In my attempt to learn as much as possible about the Higgs boson press conference last week, I stumbled across this guest blog post at Scientific American. In it, the author talks about how she sees her mother, an administrative assistant at Brown University, in the Higgs discovery. It’s an important reminder of all the crucial work administrative assistants do and how often their contributions get overlooked.
At my university, which I expect to be fairly representative demographically of most universities in the United States, or at least most large state universities in the United States, only 30% of tenure-track faculty are women. Other faculty (non-tenure track, etc.) have a higher percentage of women, but still below half. However, more than half of all staff at the university are women. These staff members are also much more likely to be people of color than faculty, with the one exception of Asian-Americans, who make up the same proportion of both groups. They are the invisible and unrecognized cogs that make the hyper-visible (and less visible) research and discoveries possible.
Administrative assistants face some infamy: some recent articles have pointed at increases in administrative costs as a driving factor behind the huge increase in college tuition. While I am not suggesting that none of the increased administrative costs are associated with waste and that there is absolutely no room for improvement, the critique sounds hollow when placed in the context of falling endowments and dramatic cuts to education budgets.
I’ve said time and time again that science and research cannot happen in a vacuum, and generally, I am talking about collaboration between individuals and communication with the public. But even then, I am ignoring the important contributions by all of the support staff at research institutions. From coordinating grant applications, to tracking expenses, to basically doing everything necessary for research to go smoothly, or, well, at least as smoothly as research can go, administrative assistants are the people who make it happen. Many of them are the unsung women in academia – the ones that make the rest possible.
I would say that I am surprised that such a valuable campus group is overlooked, but given the demographics – the large number of women and the relatively large proportion of people of color relative to faculty – there’s something very familiar about that invisibility. So if you have some time, take a moment read the article that is linked above. Maybe it will drive you to, like me, reflect upon the administrative assistants that have made your research, teaching, and life in academia move smoothly and stress-free.