Saturday, October 8, 2011

Working Hard But Hardly Working: Gender in Higher Ed

MaryAnne Baenninger has a piece at The Chronicle that talks about gender differences in college outcomes.

Research has shown that women tend to underestimate their abilities while men tend to overestimate theirs. Men spend more hours in "leisure time" in college while women tend to be "hyper-scheduled participants in co-curricular activites." Women have higher GPAs and study abroad more often. Men are still dominant in the science and engineering fields, but absent from teaching and nursing.

What I like about this article is Baenninger's double-edged approach. She notes that:
In a country where the health-care and education systems are deeply challenged, men continue to be underrepresented in the important fields of nursing and teaching. Yet one rarely hears of national efforts to engage more men in these fields.
Yet there are a multitude of programs aimed at getting women into fields where they are underrepresented. At the same time, Baenninger is careful to note that within these differences lie different strengths. Men's confidence, for instance, is likely to lead them to better interviewing skills. Women's underestimation of their abilities is likely to lead them to become better collaborators.

What Baenninger is talking about is the larger cultural ramifications of our tacit assumptions about men and women's behavior. She notes that pointing out men's overconfidence and love for video games is often met with polite chuckles: "boys will be boys."

It's easy to cast aside gender differences as 1) inherent and 2) inconsequential, but a closer look at the way these assumptions play out should make us question that approach.

Baenninger brings up a lot of different issues in this article, and one struck me as particularly important. On the issue of leisure time (for men) and structured co-curriculars (for women), she notes:
Consider the consequences for the work force and for families if we are producing a generation of women who think they must work constantly at work and at home to achieve a baseline level of success—and a generation of men who think that they needn't work too hard to be successful.
I don't have to consider the consequences very long because I see them all the time. My husband and I work hard to equally share parenting. He's a very hard worker who balances changing diapers, being a lawyer, and his own hobbies and interests. I'm in no way looking to disparage his participation, but I do get frustrated that his multi-tasking lifestyle is viewed as God-like while mine is viewed as the norm (or even selfish--how dare I expect my husband to do so much). Explain to me why his ability to do dishes and go to work is a blessing while mine is a given? It's ingrained in our cultural norms, and when we laugh them as tired cliches instead of questioning them, we're dooming the next generation to these same frustrations.

Baenninger concludes by reflecting on the fact that a myriad of programs and initiatives designed to give women equal access to opportunities has not produced equal outcomes. "A gendered culture," she explains, "mostly in unconscious ways, limits women's expectations for themselves and our expectations for them."

At the same time, she notes that:

while we were focusing on gaining access for girls and women, we neglected the needs of boys and men. We didn't plan well for the consequences of a society that taught one sex that it had to work harder to gain access, and the other sex that access was guaranteed. We find ourselves surprised each time we learn that the educational system is not serving boys and men as well as it might.
This is the point that seems so often overlooked when we talk about gender equality--it has to go both ways. This is not say that I'm swayed by some arguments that men are being actively targeted in systems of oppression. The system is patriarchal, and men are still the ones with the upper-hand. At the same time, recognizing that gender equality doesn't mean "allowing" women to break into men's roles, but deconstructing gender roles from all sides is of major importance.

And I think that focus on tackling this in a place of education is an excellent one. College is a place where traditional ideas are challenged and new ways of thinking take form. It can be the perfect place to start tearing down notions of gender rigidity for both men and women, but it's much too late of a place to try to undo the cultural assumptions as a whole.

Interestingly, a recent article from The Independent points out some of these same problems among UK teenagers. In a poll of 12-18 year olds:
Fewer than half of British boys agreed that it would be good to have the same number of women as men leading top companies. And British girls are twice as likely as boys to clean the house and help with the washing and cooking. Although the vast majority of girls in the UK think that boys should help in the same way, only 71 per cent of their male peers agree.
A UK Home Office spokesperson seemed frustrated with the results, explaining that "This government's commitment to gender equality is clear and unequivocal. We have taken real action to benefit women in all aspects of their lives." 

But that's the thing, benefiting women doesn't necessarily do anything to change the gender views of men, and without that step, we do very little to change the culture. Marie Stuanton, Plan UK's chief executive explains that "We must educate to promote equality from nursery school, campaign to engage men and boys in challenging discrimination, and legislate to... promote equal opportunities."

So challenging the norms on college campuses is a great place to start, but we're going to have to dig a lot deeper than that, too.

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