I will never forget the student who stampeded into my office back in 1996 shouting, “YOU! I want to talk to YOU!” The crux of his anger was the 0 he earned on an exam question that asked “Explain the effects of World War I on the American home front.” He answered with a detailed explanation of the Battle of Verdun, and was furious that he didn’t earn any credit for it. He argued, “Just because I choose to write what’s easiest for me to write about shouldn’t disqualify me from getting an A.”
After I picked my jaw back up from the floor, I said, “Well, that’s where you and I disagree. I think you need to actually answer the question to earn the points for it.”
He then proceeded to threateningly shout and storm around, vowing to go to the dean and get me fired. I told him he should probably start that project by going to the department chair first. The next morning, when I spoke in a panic to the department chair, he told me that I had nothing to worry about, but that I should be aware that the student may have been “gender bullying” me, something that female professors may encounter from students and colleagues alike. It surprises me now that his comments came as such a shock to me, that I was so naïve I thought that my qualifications would remove any gender considerations with students and other faculty members.
Gender in Academia
Gender in academia is such a controversial topic. In my experience, no one actually really likes to admit that there is gender discrimination in academia, but in my 20+ years as a professor, I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of behavior that could be interpreted as sexist or chauvinistic. I’ve certainly dealt with male faculty colleagues and administrators who think less of their female professors and leave them out of important conversations. There have even been some who employ bullying and intimidating behaviors that stress their masculinity-just as many male students who have tried to use aggressive bullying tactics to get their grades changed or force me to accept late papers, as the student above tried (in vain, I should add).
But a another area of concern is the extent to which gender plays a role in determining academic success for students at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent Diversity in Academe: The Gender Issue raised this concern, including some surprising and some sadly not-so-surprising results in a variety of articles. The study confirmed that “women are heading to college in record numbers and now make up 57 percent of undergraduates women also earn 60 percent of all master’s and 52 percent of all doctoral degrees,” and also found significant evidence of discrimination, especially in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. In those areas, “women are still a minority in those fields despite more than a decade of outreach.” It seems that women in the sciences also tend to be concentrated more in the “softer” forms of science, such as biology, rather than physics, as demonstrated in the article “Is Biology Just another Pink-Collar Profession.”
Gender is also a factor in the other academic fields. For example, there has been no real increase in the number of women who have enrolled in M.B.A. programs, which are still more than 60% male dominated, and education programs have a hard time attracting male students. Women are significantly under-represented in philosophy and history; Katharine Mangan reports that “last year women received just 29 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in philosophy, and 41 percent of those in history, according to statistics from the U.S. Education Department,” with faculty gender distribution mirroring those results in those fields.
How Can Students Overcome Gender Barriers and Discrimination?
I have written about gender discrimination at America’s colleges before and it’s a topic that gained worldwide interest recently following the shooting of Malala Yousufzai, a young Pakistani student whose advocacy of education for women enraged the Taliban.
In the United States, we don’t have to worry about female students encountering the same kind of violent obstruction in the pursuit of education- though it’s worth noting that African American students did for decades. But that doesn’t mean that more subtle forms of discrimination and bias can’t have a detrimental effect on students, at times even causing their enthusiasm and determination to wane. Here are some helpful suggestions about the steps you can take if they encounter discrimination or bias in the classroom or on campus:
- Record the incident(s): Write down dates, times, the names of witnesses (if any) and describe what happened in as much detail as possible, including any offensive comments.
- Read the student handbook or faculty manual: There should be some general campus rules or guidelines about offensive behavior and how to address it. Gather all the information you can.
- Speak with the professor: Make sure that gender discrimination is the issue, and not a problem with academic work. One student recently told me I was prejudiced against her “for some reason.” She was right-I have a problem with students who willfully submit plagiarized work. But it had nothing to do with her identity-just her actions. When we spoke, I was able to make this clear. Speaking with a professor also makes you an individual to them, and may enable them to see past any preconceived ideas or generalizations about students.
- Take it to a higher authority: If you try to speak to the professor and get nowhere, or if the professor makes you so uncomfortable that you do not want to do this, schedule a meeting with the department chair, dean, or provost, who can help determine what happened and if your rights have been violated. Sometimes colleges offer the services of an ombudsman who can assist students with legal issues.
- Contact the police: If you feel threatened or harassed in any way, or have been verbally or physically assaulted by anyone on campus from the president on down to another student, do not hesitate to contact campus or local police. These are crimes and should be reported as such. The police can also help you get in touch with any support agencies or groups.
- Go national: There are many resources available to help you off campus, too. The American Association of University Women has many resources available to guide you through the challenges you may face in a specific field of study, on campus, etc. Campus Progress offers information on combating discrimination against gay and lesbian students. At this point, information about gender discrimination against men is still controversial, and it is difficult to find groups that avoid polemics and focus on proactive solutions for men who feel that they have been the victims of bias in many areas, including admission to some academic programs.
Sadly, as the recent information demonstrates, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that gender bias can still be obstructive to both students and aspiring faculty members in academia, no matter how progressive the campus. It may be up to individuals to take the steps they need to ensure academic success.
What can we do to decrease gender discrimination? Post your suggestions here!