Know Your Rights: Tenure

The AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund and the AAUW Educational Foundation believe that colleges and universities must develop and implement fair policies and practices that comply with nondiscrimination laws to ensure that the full talents of all — regardless of gender — are used. We offer the following information and resources for faculty, administrators, and others concerned about equitable tenure practices in academia.

Organizations and government agencies »
Additional sources for individuals who believe they have been discriminated against on the basis of sex in the denial of tenure.

Overview of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 »
Learn about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the legislation that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, as well as race, color, national origin, and religion.

About Tenure Discrimination

During the last two decades, women have made remarkable strides in higher education. Women are graduating from colleges and universities in record numbers, they have increased participation in doctoral programs, and the number of women faculty on college campuses has grown.

Despite these significant gains, women remain underrepresented in the highest echelons of higher education: the rank of tenured professor.

Women make up only 27 percent of tenured faculty at colleges and universities that grant four-year degrees. Unfortunately, sex discrimination continues to be one reason why female faculty are denied tenure.

Our publication, Tenure Denied: Cases of Sex Discrimination in Academia, chronicles the stories of women faculty who took their fight for tenure to the courts. The report is based on 19 sex discrimination cases supported by the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund over the past two decades. Back to Top

Tenure and Title VII

What does Title VII say?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, as well as race, color, national origin, and religion. It applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments. Title VII also applies to private and public colleges and universities, employment agencies, and labor organizations.

How does Title VII protect women in academia?

Title VII makes it unlawful to discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of his or her sex. It applies to hiring, termination, promotion, compensation, job training, or any other term, condition, or privilege of employment. Title VII also prohibits employment decisions based on stereotypes and assumptions about abilities, traits, or the performance of individuals on the basis of sex. The law prohibits both intentional discrimination and neutral job policies and practices that disproportionately exclude individuals on the basis of sex and that are not job-related. Additionally, the prohibitions against sex discrimination in this law cover sexual harassment and pregnancy-based discrimination.

Title VII prohibits retaliation against an individual for opposing employment practices that are discriminatory or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation.

How can you formally complain about sex discrimination under Title VII?

Important time limits apply to sex discrimination claims under Title VII. You have 180 days, or six months, from the date of the last incident of harassment to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This 180-day filing deadline is extended to 300 days if the charge also is covered by a state or local antidiscrimination law. Using internal procedures at your college or university does not extend the time limit under federal law, although it may under some state laws. If you are relying on Title VII, contact the EEOC to find out the time limit that applies to you. If you are relying on state law, contact the state fair employment practices agency in your state. You do not need an attorney to file a complaint with the EEOC.

When you file a charge you will need to provide the following: the complaining party’s name, address, and telephone number; the name, address, and telephone number of the employer that is alleged to have discriminated and the number of employees, if known; a brief description of the alleged violation; and the date(s) of the alleged violation(s).

What will the EEOC do after you have filed a charge of discrimination?

The employer will be notified that a charge of discrimination has been filed and the EEOC will begin an investigation. The EEOC may attempt to settle the charge of discrimination or may refer the charge to it mediation program, which is a voluntary, confidential process requiring the consent of both parties. The EEOC may choose to dismiss the charge at any point after it is filed.

When a charge is dismissed, or if the EEOC is unable to reach an agreement to settle the complaint after finding discrimination, the EEOC issues a notice of the individual’s right to file a lawsuit on her or his own behalf within 90 days. Individuals who have filed a charge with the EEOC may request this notice if they wish to proceed to court and the EEOC has not completed its process.

What relief is available if there is a finding of sex discrimination?

If there is a finding of sex discrimination, relief is intended to make the individual “whole” – in other words, to put the individual in the place she or he would have been had the discrimination not occurred. Such relief can include back pay, front pay, hiring, promotion (or tenure), and reinstatement. Damages may be available to compensate for monetary losses, future monetary losses, and mental anguish and inconvenience. Punitive damages also may be available if an employer acted with malice or reckless indifference. Additional remedies may include attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and court costs.

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Tenure Recommendations

Good employment policies and practices go a long way. At a minimum, the tenure process should be consistent and clearly articulated. Procedural lapses create ill will and insecurity among faculty and invite suspicions of discrimination. For example, if the dean can reverse department recommendations, this should be made clear to incoming faculty. Specifically, university administrators and senior faculty should consider the following:

  • Design school policies that comply with antidiscrimination laws, and ensure that faculty and administrators understand and comply with those policies.
  • Require annual written evaluations with explicit performance measures to address the candidate’s progress in research, service, and teaching.
  • Recognize the power tenured professors have over junior faculty and students and actively watch for and monitor abuses.
  • Take conflicts of interest in hiring or promotion seriously.
  • Adopt a policy allowing for “time off the tenure clock” for childbirth and parenting.
  • Treat rejected tenure candidates respectfully.
  • Offer services to support faculty as they seek new positions.
  • Provide written tenure policies and procedures to all faculty and prospective employees.

For Female Academics

One cannot always avoid becoming a victim of sex discrimination, but there are tactics for reducing one’s risk as well as strategies for dealing with discrimination to avoid the financial and emotional costs of litigation. Steps taken before accepting a job and during the pre-tenure years can help women protect themselves against discrimination.

Before accepting a job offer

  • Ask for written information about the university’s promotion and tenure policy.
  • Bear in mind that the chair of your department is likely to change before you are evaluated for tenure.
  • Ask the department chair and other tenured faculty in your department what service, teaching, and scholarship will be needed for tenure and how your record will be weighed.

While on the job

  • Keep your antenna up for the culture and politics of your department and institution.
  • Cultivate friends, communities, and colleagues outside your department and outside academia.
  • Do not expect to be rewarded for doing favors or for being flexible.
  • In dire cases, consider cutting your losses early.
  • Understand your rights as an employee under federal and state law.
  • Immediately document any perceived discrimination.

When a lawsuit is necessary

  • Carefully document conversations and actions that you take.
  • Seek skilled mediators.
  • Seek experienced legal counsel.
  • Be realistic about the financial and emotional costs of litigation.
  • Remember that publicity may help rather than hinder your case.
  • Do not go through the process alone.

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Still need help?

If you have any questions, would like to learn more, or would like to make a contribution to LAF, send an e-mail to or call 202/785-7750.