Saturday, October 09, 2010

Feminism's Unfinished Agenda: If Women Have Equal Opportunity, Why Are The Outcomes So Very Unequal?

Photo Credit
This is Part II of a three-part polemic about the need to sustain and expand women's education in the 21st century.  Read Part I here.

First and foremost, a women's single-sex college -- whether it is a private institution or a residential college lodged in a large public university or university system -- is about an institutional commitment to the success of female undergraduates. It is about a commitment to the young woman who will want to have a career, an intimate relationship and often children as well. This is feminism's unfinished agenda.

How to mix of career and family is one of our modern feminist dilemmas, one that extends to lesbians as well as heterosexual women as parenting has become legally and medically available to women who choose intimacy without men. This requires that those of us who are committed to creating spaces that privilege female intellects re-think the original women’s private college project to meet 21st century public challenges. In the 19th century, as many of us know, education for women was a privilege, but it assumed class and racial privilege as well. Women’s colleges were mostly white, middle-class spaces, and it was assumed that educated women would not need to seek the financial security of marriage: M. Carey Thomas, the founding president of Bryn Mawr College and one of the first women to take the PH.D., was famous for having pronounced that “our failures only marry.”

It would take over half a century and two world wars for married women to break the barrier of professional work. On Drew Faust’s first day at Bryn Mawr College in 1963, President Katherine E. McBride welcomed the incoming class at convocation with a lecture about “their work.” As Drew recounted this experience in 2001, she recalled:

I will never forget Miss McBride up on the stage telling us to be humble in face of Our Work. I had not before realized that I had Work. I had thought I did assignments and took tests and wrote papers. But Miss McBride's address instilled in me a new found reverence for learning and scholarship. My awe at being invited to play even a small part within that sacred and timeless world has never left me.

I mention this because it is a good example of how, through language, women leaders transform familiar and daily acts into ambitions and goals. Women also need female heroes. One of mine is my godmother, Mary Maples Dunn, who was probably at the convocation for Drew Faust’s class in 1963 as an assistant professor in United States colonial history (and in fact, became one of Drew’s mentors, as Drew later became one of mine.) Subsequently, Mary became a dean at Bryn Mawr and the President of Smith College.

Mary has shown me by example and by instruction how to be a woman historian, something there were very few of when she took up her first job at Bryn Mawr; how to be a tough and competitive academic in universities that are still more of a man’s world than anyone wants to admit; and later, how to be a fair-minded administrator. When I asked her prior to this interview at Douglass what the role of a women’s college was in today’s world, she gave me two thoughts. “A women’s college is the place a woman can learn what gender equality really looks like,” she said, and then she paused. “Women’s education is really feminism’s unfinished agenda,” she said.

So where does the women's college fit in this agenda?

We can point to the academy itself, where women are under-appointed, under-tenured, under-promoted, and underpaid. Although I have quite a lot to say about the failure of the social sciences to achieve gender parity, or to recruit sufficient numbers of faculty of color to their ranks, it is the persistently small numbers of women, and women of color, in science careers that will have the greatest impact on our competitiveness as a nation. Science is also a good place to look since most colleges and graduate schools have undertaken programs of various kinds, ones that often emphasize mentoring, to address gender disparities that are far more extreme than in other fields.

And yet, the need for such programs raises much bigger questions about why talented women are underrepresented in so many fields, and whether the sciences are the extreme end of a much larger problem. We all remember, of course, the storm that was unleashed in 2005 at Harvard when then – President Larry Summers, in a few ill-chosen words, left the false impression that innate biological differences between men and women accounted for the small numbers of women in science. A GAO report issued in 2004 further confused this issue with an argument familiar to those of us who have taught EEOC v. Sears (1986): women, the Bush administration explained, choose less demanding careers than men do. Other studies, similar to those that explore the racial “testing gap,” argue that women are sent explicit or implicit messages that they are unlikely to succeed in science and simply stop trying.

This is a clear example of a policy question that requires not just intervention, but ongoing public conversation. Colleges and institutions that devote themselves exclusively to women are key participants in such discussions. For example, in 2010, the American Association of University Women issued a report titled “Why So Few?” detailing women’s under representation in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) Here are a few things they discovered: of industrial workers with doctorates in computer and information sciences, 17% are women, compared with 33% in the life sciences. The numbers are even worse in the university: 7% of tenured faculty in the physical sciences are women, compared to 22% in the life sciences. Harvard has just tenured its first female math professor – ever.

So what is the role of women's intellectual communities (whether colleges or learning communities within colleges or universities) in creating equality, other than simply supplying a stream of educated and ambitious women? We will discuss this tomorrow in the third, and final section, of this extended post.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.


Anonymous said...

TR, if I may advance a counterexample, about half of the folks entering med school in the U.S. today are women. Since med school is fairly competitive, I would say that these women tend to be very well grounded in science (have you ever taken an organic chemistry course? It is fairly sciency!) And last I looked, medicine is still a fairly high-prestige, well-paying occupation. So our coed institutions of higher learning apparently are doing some things right.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to add my name to the above comment--for some reason, I can only get "anonymous" to work when I post here.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

TR, if I may advance a counterexample, about half of the folks entering med school in the U.S. today are women.

Have you looked into what percent of chief residents are women, attendings, division chiefs, medical school tenure-track faculty, tenured faculty, department chairs, deans, hospital presidents? Hint: medicine is far from the "counterexample" your superficial analysis erroneously led you to conclude it is.

(Now you're gonna tell us that, well it is just gonna take some time for the 50%/50% representation at the entry level to percolate upwards, amirite?)

Anonymous said...

Well, Comrade PhysioProf, let me just say that even those poor lady doctors who only get to become Internists and OB/GYNs will end up making a lot more money than you or I or 90% of all academics do (and will be able to send their daughters to elite womens schools if they so wish). Progress is as progress does. By my yardstick, anybody who does better than me is doing OK. It's kind of like Politics -- no woman president yet (thanks to the Democrats) but several promising Republican candidates coming along.



Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the link to that report, TR! I was just having a conversation on the same topic with a (female) friend of mine who works at Intel, who mentioned how very male tech industry is. I sent her the report link.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

By my yardstick, anybody who does better than me is doing OK.

Dude, what the fucke kind of gibberish is that? So you're a fucken loser, and therefore anyone marginally better off than you should shut the fucke uppe about any inequality at their level?

Anonymous said...

This is a great post.

Re medical school, I've heard that the reason more women and also foreigners of color are in medical school now is that it isn't as lucrative as it used to be and that a lot of the guys who used to go to medical school go right into business. Don't know, but it sounds very plausible.

Anonymous said...

sptc, according to Forbes, physicians have the highest salaries in the country, doing even better on average than the chief executives of corporations: see

To quote from the article:
"Nine of the nation's 10 highest-paying occupations are in the medical field, including anesthesiologist, oral and maxillofacial surgeon, orthodontist, and obstetrician and gynecologist." Some of these specialties are mostly male, but others (eg OB/GYN) have a lot of women in them.

I don't think folks graduating today from medical school need to worry about whether they will make money. In any case, U.S. medical schools are still very competitive (maybe even more so than some elite colleges), so there are undoubtedly many women learning plenty of science in the U.S. higher-education system!


Comrade PhysioProf said...

In any case, U.S. medical schools are still very competitive (maybe even more so than some elite colleges), so there are undoubtedly many women learning plenty of science in the U.S. higher-education system!

Dude, do you understand that the "science" taught in undergrad as the pre-med curriculum is solely pretend mickey-mouse textbook weed-out crappe, and has nothing whatsoever to do with actual science as practiced in research laboratories?

I really don't understand why you are so determined to wallow in your ignorance of the topic TR has written about here. There is tremendous gender inequality in science and medicine (and pretty much every other profession). The facts that (1) first-year medical and life-sciences grad students are about 50/50 women and (2) physicians make a lot of money and (3) pre-meds learn child-level science, don't mitigate this one fucken bit.

If you would shut up and pay fucken attention and THINK for a millisecond instead of gibbering nonsensically in support of your logically and factually bereft right-wing delusions, you'd realize that the extreme difference in gender representation between the entry level and the highest levels of these--and pretty much all other professions--IS EXACTLY THE FUCKEN PROBLEM TR IS WRITING ABOUT. Jeezus fucke, holmes, did you even read the title of the motherfucken post?

Anonymous said...

CPP, armwaving and cursing do not replace facts (except perhaps in some low-rent saloons). Try mustering facts instead of curses and maybe your argument will be a little more persuasive.

And if you want to see women getting ahead, turn your gaze from Wellesley and Mount Holyoke and look to the promising crop of Republican women who will be running the country one of these days.

I have known plenty of MDs (in fact I was married to one for awhile) and plenty of PhD researchers, and believe me, MD is better! Better money, less political ass-kissing, and better job security. How many post-docs are actually getting career positions these days? Few things are more pathetic than a burned-out postdoc physicist who can't get a real job!

Anonymous said...

Actually, I just thought of something even more pathetic than the post-doc physicist referred to above--namely English and History PhDs making the dreary rounds of adjuncthood. I have known one such person who is a terrific teacher and has been doing this for over 30 years! And she went to Douglass!


Bardiac said...

To change the subject a bit: at my public, comprehensive institution, we have relatively few non-pre-med women taking science or STEM sorts of classes. I'm wondering how the women's colleges do? Do their percentages of women in STEM field parallel our percentages of all students, or parallel our percentages of female students? (And by "our," I'm thinking of a broad swath of regional comprehensives, and not just my specific school.)

Historiann said...

Bardiac: in a recent interview with the NYT, current Bryn Mawr President Jane McAuliffe said that students at women's colleges were twice as likely to major in STEM fields as students at co-ed schools. (She doesn't cite her source, but here's the link:

I remember when I was a student there that we were told that if one met a female physicist, there was a better than 1 in 7 or 1 in 9 chance that she had a degree from Bryn Mawr College. That's completely out of date information, but it was pretty stunning considering the size of the college (about 1,200 undergrads when I was there.)

Historiann said...

And, if you click on the link I left above, be sure to read the comments, many of which are testimony from alumns of all generations about the importance of single-sex ed (and Bryn Mawr in particular) in nurturing their scholarly and leadership abilities. I expected the comments to degenerate into attacks on women's colleges, single-sex ed for women, or the like as is typical in comments on major newspaper articles, but these don't. Remarkable, and lots of inspiring stories--see especially the comments from alumnae who then went on to co-ed STEM grad school and then confronted huge differences in the way women grad students were treated.

Unknown said...

Good post and I'm glad to find your blog :)

I lived for eight years in Brazil in the 1990s and there are so many women docotors, dentists, engineers and scientists that is was shocking coming back to the US in 2001 and finding only 4 women dentists in my progressive college town. The total of male dentists: 96.

I met a physicist, a woman, who had been to Brazil and said she never imagined meeting so many women in her field.

I'm in no way saying that Brazil is devoid of sexism (if only...) but that sexism is different in every country and in ours, it certainly shows in this area.

Bardiac said...

Thanks for responding, Historianne. That's great information!

FrauTech said...

I blogged on that "Why So Few" publication back in March:

People like Jack make me really depressed. 50% admissions to medical school is one very specific number of one very specific thing. One high paying profession out of mulitudes of low paying professions does not set women at a level of parity. And your numbers do not reflect women who graduate from medical school, or women who go on to even work in medicine. I bet the numbers are lower.

I'm in engineering. When I started women in my classes was about 30%. Now that I'm in senior level classes it's down to 15%. Women in my department at work is something like 3%. There are no female supervisors/managers etc in my department, and the numbers for women working in my industry has stayed pretty flat for the last 20 years (something like 10%) so why isn't that number filtering up to the top?

Jack when you go into how these "female doctors" are making more than you, therefore doing "well" it comes off as pretty bitter. As in, it's okay that there's a bunch of rich white dudes running business and wall street is this country but as soon as some woman comes along and gets a medical degree and becomes a doctor and someday makes more than you she should consider herself darn lucky and isn't allowed to complain about anything.

You personally are not the yardstick whereby women succeed and fail. And because some women in one field make more than you, but the vast majority who have your equal education and experience make less than you, does not mean we've achieved equality.

I hope you realize how your attitude comes across, that women who make a dime more than you don't deserve it, are uppity, etc. The same argument used against women (they CHOOSE lower paying professions) could be used for you here, there's a reason doctors make more than college professors in art history. Is it fair? No, it's about as fair as women engineers making less than their male colleagues with equal experience and education ( But I guess because engineers still do okay, they shouldn't complain, right? I mean african americans in the 1960s couldn't vote, but hey they weren't slaves so they shouldn't complain.

FrauTech said...

Ack sorry for double post...

Anonymous said...

FrauTech, you are reading too much into what I said. It is true, though, that it is hard for me to get too worked up about some female executive who "only" makes 250K while her male cohorts make 275K. However, I am not "bitter" -- just indifferent. Would you expect a person on welfare (or on, say, an adjunct's salary) to get all worked up about the injustices experienced by members of the elite? Then don't expect me to, either. My take is, you can discriminate against me, too, as long as you give me that 250K! Engineering is a tough field for women (we could argue about why-- Larry Summmers has one take) but in my work I have encountered female engineers who do pretty well. Still I would agree there is considerable room for improvement in that field. But strange things are happening -- in my field, Computer Science, women were closing the gap until a few years ago, when their progress seemed to stall--not sure why. In any case, good luck in you endeavor to attain equality as an engineer!