At one of my first gatherings as a new faculty member at my current institution, I sat around a table of men and women from different campus units to discuss a common concern—communicating with students. I was stunned to note the mostly silent women—even high-ranking university administrators—among men of lower rank and less experience who spoke often and forcefully. These men often said quite smart and interesting things, agreeing with each other on many issues. When the women did speak, they often did so meekly, almost apologetically—and were often ignored. When I spoke to debate or counter what one of the men had said, it seemed to shock most of the table.
I wouldn’t have guessed it then, but I had come to a university, like many these days, that was concerned about gender representation in certain disciplines, in leadership roles, etc. Just recently, a committee on campus finished its report on this issue, finding that undergraduate women lagged behind their males colleagues in many benchmarks for leadership. Many were surprised, but I wasn’t, given that early meeting experience. How is it that girls and young women learn to lead?
Example, of course, is part. Many women faculty don’t advance to full professorship. The vast majority of contingent (non-tenurable) faculty positions across the US are held by women. And most women in academic departments do the majority of the service work required to run the university—whether they have tenure or not. So, certainly, on university campuses where few women are in leadership roles, their students won’t see any value or need in taking them on or—worse—will feel that such positions aren’t appropriate for them.
These positions—or lack thereof—are part of the social cues any of us picks up from role models, whether we want to or not. But the actions and attitudes of the women working in higher education must also impact students. As a Catholic school girl, I was taught by nuns who wouldn’t say “He” for “God,” and on game days, I wore my basketball jersey while the cheerleaders wore their skirts and sweaters, with all of us recognized as athletes. Female voices were often the most confident ones in those rooms, with the boys somehow quieter or less sure. It is this sense of education I carried into my academic career, where I was often lucky enough to run into women faculty and staff who created an equal playing field for themselves and, as a result, me. I always spoke up, took on important jobs, and got things done— just as they did.
So, with women in fewer leadership roles, female students have one half of a problem, one created on an institutional level, but the other half of the problem can be countered by individuals. Every time I walk into my classes now and into meetings where younger colleagues or students will be, I am aware of how my actions and attitudes could be read, not just for the construction of my own ethos, but as a woman who is communicating social cues, as a potential role model. Do I take myself seriously? Am I hiding my own accomplishments in some way? Do I take them seriously? Do I give my students space to speak around their sometimes more vocal male classmates? Do I engage with the ideas presented by other women in the room? It goes all the way down to posture and tenor of voice sometimes, with me becoming hyperaware of my presence in a room. Honestly, I hadn’t thought of my place in higher education in these ways before, though I had always observed and paid attention to my own female role models in these scenarios.
That report on gender and leadership didn’t call on university women to do this, but it could have—perhaps should have. It called for many other valuable things, like identifying and mentoring more young women toward graduate study. However, it also noted behaviors and conceptions of self among undergraduate women that were just like the ones I observed in that early gathering of faculty and administrators—quiet, self-deprecating when speaking, being ignored in larger groups. And how can any real change be made in the society if the social cues don’t change?
Monica F. Jacobe is a postdoctoral lecturer at Princeton University where she teaches in the writing program. Her literary research focuses on issues of identity in contemporary American literature, but a large part of her research agenda deals with academic labor and the state of humanities education. She currently serves as co-chair for the Modern Language Association's Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession as well as Communications Editor for Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, & Pedagogy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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