Coeducation and the Virtue Gap by Race MoChridhe


Race MoChridheLate last year, Nancy Weiss Malkiel described how coeducation triumphed in the universities not out of a desire to include female students, but out of a desire to appeal to the changing tastes and expectations of male ones. Coming from such unpromising beginnings, she wrote, we should not be surprised that coeducation has done so little to address the systemic obstacles women face across the broader society. In its broad lineaments, Dr. Malkiel’s conclusion that “coeducation … has not succeeded … in accomplishing real equality for young women in colleges and universities,” can hardly be disputed

If I look only at the specifically academic issues that trouble Dr. Malkiel, however, I feel compelled to dispute what seems an implicit suggestion that male students’ choices are a standard which women should seek to emulate. She expresses concern that more women do not enter STEM fields, and sees this as an example of the way in which “Coeducation did not resolve the perplexingly gendered behaviours and aspirations of female students.” Thus, with one pernicious adverb, she manages to criticize women’s aspirations simply for being different from the aspirations of men, before lamenting that “Women also make gendered choices about extracurricular pursuits” in that “they typically undersell themselves, choosing to focus on the arts and community service, while declining to put themselves forward for major leadership positions in mainstream campus activities.” I certainly wish to see such positions open to women who want them, but I find it hard to be disappointed that Dorothy Day decided to focus on community service instead of putting herself forward for a “major leadership position,” or that Virginia Woolf “undersold” herself in the arts instead of participating in more “mainstream” activities.

Academia, where the life of the mind is supposed to be valued alongside the life of action, and where we talk a grand story about “engagement” and “service” and “citizenship,” should understand and value the “perplexingly gendered” contributions so many women make, and yet, as Dr. Malkiel’s choice of words reveals, it denigrates them as consistently as the worlds of business or politics do. As Jack Grove recently wrote at Times Higher Education, “Female professors earn less on average than their male counterparts because they focus on underappreciated ‘academic citizen’ roles that do not lead to promotion or pay rises…” Studies show that, while men tend to prioritize publishing research and obtaining grants, women in universities devote far more of their time to mentoring students and junior colleagues, serving on committees, and engaging with the community—reflexes of those same “undersold” community service and arts activities to which they devoted themselves as undergraduates.

Dr. Bruce Macfarlane, who was one of the authors of the study cited by Grove, has proposed that “Universities should not only recognise the impact of academic citizenship, but build it into their reward and recognition structures,” to rectify the fact that, at present, “women are being penalised because they have a broader view of what it means to be a professor.” In this, Macfarlane is absolutely right. What I do not understand is why, when this seems plain enough to most of us in discussing the plight of our colleagues, it is so much more difficult for us to recognize when speaking of our students. To tell a young woman that she should not enter a traditionally male-dominated discipline, or that she should not put herself forward for president of the student union, is sexism, but so is telling her that she needs to enter a traditionally male-dominated discipline, or that she must run for president of the student union, because she will never otherwise be treated as an equal. When our female students are censured for having more arts- and community-oriented ambitions than their male classmates, they are, in essence, being penalized for having a broader view of what it means to be human.

I am not an historian or an administrator, as Dr. Malkiel is. I am, instead, a scholar of religion—a study that, in its finer moments, makes the wisdom of the world foolish, and grants new eyes to see. So when I look out my office window at student enrollments across departments, or at student representation in the campus’ extracurricular life, I do not ask why women lag behind men in the self-promotion that the world calls accomplishment. I ask instead why men lag behind women in that spirit of humble service that all our great religious and philosophical traditions call virtue.

Race MoChridhe is a FAR intern, a Filianist, and an independent scholar of religion with special interest in the intersections of feminism, new religious movements, and Traditionalist thought. More of his work may be found at his website, www.racemochridhe.com, and at his devotional blog, Apron Strings.

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Categories: Academics, Academy, college, Education, Gender, OpEd, Women and Scholarship

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11 replies

  1. yes indeed – I like this “I ask instead why men lag behind women in that spirit of humble service that all our great religious and philosophical traditions call virtue.” What the world needs now is a lot more virtuous humble service, and it is time that male persons stepped down(?) to it: imagine that … the six o’clock news would be different!

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  2. Thank you!

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  3. Great post, Race. Thank you. Your conclusion is affirming: “I do not ask why women lag behind men in the self-promotion that the world calls accomplishment. I ask instead why men lag behind women in that spirit of humble service that all our great religious and philosophical traditions call virtue.” Still….I have known (and love) men in academia who are all about “humble service.” Refreshing though it may be, these men are often uplifted because they’re seen as “more virtuous” than those who choose more traditional male roles. It’s like fathers who “babysit” their own children. “Isn’t he a great guy? His wife sure is a lucky gal.” But still, your post is excellent.

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    • Esther, thank you for your comment! I saw a post on Facebook the other day with a woman lamenting precisely the state of affairs you describe and writing that, although she does indeed consider herself fortunate to have a husband who goes above and beyond for her on many occasions, his performance of basic household duties one would expect of any roommate and his willingness to spend time with his own children are not such occasions, and that she is tired of him getting “brownie points” for common human competency at life. It was funny and good-humored, but also very sad in its reflection of the double standards that we perpetuate as a society. It is certainly a trap we have to be careful not to fall into if we are at all successful in reorienting men’s priorities to a culturally significant degree.

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  4. I taught at Columbia and Barnard before they merged. I was astonished (in the 70s) to see that though classes were cross-listed, Barnard had its own proud heritage and far more female professors than Columbia. As soon as the schools officially merged, women faculty had the same difficulty being hired and promoted as they had earlier had at Columbia. Progress?????????????????? I am sure the curriculum changed too.

    And of course women students who are raped on campus now take their case to “Columbia” with (non) results that have become a widely reported scandal.

    The research you cite names “female choice” and women students’ “perplexingly gendered attitudes and behaviors.” Context is overlooked, including attitudes of professors and other students in male-dominated fields. I don’t think attitudes and behaviors are at all perplexing if women students are made to feel uncomfortable in the classroom or by male professors in male-dominated fields.

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    • The original research Malkiel based her piece on was indeed narrowly-focused that way. I have seen other studies as well where it seems as though much more effort goes into determining the reasons for choices made by men, whereas the hunt for reasons for womens’ actions often seems to end with a statement that their choices are “gendered”. I am reminded of another article I read recently (https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-xx-factor/) about how medical research rarely uses significant numbers of female subjects even to test pharmaceuticals and other treatments intended for women. Serious research method reform seems to be needed across multiple disciplines with respect to accounting for women’s reality and experience.

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  5. On women mentoring students, I had a very wonderful professor when I was in college, and she stayed with me after I graduated, until I got a job at the Whitney Museum in New York and then she came to visit me there and we had lunch together and she toasted to my success. She was like a mom, and of course an exceedingly good teacher of art history. I have a great Taoist coach now too, younger than I am, but in some way far more mature in her understanding of life and how best to enjoy and navigate it. I am exceedingly lucky indeed.

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  6. ‘ Penalised for having a broader view of what it means to be human’. There are many women and men who suffer financial loss due to such
    attitudes. We must remember that professors and researchers in science are rather well paid compared to the uneducated who may not have such abilities. Some of these forgotten ones may have that broad view you speak of. I do believe women as a general rule are more apt to put ambition on one side but this is due to the maternal nature of woman and perhaps we should think more carefully before we push this caring quality to one side.

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  7. Your article reminds me of Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking book, “In A Different Voice.” Have you read it? She found, among other things, that women were often considered to be inferior because they weren’t willing to step on people to rise to the top of their professions. It is also true that whenever women join a profession in large numbers the pay goes down and so does the prestige. That happened with teaching and with journalism, one of my former journalism professors told my class. So basically anything that women feel drawn to do is undervalued – SIGH!

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