A Silent Minority
LONG before there was a women's movement, it was assumed that boys would study about politics, wars and leadership, and girls would learn how to take care of the home. Supposedly, in the last few decades, these deeply ingrained differences have gone away. But at Harvard in 1988, the overwhelming majority of men are still studying traditionally male subjects and dominating the main forums for campus opinion, while women are shying away from them.
Harvard's student body is 41 percent female, but:
. In Government, women concentrators comprise 28 percent of the department, in Economics 24 percent, in Social Studies 37 percent and in History 30 percent.
. In Sociology, women comprise 59 percent of the concentrators, in Literature 67 percent and in Psychology 62 percent.
. Only 31 percent of the recently elected Undergraduate Council representatives are women. Last semester only one of the committee chairmen was a woman and none of the council's executive officers was.
. Out of 33 members of the Institute of Politics Student Advisory Committee, only eight are women.
. This fall, The Crimson advertised for its news and editorial comps with a simple sign saying, "Comp Crimson." None of the 30 people expressing a strong interest in the editorial comp were women.
. In a 1984 study of 24 Harvard classes, conducted by Lecturer on Education Catherine Krupnick, women underparticipated in every section with a minority of women. In fact, women only participated as much as their male counterparts when women were in the majority and there was a female section leader.
WHY are women participating in certain forums less than men, and why are they overrepresented elsewhere? In part, many women undergraduates say they fear voicing their opinions in a public forum, even though they would like to do so. But women are not only avoiding intimidating situations, it seems they are also choosing comfortable ones, areas where the focus is on personal relations rather than systemic power plays.
Because of the 1960s and 1970s women's liberation movement, our generation was the first to be educated in classrooms that sought to equalize the situation for genders. Harvard is the ultimate step on this educational continuum, the ultimate sign that women can achieve as much as men. But if women here do not rise to the top in a rate commensurate with men, then it becomes that much harder to compete after graduation.
At the very least, men have gained an advantage in resumes and self-esteem. At the most, women have been self-selected out of the departments that prep students for government, business and other professional leadership.
The system is such that the brightest young women come to the most prestigious schools, only to see their leadership skills wane. Krupnick notes that many women who were vocal leaders in high school and now attend schools like Harvard are intimidated by the intensified competition. Coming here decreased their leadership potential in the long-run, she says, adding that they would have fared better at a smaller school or a women's college.
IN short, when Harvard opened its doors to women, the battle was only half over. Many sections and activities here prize qualities that have been discouraged in women--agressiveness, assertiveness, courage, independence.
In a typical Government section, there are 15 men and three women. A vocal male asserts that the international balance of power is caused by something, another argues that it is caused by something else. The discussion speeds along like a ping-pong match, until the male section leader intercedes to make a point--only to be interrupted by another male student.
Speaking out in section entails putting your opinions on the line, interrupting someone else to do it, arguing against someone else's idea in order to boost your own.
In a study of college women for the book In a Different Voice, Professor of Education Carol Gilligan found a "reticence about taking stands on 'controversial issues' is echoed repeatedly..." Her findings--about "a sense of vulnerability that impedes these women from taking a stand"--help explain why women don't talk in section or comp for the Crimson editorial board.
The structure of sections should become more respectful of individuals and spawn more cooperative positions rather than strident arguments. Sections could only improve with a heavy dose of feminine input.
But being cooperative need not come at the expense of being confident or assertive. After all, the qualities most favored in Harvard classrooms are valued in career leadership.
Another part of the problem is that key leadership posts have male titles--chairman of the department, chairman of the Undergraduate Council, chairman of the board. It is tough for a woman to strive to be chairman when she will never be what half of the title proclaims. Women should not have to take on anything male to take on top posts.
Of course, when women do attain leadership roles, they are accused of doing just that. "Admit it, you act just like a male in women's clothing," men have told ambitious friends of mine. Does that mean they are determined to attain positions traditionally held by men? Does that mean they assert themselves in the way that men are taught to do? Does that mean they are exceptionally good--and isn't that rare for a woman?!
WOMEN are accused of acting like men, only because men have been raised to see the world and act a certain way in it. Studies show that grade school boys are eight times as likely to call out in class and twice as likely to garner a teacher's praise than female classmates.
Gilligan found that boys viewed situations in terms of hierarchy and systemic power while girls saw the world through a network of human relations. Gilligan's studies of men note recurrent imageries of violence.
Government courses overwhelmingly emphasize systems, abstract balances of forces and state power, ignoring the impact on the individuals affected by these larger forces. Discussions in history and government classes are often mere studies in violence, as they examine past wars or prospects for nuclear war.
One required Government course and a popular Core, Historical Study A-12, "International Conflicts in the Modern World," is cited as intimidating by many women--for its male-dominated sections and its subject matter of power, wars and nuclear weaponry. Many male students, however, praise the course as one of their best at Harvard.
WOMEN do dominate some departments: those that study systems and power from a more human point of view.
Many of the Sociology Department's offerings focus on the study of women, minorities, families and human problems. Government courses often study these same problems but rarely consider a case study of a family or a minority or a woman who is actually affected by large-scale government programs. Here is a government policy, we learn in a typical class. Millions of people were affected; this is how the government reacted; the systems are still in control.
The hierarchies studied in government, economics and history courses are run by men. Women can more readily identify with the people affected by the power structure, but they have few ties to those who control it.
HARVARD could do a lot to boost women's confidence. If there are few female role models, women have little to strive for, little to emulate and no sense that being a Harvard professor is attainable. The obvious solution: tenure more women faculty and recruit more women graduate students. If, according to Krupnick's survey, women will only participate a lot in sections with a female majority and a female section leader, then certainly there should be more women teaching fellows--and maybe even the option of a majority female section.
The simple problem that undergraduate enrollment does not reflect the percentage of women in society needs to be solved: admit a fair share of women. But balancing the sexes will not alone solve the problem. Both men and women at Harvard need to meet each other halfway. Women must be willing to risk entering into the fray of public debate, and men must be willing to take a cue from the women classmates and listen.