectations and objectives, and to succeed with time management in a split-focus culture.
There’s an inherent power dynamic between mentors and mentees, and gender disparity adds a complication. This is not to suggest that male mentors won’t advocate for their students and untenured colleagues regardless of gender. There are, however, some issues both professional (networks, conference panels, awkward situations arising on the job market) and personal (health and reproductive planning, social dynamics, harassment) in which women benefit from the guidance and mentorship of other women—those who possess insight central to the experience of a gendered workplace.
Although the imbalance in top-tier graduate creative writing programs isn’t nearly so severe as it is in, say, The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly, it’s still undeniably a problem, one that has real-world repercussions for students and faculties at our MFA-granting institutions.