Cracking Academia’s Glass Ceiling — But Not Quite


Betty Houchin Winfield’s new book, We Few, We Academic Sisters, tells stories of three women faculty members hired by Washington State University’s department of sociology between 1967 and 1975. Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman spent her academic career at WSU where she served two terms as head of the sociology department. Sandra Ball-Rokeach moved to the University of Southern California where she was a prolific researcher and mentor. Lois B. DeFleur built a career in academic administration including 20 years as president of Binghamton University in New York.

Author Winfield was a communication professor at WSU (initially the only full-time woman faculty member in communication) from 1979-1990. She now lives in Seattle and shared stories of those three women (the Troika as she calls them) at Town Hall Seattle on December 4. She and the Troika bonded at WSU and have continued to communicate and travel together.  “Why did we bond? Because there were so few of us.” Winfield reported that in the late 1960s, only 1 percent of American women earned graduate degrees.

During the COVID pandemic lockdown the four women scheduled weekly Zoom gatherings. As they talked, Winfield became convinced that the stories of these pioneering women need to be told “from birth to present.” She said the project “worked” because they all had a “foundation of friendship and admiration for each other.”

The hires of the Troika were, at least in part, a response to a 1971 study conducted for WSU, which showed that “women constituted only 10 percent of the full-time academic faculty.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, numbers like that were common. Nationally, fewer than 30 percent of faculty members and about 40 percent of students were women. If nursing, education, and home economics programs were removed from the calculations, those statistics would have been even more out of line with a country in which women are more than half of the population.

Winfield’s book includes tales of women being assigned to programs that were only tangentially related to their interests, such as being asked to make photocopies of documents for men who were their peers. The trio were single-handedly raising five children while launching academic careers. Winfield summarized: “If there are any underlying themes in the Troika’s stories, they are that they ‘made do,’ regardless of the circumstances, they also took risks, and worked very hard. They joined those few others in their field to put more cracks in that proverbial glass ceiling.”

Title IX, enacted in 1972, put additional cracks in the glass ceiling as it prohibited sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding. By 1979, more women than men were enrolled in America’s colleges and universities. Currently, across all academic disciplines, women are about 59 percent of the student population but still only 48 percent of the faculty. In sociology, about 76 percent of students and 50 percent of faculty identify as female.

Those are impressive gains, but the glass ceiling has not been shattered. In 1979, women earned roughly 62 cents on the dollar as compared to men’s salaries. They now earn about 83 cents on the dollar across all employment categories – including university faculty. Women who achieve the rank of full professor (as all Troika members did) earn 87 cents to the dollar. But only about 36 percent of faculty members in those top ranks are women.

Even though I began my academic career in mid-life and about 30 years later than the Troika, I shared many of their experiences. Like them, I had a husband who was an academician and provided mentorship. As they did, I developed an independent research agenda and a strong teaching record that enabled me to earn tenure. They all found a welcoming academic home, at least for a while, at WSU, and I found one at the University of Tennessee. All of us have retired from our academic careers.

Unlike for the Troika, more than half of my faculty colleagues and students (both graduate and undergraduate) were women. When I accepted an administrative role as Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, all the academic staff in the Provost’s office were women. However, despite some changes in the experiences of academic women, the glass ceiling has still not been shattered. I remember the Provost returning from a meeting in which she was the only woman. She was steaming because the men had expected her to serve coffee. She did not. The year was 2014 — more than 50 years after the Troika and Title IX began their work.

Winfield concluded her Town Hall presentation by saying, “The ideal future is that we would not be talking about this subject tonight. We want brains and talent regardless of gender.”  She concluded her book by suggesting that the lives of the Troika can “inspire current and beginning graduate students and professors…. Their accounts provide insight into the history of higher education to those curious about academic life and the changing role of women in universities.”

The book can also enlighten people of any gender engaged in any occupation about the progress, or lack thereof, in attainment of gender equality in the past 50-plus years. Anyone can learn from these women about how to say “no” to making copies for colleagues, “yes” to accepting leadership roles within an organization, and “pay me fairly” to anyone negotiating compensation.

The challenges, opportunities, and successes of the Troika are not unique to academia. I have many non-academic “sisters” who entered the workforce in the past 50-plus years. Many have stories of “making do,” taking risks, and working hard. Most agree the glass ceiling is cracked but not broken. If you are one of those women, I hope you will tell your stories to sons and daughters and grandchildren and nephews and nieces. Perhaps, as those stories pile up – like snow on a roof – they will eventually carry enough weight to shatter the glass ceiling.

Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan, author of "Digital Immigrants and Media Integration," is a writer, academician, and organizational leader. She has been a high school teacher, book editor, non-profit leader, journalist, technology executive, university professor, academic administrator, and higher education consultant.


  1. A post script to Sally’s article: Betty Winfield will talk about her book and the women pioneers on KMGP 101.1 FM at 3 pm this Thursday. I’m lucky enough to be interviewing her about the women’s experiences.


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