Sitting in a dry seminar, I find myself once again sharing an all-too-familiar eye roll with the woman across the table, whilst the faux-hawked guy behind us confidently prattles on with a desperately misguided point. As a third-year Economics major, I’m well-acquainted with this scene: a room almost entirely full of self-assured young men, speckled with a few women, with the latter invariably dictating the discussion and direction of the entire class.
Is it any wonder, though, that these male-identifying students seem to feel more confident in their contribution to the academic world than their female-identifying peers? More often than not, the guys in my classes are commenting upon theory developed by men, presented by a male lecturer, to a majority-male classroom. They have no reason to consider their input insignificant in such an atmosphere (nor should they, of course.) However, these kinds of environments can often make the participation of women in academia feel superfluous, or worse, unworthy.
Doubting this experience was unique to my education, I sought out insight from other female-identifying folk studying at the university level. The women I spoke to are all, like me, studying in fields historically dominated by men, with majors and minors ranging from Business to Biomedical Engineering. The conversations we had struck me not only because of how much they aligned with my own experiences, but by how much their separate and distinct accounts of the female academic experience all echoed each other. In various academic departments, across different universities in multiples states, and even countries, all of them cited of instances of invalidation and disrespect at the hands of their male peers. Several of their stories included having their views disregarded by male students, their contributions disproportionately questioned, and being controlled or pushed out of leadership roles in classroom exercises and projects.
“The men tend to want to take charge,” a female Biomedical Engineering student at the Michigan Technical University told me. “They seem to have less trust in a woman’s work.” She also reported that, at career and networking events, male recruiters in her field tend to give more time and attention to prospective male candidates – a phenomena she claims many of her peers have also noticed.
While I was already aware of some of the ways gender impacts the experience of women in the classroom, I was shocked to hear that sexism also affects academic women at the professional level. A female professor of Engineering, also at MTU, for example, reported instances in her professional life when male colleagues disregarded her on the grounds of her being too “emotional”; a fallacious and misogynistic argument she feels she can’t really protest without inadvertently supporting.
I had almost hoped my assumptions were wrong, but here they were, being corroborated across the board. I started to wonder exactly how classroom conditions like these could persist with such confident, intelligent women in the room. But wondering how these women could stand for such sexism in their education is ignoring the issue of the sexism itself. The point isn’t why women haven’t fixed the problem, but what the academic world has done to create an atmosphere that hinders female participation.
When asked about what affects her engagement in an academic setting, a junior at Western Michigan University cited the gender of both her classmates and professors as contributing factors. She described feeling much more comfortable in the courses she has taken with female professors, than the majority male-taught Business classes she takes for her minor. “In Business classes, the males are those whom the professors joke around with, call on, and talk to,” she explained. “I've never witnessed that same interaction with the women in the classroom.”
As much as her point resonated with me, I began to wonder about the basis of the argument. Exactly how real is the phenomena of the male-dominated classroom? Perhaps the nature of Economics as a pontificator’s playground has just made it feel like my classes are forever full of overconfident college guys? Disgusted that I needed data to validate my feelings, but desperate for empirical vindication, I dove into the numbers.
First, I looked into statistics on the ratio of male-to-female students in certain degree programs. According to data gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics, despite female-identifying students receiving approximately 57% of all Bachelor’s degrees conferred by U.S. postsecondary institutions in 2014-15, there are still severe gender divides in certain areas of study. In the same year, for instance, women received only 31% of general Economics degrees and 23% of general Engineering degrees, with men receiving over 80% of degrees in other STEM fields like Computer Science, Physics, and Mechanical Engineering.
At the faculty level, the statistics were even worse. The NCES’s data from Fall 2015 shows 68% of all full-professorships being held by men. If we extend this to include assistant and associate professorships, that number only drops to 58%. While lacking in more contemporary data on the breakdown by department, the Center’s records indicate that, in the Fall of 2003, while fields like Health and Humanities featured a fairly even ratio of male-to-female full-time faculty, over 90% of educators in Engineering programs were male, and departments like Business and Natural Sciences boasted less than ⅓ female-identifying faculty.
Apart from serious diversity and representation issues, higher education also suffers – perhaps unsurprisingly – from gender-based wage inequity. A 2016-17 report by the American Association of University Professors found that male faculty at 1000 reporting U.S. postsecondary institutions out-earned their female colleagues by thousands of dollars at every staff level, with male professors, specifically, earning an average of 6% more than female professors. Furthermore, the TIAA Institute’s 2016 study on faculty diversity found that female postsecondary faculty are also less likely than men to secure tenure, as in 2013 they held 49.2% of all faculty positions, but only 37.6% of tenured positions.
Clearly, the American postsecondary educational system is yet another U.S. institution with serious equality issues and barriers for the non-male – and this article doesn’t even begin to touch on the equally-appalling statistics on the lack of racial diversity on American campuses. That being said, I regret to say that I cannot end this piece with a cure for the problem. As is often the case in gender-based issues, however, the mere discussion is half the fight. Sometimes, the best thing we can do as individual women is speak honestly and often about our experiences to the people who need to hear it the most. It’s not possible to change a culture whose principal actors are unaware of their role in its perpetuation, nor is it a burden women should have to deal with alone.
Educational institutions, on the other hand, can and should take very tangible measures to remedy their role in systemic sexism. For a start, people who are not equally represented and equally compensated cannot convey to young audiences that they are equally valued in academia. Women working in diverse faculties and receiving fair salaries are much more able to play an active role in the campus community, deliver better lectures, and pass this empowerment onto their students. Likewise, young women who learn at the hands of respected and empowered women, are then granted the critical visualization of their place as an integral part of academia. Representation matters.
Beyond this, we are left with the ever-challenging task of communication. Believe me, I would be the first to admit this is easier said than done. If I had a dime for every time a male-identifying friend told me the above-mentioned phenomena are “in my head” or advised me to just “talk more,” I could single-handedly close the wage gap. However challenging it may be, it’s vital for us to have conversations about representation and respect among people of all genders, who may not understand how their actions affect the people around them. And to my male-identifying folk: if this all came off a little accusatory, or didn’t make sense, try asking some female friends about their experiences. They’re sure to appreciate it, and you might learn more than you think.