Graphic by Maya Adams

Questioning Gender Equality at NYUAD

Has there been progress in the gender diversity in the different career fields represented at NYUAD?

There is a distinct kind of disheartenment that comes with growing up female in a world where every important achievement belongs to a man. Even as a five-year-old, Xinyi Wei, Class of 2017, understood this feeling.
“There is an anecdote that I remember,” she said. “I had this friend, and we were having this silly conversation about which gender is better. And I said yeah, we are better than you. … He said well, look at all the scientists, how come they are all men? And I was five, and I was silent because I didn't have anything to say. Why are all the scientists men? Why are we reading only about them? It took me ten years to realize that it's because you're not sending women to school.”
Now 22 and a history student at NYU Abu Dhabi, Wei still doesn’t see as many female figures of authority as she would like to. Since her freshman year, Wei has kept count of how many female professors she has had. The numbers are dismal — last semester, she had one; this semester, she has none.
“This is not a scientific measurement to test if our institution is sexist,” Wei said. “but [it represents] how there are few female professors — the impression this might give to someone is that women are less likely to occupy a position like this.”
Students across campus are beginning to echo similar sentiments. Last week, during a discussion held by the Reading Group on the need for a change in NYUAD pedagogy, the moderator read out a few testimonials from students commenting on diversity and inclusivity at NYUAD. One, in particular, stands out — it was a testimonial by an engineering student who said that they had never had a female professor in all their four years at this university.
These sentiments, although rooted in observations, are also backed by research. When Hannah Brückner, Professor and Program Head of Social Research and Public Policy, was appointed Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity in 2015, one of her first projects was to write a report on faculty diversity for the NYUAD administration. She found that only 25 percent of women faculty across all divisions in NYUAD were tenured in comparison to NYU New York College of Arts and Science, where 31 percent were on a tenured track.
This lack of gender diversity in senior faculty positions at NYU is only supplemented — or perhaps caused — by the difficulties that women in these positions face. Deborah Williams, Program Head of Literature and Creative Writing, mentioned an incident from her graduate career that encapsulates a larger problem.
“A professor of mine, when I was a graduate student almost finished with my dissertation, spent our entire 45-minute conference about my work sitting with his feet on the corner of his desk, pretty much in my face,” she said. “He didn’t much like my dissertation topic. Not a big deal — rude, certainly, but not career-threatening — but representative, perhaps, of being a woman in the field.”

20 years ago, when Brückner was starting her work in Germany on the integration of women in the sciences, it was difficult to convince people of the need for faculty diversity.
“People thought one should always focus on recruiting the best candidates, without paying attention to diversity in order to achieve excellence. Diversity and academic excellence was seen as a trade-off.” she said. “However, research shows that more diverse groups are more effective, and creative, and better at solving problems.”
Sana Odeh, Clinical Professor of Computer Science at NYUNY, echoed that thought.
“In a field like Computer Science, which is all about problem solving, having a more diverse team means that people will be able to solve more diverse problems,” she said. “Now when you see films like Hidden Figures and learn about the role of women in starting IBM and sending men to space, you realize that the contributions of women were just erased from history.”
When asked why the university was not hiring more female faculty, Brückner said that there were many structural problems that made it difficult to overcome the gender parity problem. First, she emphasized that there is only a small applicant pool to choose from and that NYUAD needs to have a competitive edge over other universities looking to hire from this pool.
Brückner also highlighted a tricky predicament — the faculty needs to be diverse before it can attract more diversity. Part of the problem is that once a department has managed to hire a few academics from diverse backgrounds, cultural and idea taxation come into play.
“When you have an underrepresentation of diversity, the minority is expected to help the school,” Brückner explained. “And this adds more to the workload because they have to serve on multiple committees – search committees, admissions committees etc. This is a cumulative disadvantage as small things like this keep adding on.”
Odeh recalled the promising rise of the field of computer science in the 80s — 37 percent of the field was comprised of women. Although the level of global female participation at the PhD level has since decreased, women in the MENA region continue to be a big part of the computer science and engineering fields. When Odeh was setting up the Computer Science department at NYUAD, she made sure that she was gathering a diverse team that reflected the field of computer science in the region — two of the five faculty that she hired were female.
Odeh added that something that often discourages women from academia is the amount of cautionary advice they receive.
“Many women are told it will be hard for them even before they begin.” she said.
Wei agrees. “I’ve been warned by faculty here that academia can be a scary place, especially in the U.S., and that if you are not white and you are not a male, then it's not a fair place.”
Wei is only one of tens and thousands of women who enter academia already anticipating a difficult and unfair time.

The discussions initiated by the Reading Group and faculty have opened the door to conversations that were previously limited to private spaces.
“The Reading Group and their experiences are fairly common in the world as a whole. You need to work with your diversity – have conversations about what it means to be diverse and not just put all these diverse people together,” said Brückner. “The university needs to make a commitment to nurture diversity in a more deliberate way.”
Brooke Hopkins, Class of 2018, stressed that students should share in that commitment as well.
“I am not sure there is one answer to solve the diversity issue. Hiring diverse professors is obviously a great thing, but I think it is possible to create open and inclusive classrooms regardless of the backgrounds of the people in them. And to do that I think the burden falls not only on the professors but also the students,” said Hopkins.
Our liberal arts curriculum at NYUAD is rooted in questioning norms. Williams emphasizes that this questioning is important — we need to rethink notions of representation in order to understand and solve problems of gender parity.
“Perhaps it’s more important that a literature course — or maybe the liberal arts in general—can help us to ask questions about the nature of the representations around us: why aren’t there more women or people of color on this syllabus? What about the movies I watch, or the TV shows or the government? That doesn’t mean however, that in every course, you’re going to find an even distribution of genders and ethnicities and etc; but it may mean that you can start to think about these questions in a way that may open up the categories with which the course has been organized.”
In academia, as in life, equality between genders can only lead to progress. If the past is a prologue, NYUAD needs to act now. As the university expands its programs and hires new faculty, we have an advantage over already established organizations to create higher standards of diversity. If we do not have a diverse faculty to represent the diverse student body, then we have to question the central purpose of our institution.
Karma Dolma Gurung is Managing Editor and Shreya Shreeraman is Copy Chief. Email them at
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