'Degrees of Difference'


If most undergraduates are women, does that mean women have the upper hand in today’s economy? Should lagging enrollments of men (or of minority men) be discussed as a problem? These are some of the questions raised in Degrees of Difference: Women, Men and the Value of Higher Education (Routledge). The author is Nancy S. Niemi, director of faculty teaching initiatives at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale University.

She responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: It is common in higher education these days to talk about the “problem” of women making up a majority of students, as undergraduates and in many professional fields. Is the declining share of male enrollment a problem? Are there problems with talking about gender imbalances in this way?

A: What constitutes a “problem,” in higher education or otherwise, usually favors the perspectives of the powerful. So, when the majority of U.S. college students were male, few named it as problematic. It’s important to note that the number of men in college has not decreased, but their share of the enrollment is lower because so many more women have enrolled. With that greater share came the “problem” label. Labeling the declining share of male college enrollment as a problem is a misnomer, I think, because it misleads us into thinking that balanced gender numbers in college lead to equitable outcomes for men and women once they graduate. The power of a college degree is dependent on its holder’s identities, and one of those is gender.

Q: This issue intersects with discussions of enrollment patterns by race, with many colleges (historically black and predominantly white) talking about the “problem” of two-thirds enrollment of black students being made up of women. Thoughts on those discussions?

A: Again, I refer to the issue of what is named as a problem. I doubt we would be naming black and Hispanic men’s college enrollment as problematic if their numbers were higher; in fact, I think colleges would be displaying those numbers as proof of their commitment to diversity and inclusivity. That minority student college enrollment is largely female seems to offer evidence to some that the “woman problem” crosses racial and ethnic barriers without distinction, while ignoring the issues that such attendance signals.

For example, recent federal data show that black women and men are overrepresented in for-profit master’s degree programs, and black women’s enrollment in those programs is more than three times white women’s enrollment. By pursuing more higher education credentials, women of all races and ethnicities are responding to the cultural mandate that they have to prove their intellectual competence in ways that men do not. Women who are also part of racial and ethnic minority groups have even more to “prove” than white women do.

Q: In many academic fields, women achieve as much or more academic success as do men, but they lag in being hired for the most lucrative and prestigious positions after they graduate. Why is this the case?

A: The Ginger Rogers challenge of having to do everything Fred Astaire did but also do it backward and in high heels still applies: college women excel in academic achievement in part because we know we have to. We know we need to gain higher GPAs, have more leadership positions and more and better college accomplishments just to compete with men. Women also know they need well-connected internships, fellowships and acceptances to prestigious postgraduate placements, which open doors to further success after graduation, but at that point we are subject to still prevalent and sexist notions about who belongs in the most lucrative fields and who can handle the demands of high-status positions.

The recent story of the Google employee who circulated the memo stating, in part, that men have an inherently higher need for status and women are biologically more prone to anxiety and want more work-life balance (making them less than ideal tech workers, in his mind) is just one of the extraordinary number of ways in which women are still told that no matter how successful they are, they’re not good enough. The criteria for money and prestige changes by industry and field, but the bias remains.

Q: In analysis of the Trump electoral victory, many pundits said that educators (and Democratic politicians) failed to see the problems facing white men with little if any higher education, men who are unemployed or underemployed. What do you think of this narrative?

A: I think that what educators and politicians across the spectrum failed — and fail — to see is that white men with little or no higher education are afraid of the economic and social changes they see around them. When they found a presidential candidate who offered the possibility of renewing dependable blue-collar jobs, while simultaneously channeling chest-thumping masculinity and downplaying the power of academic degrees and diversity, it was easy to follow Trump’s angry lead.

Men with little or no higher education have traditionally been less willing as adults to go back to school or other training programs (like nursing, teaching and HVAC repair), even when industries are in need of workers. Part of the reason for this seems to be men’s resistance to enter fields that are coded feminine, and part may be their belief that schooling is “what girls do.”

What I also find fascinating (and infuriating) are politicians who assert that universities negatively impact the state of the country, while they themselves possess a number of college degrees. My biggest worry is that college degrees are becoming the equivalent of an unfunded mandate for U.S. women and their employment, even as men either eschew degrees altogether in favor of either under/unemployment, or use elite credentials to create even more entrenched power bases.

Q: What steps should colleges take to confront the issues you raise in your book?

A: Colleges alone will not solve the issues of differential value of women’s and men’s college degrees. That said, they can be much more proactive and constant about discussing the ways in which gender, education and race/ethnicity influence the lives of their graduates. For example, campus leaders from presidents to deans to heads of custodial unions can and should note their own institutions’ gender representations within and across units; roughly equal representation in leadership and learning is not sufficient, but it is necessary.

College advisers of all kinds can be urged to discuss the sexism and the sexist assumptions that still face young women and men as they consider college majors, work opportunities and careers and family. Many women still do not assume, for example, that they will ever be the primary wage earner; choosing majors that lead to potentially well-paying careers is a smart idea to discuss. Further, colleges can and should counter the cultural norms that lead too many young men to believe that they do not need a serious commitment to schoolwork in order to be successful; faculty and staff should have this conversation early and often with the men in their care.

Finally, colleges should find the courage to speak about the powerful — and political — ramifications of their work as it relates to gender equity. When they admitted only men, institutions of higher education were clear that they were producing future leaders, creators and power brokers. It’s time for them to unabashedly declare that including women in this vision should produce a more equitable society as well.



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