I doubt, or at least hope that I should doubt, that anyone is unaware that the United States has a history of excluding women and people of color from important institutions that offer opportunities toward a better quality of life. To be more specific, we used to have explicit laws and policies that barred women and racial and ethnic minorities from the labor market, institutions of higher education, and the military, just to name a few. We can celebrate the social progress that has been made with respect to race, ethnicity, and gender (especially now during Black History Month and next month, Women’s History Month) and really jump for joy when we start to see true equality. One victory has been an equal representation of women in institutions of higher education. But, now that women are starting to enroll and graduate in higher numbers than men, some people are starting to worry, like New York Times’s Alex Williams:
“North Carolina, with a student body that is nearly 60 percent female, is just one of many large universities that at times feel eerily like women’s colleges. Women have represented about 57 percent of enrollments at American colleges since at least 2000, according to a recent report by the American Council on Education. Researchers there cite several reasons: women tend to have higher grades; men tend to drop out in disproportionate numbers; and female enrollment skews higher among older students, low-income students, and black and Hispanic students.
In terms of academic advancement, this is hardly the worst news for women — hoist a mug for female achievement. And certainly, women are primarily in college not because they are looking for men, but because they want to earn a degree.
But surrounded by so many other successful women, they often find it harder than expected to find a date on a Friday night.”
Whereas college degrees offer graduates stronger chances of landing a good job, and whereas women are starting to outnumber men in terms of college enrollment and degrees, the status quo may be at risk, so there is cause for panic! Right? (Please note my sarcasm.) But, rather than celebrating the reality that women are outperforming men academically, Williams devotes an article to the “social ramifications” of this “gender-imbalance.” The article tumbles from concerns about too few available men to date (because, obviously finding a future husband is every woman’s number one priority, including queer women) into concerns about men gaining greater power over women.
A number of issues must be raised. First, can we stop stereotyping women as relationship-crazy? Similar to research that has been done on the “hooking up” phenomenon, which includes the work of sociologists Kathleen Bogle, who is quoted in Williams’s article, scholars have found that women feel pressured to be in a relationship by men, and are perceived as always wanting to be in a relationship, but many women would rather avoid very time- and emotion-consuming relationships while in college. College no longer represents a chance to get one’s “MRS degree” – just look at the longer and longer delay of first marriage among today’s young adults. So, yes, some women have opted for “hooking up” instead of time-consuming relationships, but, sadly, “hooking up” tends to happen on men’s terms (they initiate, it happens in their dorms) and focus primarily on men’s pleasure (given the “orgasm gap” noted in research on “hooking up”).
Second, what the hell is wrong with women’s colleges? “North Carolina, with a student body that is nearly 60 percent female, is just one of many large universities that at times feel eerily like women’s colleges.” Williams makes places like Hood College, Smith College, Spelman College sound like creepy graveyards you don’t want to be caught in at night. (What’s scarier for the average hetero-woman than being surrounded by hairy, lesbian, feminazis that are too butch and radical to fit in at a co-ed college?) Many of the schools Williams mentions are somewhere between 51% and 60% female. I have a feeling the difference between 50-50 and 55-45 is hardly noticeable at bigger schools. Further, why is there no criticism of men-only colleges or colleges that are majority-men (but that claim to be inclusive)?
Third, I disagree with the notion that men at “gender-imbalanced” colleges have gained power over women. Whether there is one woman or 99% of students are women, men are still the dominant group in our patriarchal society. Sex, dating, and relationships still reflect men’s greater power in society. And, colleges and universities do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by the history of sexism and exclusion in the United States, and by the sexist society in which they exist today. Many disciplines in which women are the minority, majority, or equally represented continue to be male-dominated, or may have a long history that privileges men’s contributions over women’s.
Finally, I am concerned that there is no critique of the thinly-veiled attempts to counter the tip in enrollment and graduation toward women with “affirmative action for men.” I have ranted before about these initiatives to change admissions standards in men’s favor. One oft-cited reason people oppose affirmative action to equalize opportunity and access for women and people of color is an opposition to lowering standards for these disadvantaged groups, yet there seems to be little concern to do so now for the sake of men. If women are outperforming men, great! This doesn’t mean that we’ve suddenly achieved gender equality across the board, and are now surpassing it toward female privilege and male disadvantage. Though we may be seeing parity in education in general, we don’t see it across every major (men are overrepresented in the natural and life sciences, yet women are overrepresented in the social sciences), and we certainly continue to see inequality in other arenas (e.g., 75 cents earned to every man’s dollar?). No one has asked what these implicit “affirmative action for men” will mean for explicit affirmative action policies followed by universities.
I feel no shame in saying “so what?” You see a tiny bit of challenge to male privilege and there are reactions that seem more appropriate for the end of the world. A little secret for you… we’ll never achieve equality while majority/dominant groups retain their privileges. You can’t have your privileges and equality, too. Oh gosh, I’m not looking forward to hearing waves of rants about our “post-gender” society.