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Winter 2009

Volume 37
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Ashley Finley
Ashley Finley
Women as Contingent Faculty: The Glass Wall
By Ashley Finley, assistant professor of sociology at Dickinson College and national evaluator for Bringing Theory to Practice, an independent project in partnership with AAC&U and funded by the Charles Engelhard Foundation

Women’s inability to consistently reach the same tenure and pay levels as men has provided strong evidence for the existence of a glass ceiling in higher education. But as many commentators have noted, the more compelling source of women’s inequality may more closely resemble a glass wall (Comer and Dollinger 1997). A disproportionate number of female faculty members currently reside in contingent positions, where they are effectively cut off from even the opportunity to seek tenure promotion and associated pay increases. As economic factors ensure that contingent faculty positions will continue to proliferate, women’s disproportionate share of these jobs has become a salient, if not central, source of professional limitation.    

By approaching the issue of women as contingent faculty from an institutional-level perspective, this article examines how the intersections of certain institutional factors have served to disproportionately locate women in contingent positions. It considers a confluence of factors (institutional type, academic field, and the limits of rational choice) in an effort to understand the structural forces at play in women’s overrepresentation among contingent faculty. In the short term, this overrepresentation makes women more likely than men to experience consequences like lower pay and instability. Yet it is women’s long-term overrepresentation in these positions that may be the ultimate consequence. The feminization of contingent faculty positions over time carries the possibility not only that women’s labor will be devalued, but that cyclical repercussions from lower pay and reduced status (both associated with low rates of male entry) may confine women’s academic mobility. 

The Rise of Contingent Labor

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics defines contingent laborers as “persons who do not expect their job to last or who reported that their jobs are temporary.” In 2005, contingent labor comprised between 1.8 and 4.1 percent of U.S. labor, estimates that are largely unchanged since 1995 (2005, 1). The foothold of contingent labor in the U.S. economy arguably rests on the presumption that these positions can be good for both workers and employers, giving workers access to a readily accessible pool of jobs, while allowing employers to profit from labor that is often underpaid and carries no obligation of benefits. But economists have debated the merits of a tradeoff that pits flexibility and accessibility against low pay, instability, and frequent and effective invisibility.                 

This tradeoff has filtered beyond service-sector positions with descriptors like “part-time,” “seasonal,” and “temp” and now pervades the professional ranks of academia, where it has new labels like “adjunct professor” and “visiting faculty.” Contingent faculty positions, defined commonly as those of part- or full-time non-tenure-track status, represent nearly two-thirds of all academic employment (American Association of University Professors 2005). The explanations for the growth of these positions at colleges and universities often hinge on institutional budget cuts and the short- and long-term affordability of hiring tenured or tenure-track personnel. In academia, as in other sectors that use contingent labor, the positions are temporary, the pay is less, the workload is often high, and the status is frequently marginalized. As a colleague who began her career as a visiting professor once noted to me, “People talk to you differently once they find out you’re just visiting—like all of a sudden you’re a second-class citizen.” 

The shift to an academic workforce comprised mainly of visiting, temporary, or part-time positions has already altered the climate of higher education. The implications of this change have been explored elsewhere (see American Association of University Professors 2005; National Education Association 2007). This article aims to contextualize the circumstances that make particular faculty, specifically women, more likely to enter contingent positions. Regardless of institutional type, women are 10 to 15 percent more likely than men to be in these positions (American Association of University Professors 2005). (More generally, as the American Association of University Professors reported in 2006, women occupy just over half--52.4 percent--of all non-tenure-track positions [22].) The issues surrounding this disparity are complex. When it comes to the occupational segregation of men and women, composite statistics can mask nuanced subtexts in institutional and structural patterns that are as gendered in academia as in other, less-insulated parts of the U.S. economy. Unfortunately for women, these subtexts have often demarcated, defined, and enforced their positions as second-class workers, if not second-class citizens. 

Why are Women More Likely to be Contingent Faculty? The Effect of Converging Trends

Gender disparities in the labor market are often best understood as a convergence of trends rather than as the result of a single, dominating structural cause. For example, while the pay gap between men and women in the United States is related in no small part to discrimination, it is also related to the fact that women tend to be employed in areas of the market that pay less than those where more men work. Thus in order to understand why women are more likely than men to become contingent faculty, it is helpful to look closely at several structural factors, comparing where contingent positions proliferate with the location of women in academia. 

Institutional Type

Though the number of contingent faculty has been increasing steadily for some time independent of institutional type, differences appear across types of institutions with regard to the proportion of total faculty positions that are considered contingent. For example, public two-year institutions employ the largest percentage of contingent faculty (about 67 percent of faculty positions are non-tenure track), while public doctoral-granting institutions employ the smallest percent (about 22 percent of all faculty positions are denoted as contingent). Furthermore, a parallel relationship appears between the number of female faculty hired and the availability of contingent positions. At public doctoral-granting institutions, which employ the smallest number of contingent faculty, men outnumber women by about two to one. Conversely, at two-year institutions, where the greatest number of contingent positions exist, women compose about 63 percent of all faculty (National Education Association 2007).   

Academic Field

There is also a convergence between academic fields most likely to hire contingent faculty and fields whose gender composition is predominantly female. The relationship is striking: fields that employ the highest proportion of contingent faculty or have had the largest increase in contingent hiring over time tend to be comprised of more women. In 2003, for example, the proportion of non-tenure-track faculty positions was highest in education, fine arts, and business. By contrast, the lowest proportion of contingent faculty hired were in natural sciences, engineering, and agriculture/home economics. Additionally, the largest increases in hiring of contingent faculty over a fifteen year period (1987-2003) occurred in the fields of education, social sciences, and humanities. The smallest increases occurred in the fields of business, natural sciences, and engineering (National Education Association 2007). Table 1 and table 2 below illustrate the relationship between the degree of contingent hiring by academic field and the representation of women in these fields.

Table 1. Percent of total faculty positions that are contingent vs. percent of female faculty by academic field, 2003


% of All Positions that are Contingent

% of Women Hired




Fine Arts






Agriculture/Home Economics






Natural Sciences



Sources: National Education Association. 2007. Part-time faculty: A look at data and issues. Update 11(3). Washington, DC: National Education Association Office of Higher Education; and National Center for Education Statistics. 2005. Part-time and full-time instructional faculty and staff in degree-granting institutions. Digest of Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Table 2. Percent increase in the hiring of contingent faculty (1987-2003) vs. percent of female faculty by academic field


% Increase in Hiring of Contingent Faculty

% of Women Hired




Social Sciences









Natural Sciences






Sources: National Education Association. 2007. Part-time faculty: A look at data and issues. Update 11(3). Washington, DC: National Education Association Office of Higher Education; and National Center for Education Statistics. 2005. Part-time and full-time instructional faculty and staff in degree-granting institutions. Digest of Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

A closer look within fields that are near gender parity, such as humanities and social sciences, suggests an even more refined coalescing of hiring practices by gender and subfield. For example, in humanities the largest percentage of contingent faculty hired in 2003 were in English literature, where women compose 66.5 percent of the faculty. By contrast, the smallest numbers of contingent faculty hired in humanities were in history and philosophy, where men outnumber women at a ratio slightly greater than two to one. Similarly, in the social sciences the largest percentage of contingent faculty hired were in psychology, where women represent 51.9 percent of faculty, while the fewest were hired in economics and political science, where women represent only 14.3 percent and 15.9 percent of faculty, respectively (National Center for Education Statistics 2005). 


An exploration of labor market phenomenon must always consider the effects of rational choice—actors’ ability to opt into or out of a particular occupation. Several years ago an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education categorized contingent faculty as three kinds of decision-makers: strategists, pragmatists, and nonconformists. The strategists tended to opt into contingent positions because they were willing to forego higher pay and job security to work at a more prestigious school or in a more desirable location. The pragmatists did not complain about being contingent faculty because they had accepted contingent positions as an employment reality. The nonconformists were generally critical of the tenure process and also had a degree of career and economic flexibility that made contingent positions favorable (Trower 2001). 

Salary data from the National Education Association’s Higher Education Research Center paints a slightly different picture of this group (2001). An examination of income sources for contingent faculty indicates a bifurcated group with regard to financial status. For some, contingent positions are a means of supplemental pay because a significant portion of their income is earned elsewhere. Other faculty members rely solely on these positions for income. In some cases, faculty members may resort to cobbling together multiple courses at different institutions to earn a living, as exemplified by two contingent faculty members profiled in a recent New York Times article. The faculty members, Elaine Zendlovitz and Aletia Droba, worked as adjuncts in various courses at different institutions:

[Elaine Zendlovitz’] days begin at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, with introductory classes. Some days end at 10 p.m. at Oakland Community College, in the suburbs north of Detroit, as she teaches six courses at four institutions.

Ms. Droba [has] taught as many as seven courses at four colleges, including across the border in Canada (Finder 2007).

It is difficult to know what percentage of male and female contingent faculty comprise these separate income groups or, alternatively, the gendered breakdown among strategists, pragmatists and nonconformists. However, rational choice can rarely be applied equally by all market actors. Socially and economically disadvantaged workers often have different choices available to them than do the more fortunate. We need to be wary of how these choices may be gendered. A number of women have indeed indicated that they prefer contingent positions. But these women tend to be in their childbearing years (Ivey 2005), and their “choice” reflects the tension between decisions based on agency and those made because of social dictates (i.e., the expectation that women will be primarily responsible for childcare and homemaking). Given that contingent faculty are paid an average of 27 percent less per course than other faculty, it is unlikely that most applicants would choose these positions over those that pay more for the same work. This “choice” is made further unlikely for women by such factors as their greater likelihood to be single parents than men. In fact, although some contingent faculty indicate that they opted into their positions, the majority of men and women in contingent positions say they would prefer tenure-track posts (Ivey 2005).

The Long-Term Consequences of Overrepresentation

Beyond the short-term consequences of lower pay and less stability, the most pernicious effect of women’s concentration within the contingent faculty may be the long-term feminization of contingent labor—a process that implies more than simply a disproportionate number of women. Feminization of labor is often associated with the devaluation of women’s work (England et al. 2005). Just as women’s labor in the service industry has been described as invisible or marginalized (see England 1992; Folbre 2002; Steinberg and Figart 1999) so too has the work of contingent faculty within academic departments. As noted in one article on contingent faculty, “Many non-tenure-track professors feel like second-class citizens on their campuses and in their disciplines” (Trower 2001). Statements like these are telling, but they ultimately lack an awareness of and appreciation for the impact of gender on contingent faculty members’ experience. Contingent faculty already exist on the professional periphery. The impact of feminization stands to further marginalize this group.

The effects of feminization disadvantage women in two ways. First, pay tends to decrease as professions become feminized; there is a consistent, negative statistical relationship between the proportion of women in an occupation and wages (see England 1992). Second, as occupations become feminized, the rates of male entry fall, effectively serving to ensure that positions remain female-dominated. Thus the feminization of contingent labor in academia portends a vicious cycle: as contingent positions become gendered in composition, they also become gendered in consequence—and vice versa—creating a threatening pattern of endless replication.


The disparity in the number of women who occupy the upper ranks of professorships has been viewed as an indication of an academic “glass ceiling”: women get the degrees and the jobs, but they do not rise with the same success as men. While barriers to tenure are a clear and critical source of women’s inequality in academia, any discussion that does not include the effects and outcomes of women’s overrepresentation as contingent faculty has missed a key piece of the picture. Like the temp worker, the seasonal cashier, and the part-time stocker, the visiting professor faces inequalities beyond pay and promotion. The ultimate inequity is that these workers lack even the opportunity to rise. This inequality is often referred to as glass wall effect–the inability to move laterally to a position where a promotion ladder exists. 

Indeed, the majority of jobs occupied by women do not come with a promotion ladder. For example, “senior” level cashiers, “second grade” seasonal workers, and “associate” visiting professors simply do not exist. The fact that women are, on average, twice as likely as men to earn minimum wage or less is a marker of their restriction to positions for which there is no rising in rank (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2008). Thus the discussion of women’s employment in contingent positions in academia (and elsewhere) must make note not just of the outcomes that arise by virtue of being in these positions, but also of the ultimate outcome of missed opportunity.

This is not to say that choice and agency do not exist. Women do sometimes willingly and happily enter contingent positions. But the larger issue for higher education is that of its own rational action. What choices do we educators make when we entertain the issue of contingent faculty—so clearly laden with gendered implications—as a trend devoid of gender? Given that three-fifths of tenure track faculty members start in tenurable positions (National Education Association 2006), what choices can institutions make to provide opportunities for lateral movement and more justly reward those in non-tenure-track positions? With critical analysis and creativity, colleges and universities can respond to the new reality of contingent positions to the benefit of themselves and their employees. The glass wall can have more than one vantage point. Just as those on one side look through it toward positions of higher status, those on the other side can choose to look back and construct a doorway to otherwise exitless waiting rooms.


American Association of University Professors. 2005. Inequities persist for women and nontenure-track faculty. The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession 2004-2005.

———. 2006. Gender equity indicators 2006.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. 2005. Contingent and alternative employment arrangements, February 2005. News release, July 27.

———. 2008. Characteristics of minimum wage workers: 2007.

Comer, L., and T. Dollinger. 1997. Looking inside the “glass walls”: The case of women on the industrial sales force. Equal Opportunities International 16(4): 1-18.

England, P. 1992. Comparable worth: Theories and evidence. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

England, P., P. Allison, S. Li, N. Mark, J. Thompson, M. Budig, and H. Sun. 2005. Why are some academic fields tipping toward female: The sex composition of U.S. fields of doctoral degree receipt, 1971-2002. Sociology of Education 80 (1): 23-42.

Finder, A. 2007. Decline of tenure track raises concerns. New York Times, November 20.

Folbre, N. 2002. The invisible heart: Economics and family values. New York: New Press.

Ivey, E. 2005. Gender differences among contingent faculty: A literature review. Sloan Foundation Report.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2005. Part-time and full-time instructional faculty and staff in degree-granting institutions. Digest of Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Education Association. 2001. Part-Time Faculty 7(4): 1-8.

———. 2004. The NEA and contingent academic workers in higher education: NBI 2004-60 Action Plan.

———. 2006. Nontraditional vs. tenured Faculty. Higher Education Advocate. Special Issue.

———. 2007. Part-time faculty: A look at data and issues. Update 11(3). Washington, DC: National Education Association Office of Higher Education.

Steinberg, R., and D. Figart. 1999. Emotional labor since The Managed Heart. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 561:8-26.

Trower, C. 2001. Negotiating the non-tenure track. Chronicle of Higher Education, July 6.

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