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When He Trumps She
November 13, 2011 - 9:45pm

I spent the day grading my midterms, never a fun task. Usually I get into a vague kind of automaton state; as I read for key phrases, look for definitions and the critical use of concepts, and references to key authors and guest speakers. Check, check, check, grade. But this time, I noticed a pattern that I’m sure I’ve seen before but just ignored. It is the gendered attribution that says so much about how students view “authority” (in the author sense) in academia.

My class covers a broad range of literature regarding globalization. We look at global inequalities, economic theories, human rights issues, women’s rights, international trafficking, and many other topics of global concern. The readings I assign are meant to give contending viewpoints, give more detail to my lectures and to teach students how to read academic writing. Importantly, I have intentionally assigned readings that are written by both male and female scholars — almost a 50/50 split.

And yet, in essay after essay, students refer to authors whom they have cited as “he.” With one exception: those authors that wrote specifically about women’s issues or discussed gender are always referred to as “she,” even when the author was male.

On the one hand, this is just sheer sloppiness, and I recognize that. But on the other, I think it speaks to how students perceive the authority of female writers in academia and in the classroom more generally. Are women only capable of writing from the perspective of gender, and male authors cover everything else?  Do students face a mental disconnect when they confront a woman writer or teacher who writes and teaches on “hard” issues, like traditional security and foreign policy?

In my own life as an academic, I have confronted these subtle prejudices time and again, and try to point them out to students as they occur. As a graduate student and a professor, I’ve taught both American Foreign Policy and Introduction to International Relations. American Foreign Policy tends to skew male in terms of class make-up. ROTC guys, particularly, love taking that class. What I noticed over the years was that the male students constantly challenged my lectures — usually after class, and usually when they were standing. I am five feet tall, on a good day, so it doesn’t take much to tower over me — and that was intentional.

The challenges were always of a technical sort, or on a point of historical record. But always, I noticed, with the presumed notion that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about (how in the world could I know anything the long and storied history of the V-22 Osprey, for example?). Even when I had revealed that I had grown up on military bases, gone to military schools, studied the military, lived the military, one student wrote in his evaluation “she claims to be from a military family, but she clearly doesn’t understand the military.” (My dad, a Marine vet of 24 years, got a chuckle out of that one.)

But this is not just an issue among male students — it is a deeply embedded bias. In the case of the essay writing, it wasn’t just the male students who automatically referred to authors by the “he” pronoun — both men and women made this slip into the “gender-neutral he.” They had clearly memorized last names and ideas, but not once questioned this slippage in their heads. 

Is it important that students (or anyone, for that matter) know the sex of a writer? Perhaps not. But I think this is indicative of something larger and deserves a bit of attention.  Male scholars have, for too long, have been allowed to stand over their female peers, and I’m tired of watching it happen. Maybe in the next essay I’ll require they know first names as well.

Boston, Massachusetts in the US

Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus. She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization (Routledge 2010) and the forthcoming book Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy (Routledge 2012).


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