Are women treated differently at Calvin?

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

I spent the four most formative years of my life, high school, at an all-­girls Catholic school. My high school’s motto was simple: “educating women who make a difference.” I can’t really attest to whether or not that actually happens for each student, but the obvious focus on instilling in girls the lifelong drive to pursue academic or careers ambitions heavily influenced who I am now, and essentially all of my former high school friends.

Coming to Calvin was a bit of a change, and the academic environment served to be a shock. Partly because of where I went to high school, partly because of not being exposed to Calvin’s community very much before coming here, I wasn’t expecting a community that encouraged finding lifelong marital partners as heavily as it did pursuing academic fulfillment disproportionately so for women. Then I began witnessing situations in which women could potentially be negatively affected: women not being as vocal in classes or sometimes being discouraged immediately after speaking, micro­-aggressive comments made to myself or friends that questioned our seriousness in our academic pursuits and interactions that overall seemed to allude to the fact that women may not be taken as seriously in some disciplines here. So it led me to ask, are women facing an academic disadvantage here? Or, rather, have we fostered a community that values women for being mothers and wives over being academics and professionals?

First off, it seems that women who are pursuing traditionally “flexible” career paths are praised for electing to study something such as nursing or speech pathology because it will allow them to have the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mother, if they so choose.

“I get praise for seeking a flexible career choice all the time”, said a junior speech pathology major. It also seems that women are hearing this rhetoric constantly.

“The number of times I’ve had professors or staff tell me that my decision to pursue nursing is a wise one because it will allow me to stay home with my children and still return to work when they’re older is astounding,” said Rebecca Janke, a pre-­nursing student. She went on to say that “personally, I am excited about having a family someday, and I do love the flexibility of my field, but no one ever took the time to ask me before they just assumed.”

What’s ultimately concerning about this is certainly not the fact that women studying at Calvin may want to be stay-at­-home moms, for that is rightly their prerogative to do if they so choose. What’s concerning is that it creates an academic environment that disproportionately praises women who seem to be making academic decisions with family and children in mind while discouraging women from solely pursuing a career or academic discipline, thus reinforcing the idea that women’s ultimate success comes from raising children.

Another issue seems to be that women have a more difficult time pursuing disciplines that are traditionally male­-dominated, such as in STEM. A pre­-med student who wishes to remain anonymous said, “being a [woman] STEM, medicine-pursuing student at Calvin College, it seems that is already considered abnormal in some way and that is the beginning of the problem.” She expressed feeling more discouraged as a woman in STEM than most of her white, male counterparts often seem to be, and some stereotypes regarding what women are best at have been hard to face. “I have found more discouragement for pursuing pre-­med and becoming a pediatrician and more encouragement to consider a ‘lighter career’ like nursing than most of most of my male peers have received,” she says. She also finds issue with the fact that there is so little diversity within the STEM department, the majority of faculty members not only being overwhelmingly male, but also overwhelmingly white.

Another student, Lauren Ebels, a computer science major, voiced similar concerns about the lack of representation in her discipline. “We literally had a single female prof in the CS department and then she left, and now it seems we can’t replace her,” she says. Overall, it seems that women would benefit much more from seeing themselves better represented in some of the disciplines at Calvin, and everyone would benefit from seeing more racial diversity.

“It’s hard to feel like one’s goals are attainable when you can’t see anyone around you that looks like you that has gotten there,” says the first student.

I don’t think I can conclude that women are academically disadvantaged at Calvin, but I can conclude this: women certainly have a different academic experience here, and it’s one that not only prioritizes their ability to be mothers over being students, but also discourages them from pursuing challenging and rigorous academic disciplines and fields that men would not be questioned for pursuing.

This is a serious problem. Why? Because allowing this kind of rhetoric to go unchallenged creates a community that not only isn’t academically egalitarian, but reinforces the traditionally misogynistic ideas about women that hold that their only true purpose is to serve as child bearers and caregivers, and deem them incapable of any “serious,” traditionally masculine pursuits. This is not something that we’re seeing to be as big of an issue at most highly competitive universities, and frankly, is a problem that should not exist at a university.

There is no need to have the conversation over whether women are as capable academically in all disciplines because the answer is simple: yes, they are. And we should all care, because if women are not receiving the encouragement they need in college, some of the most formative years of anyone’s professional life, we’re not going to solve anything in terms of serious gender gaps in the workforce. For anyone that’s concerned about how they may be treating students, I would say that implicit bias exists, and even if you are not explicitly telling women that they are better suited to get married and have children, you still need to be aware of how you treat students differently, because both types of aggressions can be discouraging. It’s hard to change ingrained cultural attitudes about others, but checking ourselves on how we treat others is a good place to start.