IN HER OWN WORDS:
constructed ideas; there is
no major difference between
men and women, other than
a few slight biological
As a woman in higher education, I often need to be reminded of these wise words. In a world full of micro-inequities, a little wisdom and encouragement goes a long way. As a female, I have often experienced these “oh so subtle” differences, moments of discrimination, unfair treatment, judgmental gazes, unjust assumptions and inappropriate jokes.
For a course in fall 2011 titled Women in Higher Education, I interviewed by phone or email a convenience sample of 11 women, using a semi-structured format to discuss their perception of discrimination in their college experience. All were working on or had recently received degrees from a college or university: undergraduate, masters’ or professional degrees, or terminal degrees.
Of the 11 interviews, eight produced reflective, complete and useful information for coding and analysis.
Each one has a story. Each one is unique. Each came from a different school and a different discipline, including theater, gender studies, counseling, physical therapy, religious studies, education, business and pharmacy. However, careful inspection revealed similarities in all of their stories, which surprised and puzzled me, and connected me to the reading and research I had done within the field.
What stood out
As I crafted my interview questions, I tried to uncover perceived challenges, struggles and issues women face at all levels of higher education. I paid particular attention to the micro-inequities present in each woman’s story.
Interestingly, several did not address gender discrimination but instead focused on age discrimination. Two mentioned being ignored, demeaned, disrespected, overlooked or left out because of their youth.
Another young woman talked about the struggle to find her voice and how greatly her young age affected that process. She felt as though she did not fit in with her older, more experienced classmates.
What was surprising
Asked to reflect upon their experiences and perceptions, most of those interviewed felt that women and men were treated equally within higher education. On the whole, they suggested that their professors seemed to be treated equally and fairly, and that they too were treated equally.
One even mentioned that she loved the fact that women are “welcomed in higher education.” Those remarks were surprising to me, since I expected a more negative response base. Most of the women were very positive and believed things are much better than they were “in years past.”
Many of the women mentioned the importance of the leadership in their department. Two told me stories about their department chair or dean of their school having an influential role in affecting the whole department. It was clear that the leaders set the tone for equality or inequality.
Several mentioned how friendly, flexible, and relational their female professors were.
Finally, one noted that her female professors were more agenda-driven and less flexible than her male professors. I found the observation a bit shocking and deserving of further investigation, since most of the literature goes completely against her observations.
What was puzzling
I was deeply puzzled by the fact that none claimed to notice inequality; however, each woman offered at least one story of pain, discrimination or inequality within her own experience as a woman in higher education. I think one of the women sums up my puzzlement best:
I didn’t feel discriminated against or that women on the faculty did either. I felt very valued as a woman; but I’ve also heard from a few of my friends (at the same university) that male professors made comments to them that made them feel undervalued as women. I never felt that way. But, where someone else might take offense, I might not even notice whatever offended her.
The last line of her comment is key! I think many women ignore, brush off or simply do not notice discrimination. The same young woman mentioned earlier in the interview that she felt one of her male professors “brushed her off as an overly emotional woman” when she approached him for counsel about a troubling situation in her life.
Overall, I was deeply puzzled and deeply troubled that many of the women I interviewed simply did not notice discrimination, not only in the stories they relayed as observations, but in their own stories.
Repeatedly, a woman would tell me a story of discrimination (whether she termed it that way or not) and would follow her statement with, “but I really didn’t feel discriminated against or devalued as a woman in higher education.” One young woman stated, “. . . sex and age discrimination are definitely real. I had to fight twice as hard to prove myself.” But later in the interview, she stressed that she felt women professors and students were “treated fairly and equally in higher education.”
Another woman plainly stated at the end of her interview, “There did not appear to be any barriers or prejudices that affected the women at the university I attended.” Woman after woman glazed over the issues and made them seem minimal, insignificant, or worse, nonexistent.
At the end of the day, I wonder: Do we simply ignore discrimination because it is “normal?” Do we simply lack the eyes to see and the ears to hear? Has our culture made it “acceptable” and must we be awakened to these gender schemas and social constructs in order to notice? I am puzzled, but above all, I am troubled by what I heard from these highly educated, highly respectable, highly successful ‘These are socially constructed ideas; there is no major difference between men and women, other than a few slight biological differences.’
One of the women voiced my struggles quite well as she reflected, powerfully, upon her higher education experience:
There is this double standard that creates a lose-lose situation for women because if you’re a strong leader and do not take any crap, then you’re too masculine or not a woman or any number of unflattering things. But if you’re kind and fair then you’re a “weak, emotional woman” who has no business being a leader and should be at home raising babies.
There is no winning in this type of environment! And, what’s the most frustrating thing is that these are socially constructed ideas; there is no major difference between men and women, other than a few slight biological differences. The rest are constructed ‘norms’ that have no actual basis. It’s just unfair and it seems no one does anything about it or even notices it.
What related to the research
Reviewing my interview notes and transcripts, I noticed many comments, stories and observations that related to research in the field, including:
• Finding their voice: Several of the ladies mentioned the struggle to find their “voice.” Many of their comments reminded me so clearly of Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenky et al, 1997). I could almost map the progression from silent to constructed knowledge in the lives of the women interviewed. It was both exciting and saddening to hear their stories. Ultimately, many of them stressed how the struggle made them stronger, more productive women. Thankfully, each woman’s story ended well; each seems to have found her voice.
• Female professors and balance: Many of the women stressed that their female professors were “more familiar and concerned with connections.” They respected their female professors and admired them because they were willing to listen, help, relate and balance all of life in the midst of their students’ needs. One stated that the female professors, “had the ‘whatever it takes’ approach; having them was necessary and important.”
For many of the women, female professors were valuable role models and go-to women for them as they progressed through their studies. Several stay in contact with their professor-mentors today.
Their comments reminded me of several books I had read. Women’s Ways of Knowing addressed the idea of balance within the constructed knowing section. “In women there is an impetus to try to deal with life, internal and external, in all its complexity.” As the women mentioned, female professors want to deal with all of life holistically.
Why So Slow (Valian, 1998) mentions women’s need to balance and combine professional and personal lives. It seems natural for women to bring students along on their journeys and live as a model of what can be done. Through the Labyrinth (Eagly & Carli, 2007) also mentions the tension of balancing life, work and family.
One mentioned the diligence of her female professors to “stay on top of the game,” suggesting that many women struggled to stay abreast in their fields and balance family obligations. Many feared that they would be “replaced” if they did not constantly produce, and still wrestled with issues like maternity leave.
The women believed they had to do everything possible to bend over backwards in order to secure their position, because if they didn’t, they could easily be replaced by a male or another female professor who didn’t have the family ties they had. Men are still chosen for positions over women because of the archaic excuse that women will have to take maternity leave and are therefore a liability or an expense most institutions don’t want to consider.
Her comment reminded me of the research mentioned in chapters four and five of Collins, Chrisler, and Quina’s book, Arming Athena (1998) and Valian’s points in the latter half of her book. At the end of the day, my interviewee is right: Choosing men over women because of the “archaic excuse of maternity leave” is unacceptable. Although research provides evidence that women with families produce just as much as women without families, the struggle—at least in this woman’s eyes—still exists.
• Finding a metaphor: My reading taught me the value in finding a personal metaphor. At the end of each interview I asked the women if they had, or heard, a metaphor for women in higher education that they’d like to share.
One mentioned the labyrinth metaphor:
I like the labyrinth metaphor: When you enter higher education you are at the beginning of the maze looking in with no idea or where to go or where it will lead you. As you progress obstacles are thrown in front of you like the walls and turns of the labyrinth.
Many people give up over the course of the journey and are stuck in the labyrinth forever. But if you continue striving forward and learning from your mistakes, eventually you’ll reach the end of it and be able to appreciate all the twists and turns of the maze you’ve conquered.
What can we conclude?
After interviewing these women, I believe we still have a long way to go. Although many of the women did not see discrimination as “real,” each provided stories of discrimination yet nearly all believed that women are valued and seen as equals in the world of higher education.
On the surface, these women feel nothing needs to be done—we are already equals; however, when looking deeper into the words the women provided, it is clear that we have a long way to go toward full equality and a discrimination- free working world in higher education.
Ultimately, I firmly believe women and men need to be educated about and trained to notice gender differences and inequalities. Our eyes still need to be opened. We have become accustomed to ignoring, minimizing and brushing off issues that need to be addressed.
If we do not begin to see areas of concern, they will never be addressed. Knowledge is often the first step toward change. Spreading the knowledge we have seems to be the logical first step toward addressing many areas of concern and beginning to move further through the labyrinth of discrimination and inequality.Megan Brown, PhD student in Christian Education at Biola University CA
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