Late 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.