Women

After an E-Mail Goes Viral

Sometime in March, an e-mail went viral among University of Southern California undergraduates. The e-mail outlined a series of guidelines for tallying and scoring sexual conquests. While engaged in the expected language of misogyny, the e-mail was also rampant with racism, suggestions to incapacitate "targets" with alcohol, and most disturbingly of all, an assertion that "Non-consent and rape are two different things." As one of a string of Internet-related sex(ism) scandals that have emerged at major universities around the world, this e-mail proved a catalyst for considering the ways that such overtly troubling language reverberates in the university and how a university community can best balance a commitment to free speech against the need to curtail hate speech and sexual violence.

I am an assistant lecturer in the Writing Program at USC as well as a student in the English Ph.D. program, and so I felt doubly frustrated with the proliferation of such language, both on behalf of my students, and perhaps selfishly, for myself. The class I am currently teaching is affiliated with a course in Studies of Women and Men in Society (SWMS), so it was pertinent to the work we'd been doing, particularly as we had been having an extended conversation about the power and effectiveness of parody. We had been interested in the critical distance between an argument as it is literally presented and as it is meant to be understood as required for ironic understanding. If this e-mail, so clearly engaged with the language of hate, was written as a parody of the cartoonishly predatory college male, at what point can the content of it be considered dangerous, particularly considering the non-consent/rape passage? Couldn’t seeing the e-mail as hate speech displace the original purpose? How much does it matter what the author’s intention was, I asked, if a reader sees it as hate speech?

These questions seemed particularly pertinent considering the fact that the Daily Trojan’s report on the e-mail included nearly a dozen comments pointing out that it had been written as a joke and that those reacting negatively were taking it far too seriously. Perhaps much of the fixation on this point of the alleged humor was due to possible connections between the e-mail and the university’s powerful and popular Greek system. The email was initially attributed to Kappa Sigma fraternity members, but Intrafraternity Council investigations have now attributed authorship to a non-fraternity member who, in turn, has identified the origin of the email as from another university entirely. Elsewhere, students claiming to have been witness to the early drafting stages of the email attribute it to a named USC student. Despite it being the primary focus of much of the response to the e-mail, the authorship and origin of the email are ultimately of little consequence.

Instead of attributing blame for the e-mail to a particular fraternity or student, we should be talking about the power and influence of such rhetoric as it reverberates within a campus and in the greater public consciousness that defines a university’s reputation. This is a conversation we’ve had before and it’s one we will have again, but in making the conversation more public and more explicit in its goals, we at least allow it to develop. Indeed, troubling scandals pop up fairly consistently in national and international media, aided by the proliferating influence of the Internet.

A very similar series of e-mails circulated through University of Oxford’s Penguin Club, an all-male drinking club, in Spring 2010, though in this case, specific female students from Hertford College were named, ranked, and again referred to as "targets." All 15 members of the Penguin Club were suspended, though the administration did not acknowledge a connection between the suspension and the emails.

Of course, these actions have not been limited to men. In October 2010, a recent Duke alumna’s faux-thesis PowerPoint called An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics” went viral. Documenting specific sexual encounters with named (and pictured) Duke athletes, the PowerPoint received somewhat celebrated notoriety and landed its author with the threat of lawsuits.

In my class discussion regarding the USC e-mail, students’ reactions were varied, though almost consistently negative. Some were colorful ("It made me vomit in my mouth"); some had been sent the e-mail a full week before I had; and some were hearing of it for the first time and clustered around their laptops to read snippets of it to each other. The conversation was lively, and students who are normally quiet chimed in, including one who noted that she was not upset at all by the e-mail because she already knew this was exactly how college students talked all the time. While it is not entirely surprising to encounter an apathetic college freshman, the fact that her apathy stemmed from desensitization to racist, misogynistic, and, most disturbingly, rape-apologetic rhetoric was disheartening.

This apathy, more than the content of the e-mail, is indicative of a larger systemic problem. Universities are not unique in their isolation, and such language certainly proliferates in other communities, but never has it been more essential to have an open dialogue about the stakes of such rhetoric. The aftermath of such publicly sexist and racist language needs to include forums more open than an Internet comment board for conversation. Panel discussions with representatives from student groups, administration, and faculty would allow a space for conversation and would celebrate the intelligence and responsibility of the students implicated by association with those perpetuating such rhetoric. When a university administration fails to respond openly and promptly to a now-public comment invalidating consent as a defining difference between consensual sex and rape, even one that was written for a private audience, it becomes complicit in a culture that refuses to examine the complexities of rape and consent and, as a result, perpetuates silence and fear. The university policies and procedures, as well as local laws and avenues for reporting and responding to sexual assault, should be reiterated publicly and frequently, not just as instigated by such an event.

Of course the weight of response cannot be expected exclusively from the administration. Not only do students need to be actively responsible for a greater community of respect and communication, but also to recognize that such language of disrespect is not limited to these well-publicized moment -- and that when they are put to public scrutiny, they reflect as much on those who are completely uninvolved as on those who directly formulated the rhetoric, as well as reflecting on the educational environment of the university. By examining the responses I’ve witnessed, I do not mean to suggest that a university is responsible for policing its students’ language or holds the exclusive responsibility for responding, but that ignoring the opportunity to perform outreach at such moments is a disservice to its students, particularly when the size of the community discourages them from organizing independently.

Author/s: 
Samantha Carrick
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Samantha Carrick is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of English at the University of Southern California.

The AAUW's Rationale

Once again, Richard Whitmire believes that he has the inside scoop on the American Association of University Women and other groups that won't join him in crying wolf on gender discrimination in college admissions. Apparently, we're keeping mum to keep our jobs or, as Whitmire puts it, "If women dominate colleges, what's the point of having an AAUW?"

Color us unimpressed with this attempt at mind reading. AAUW would be the first organization to turn off the lights, lock the doors, and throw a rockin' party if women and girls ever achieved true equity in education and the workforce. And while we celebrate the many gains that women and girls have made in education in recent decades, we also know that not all girls and boys are well served by our schools -- a fact that drives our work. These positions are not contradictory.

But are colleges really discriminating in their admissions processes? The numbers say no. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2003 and 2008 women were admitted to college at a rate that is, on average, two percentage points higher than that for men.

These facts don't look anything like an admissions-gap crisis to us, in part because, despite the fact that women now make up roughly 50 percent of the workforce, men continue to outearn them. Of course, AAUW's ambivalence toward the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' study on gender and college admissions goes much deeper than any statistic or priority list. Whitmire notes that some have questioned the intentions of this study, calling it a possible Title IX Trojan horse. On this we can agree.

That horse is filled with assumptions about what might cause this imaginary bias in college admissions. Title IX naysayers, who supported the study proposed by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, believe college men aren't given enough athletic opportunities. Their crabbed logic goes like this: the potential study's results would support changing the rules governing Title IX in athletics. Then colleges could justify having more sports programs for men, who would presumably be lining up at the gate to take calculus just so they could play basketball. And women haven't proven they like sports, so fewer of them might apply and, therefore, fewer sports opportunities would be needed. Or something like that. Confused? So are we.

Some key facts from AAUW's report "Where the Girls Are: The Facts about Gender Equity in Education" also fly in the face of Whitmire's gloom and doom. A gender gap in college attendance is quite small among those entering college right out of high school, somewhere around half a percent. Yes, women have made more rapid gains than men in earning college degrees, but the disparity in demographics comes in later, among the older cohort of students, where women outnumber men by a ratio of almost two to one.

We wouldn't be the American Association of University Women if we weren't interested in college issues. That's why we continue to fight for college students and athletes alike and the protections afforded to them by Title IX, as well as to provide women with leadership programs to help them exceed during and after college. Sexism doesn't end once women get into college, and a college degree does not guarantee a discrimination-free career. As long as campuses and workplaces fall short of equity, AAUW will be there to cry foul -- and to do something about it.

Author/s: 
Lisa M. Maatz
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Lisa M. Maatz is director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women.

Mothers in Higher Education

As Mother’s Day approaches, I find myself feeling thankful for the many gifts I have as a working mother in academe: two healthy daughters who teach me lessons in patience and learning on a daily basis; a wonderful partner who supports my career and takes on his share of responsibilities; and a highly coveted tenure-track job at a prestigious liberal arts institution.

You could say that I am living the dream that my own mother had for me. While I was growing up in the 1970s, she told me that, with hard work and perseverance, I could be or do anything that I wanted. As we know, this was not true for her generation of young women; they were expected to marry young, stay home, or work a traditionally “female” job, if the family needed the extra money. Employers did not offer flex time, nursing rooms or telecommuting to help women succeed as working mothers. But women then could see what would make work environments better places for women, and by extension for their families, and after decades of demands, laws passed and workplaces changed.

So, here I am -- my generation’s version of a “supermom,” complete with an employer that offers a family-friendly support structure. My academic department mentors me and works around the hours I need to be home with my family. The provost hosts dinners where families are invited and child care is provided. My tenure clock was stopped for one year when my daughter was born, and the college has an arrangement with affordable day care close to campus.

Still, throughout higher education a gender gap persists, and like the generation before me, I can see a vision for an even better work environment for all parents. As most working mothers will tell you, when we look beyond the appearance of the so-called “supermom,” there are some serious doubts about how far the feminist movement actually went. I am acutely aware that every minute I spend researching and writing is a minute away from my young children. On the other hand, I fret that every faculty and committee meeting I miss because my kids are sick is an invisible strike on my tenure packet. I dash from meeting to teaching to grading to home. And I often ask myself: Is all of this scurrying worth it? What will I tell my own daughters when I talk to them about their professional options? Can they have it all working in higher education?

I contend that the answer is yes, but only if several changes take place.

1. Eliminate the university system’s glass ceiling: Though at least 50 percent of Ph.D. recipients in the United States are female, fewer women than men are employed in the top of the academic hierarchy. A 2008 report by the American Council of Education stated that only 37 percent of chief academic officers are female.

Women are also paid less and are less likely to gain tenure. AAUP Director of Research and Public Policy John Curtis reports in his article, “Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment,that, “After four decades of efforts to fully involve women in the academic workforce, only 42% of all full-time faculty are women.” Fifty-five percent of all part-time faculty are female; fewer full-time women faculty have tenure (34.6 percent) than men (48.6 percent). What’s more, only 28 percent of full professors are female. As these women age, they will live on less and have fewer health care options than the male students with whom they studied in graduate school.

If a woman wants to have children, things will get even harder. A study that looked at a National Science Foundation survey of doctoral recipients found that women with children were 38 percent less likely than men to achieve tenure. At the same time, women with children are the majority in non-tenure-track and part-time positions, perhaps because women think the demands of raising young children preclude full-time employment. It is hardly surprising that female professors are less likely to have children than are male professors.

The reasons for these outcomes are many and complex. To understand the factors and to get at a real solution, we need to start a real and sustained conversation about discrimination, diversity and gender stereotypes in the profession. We must confront what is wrong and develop new industry guidelines for judging and tracking performance.

The benefactors of an equitable and flexible promotion system will be not only future female professors, but also future students and faculty of both genders. All will enjoy a more engaging and dynamic environment of higher learning, because the best minds — men and women alike — will have equal access to tenure and promotion.

2. Develop better family-leave policies as the standard in higher education. Whether a faculty member gives birth or adopts a child, it is a joyous but hectic occasion. It is only natural and humane for family life to come first. Yet family-leave policies vary widely among institutions of higher learning, and recent research notes that when leave policies do exist, they are often under-used. This is partly because policies can be confusing and women fear being “mommy-tracked.”

The Committee on the Status of Women in Political Science argues that parental leave should mirror any and all benefits given to people facing illness and injury and that “[t]here should be little disagreement about this leave being paid leave.” These policies would be available to both mothers and fathers, though women would perhaps benefit more as research shows that women on average bear a greater share of child rearing and household responsibilities.

In addition to extending the tenure clock, many institutions, reduce teaching loads and give a professor additional, or “modified” administrative duties such as extra student advising or conference planning, the semester after giving birth. But this particular policy — i.e., reduced teaching expectations and added service requirements — is not always effective. Anecdotal sources suggest that these policies might exist to prevent allegations that women are getting special treatment. What is less understood is that these duties can be burdensome and overwhelming during a period that is already exhausting and stressful. If they are absolutely needed, policies on modified duties need to be flexible, equitable and understood by senior administrators, as well as by deans, department chairs and faculty members to avoid mixed signals. If we want women to succeed in this profession, it is essential to continuously examine and re-examine these policies.

3. Offer on-site accessible and affordable child care. Few studies exist about child care availability to the professoriate. A 2008 report by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education states that after visiting six top universities, “One looming issue on all campuses we visited was child care — the lack of affordable, quality, on-campus child care. Many want it; few have it.” In addition, day care centers that are university supported may have long wait lists and are, therefore, not universally available to all faculty members at the institution.

I think this partly explains why many women decide to take lower-paying, more-flexible jobs in the short term. What we fail to recognize is that, in the long term, women will probably not make up those lost years in publishing and scholarship. Colleges and universities must ensure that all professors and staff in higher education know that their children are in good hands while they are working. To attract and maintain the top professors, universities must commit even more funds to high-quality and affordable day care on site.

As Mother’s Day approaches, working mothers are thankful for the progress that previous generations have made on our behalf. But we must challenge the status quo and address the gender gap in higher education. We owe it to the next generation of families.

Author/s: 
Stephanie McNulty
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Stephanie McNulty is assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Voice and Vote: Decentralization and Participation in Post-Fujimori Peru, forthcoming from Stanford University Press.

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