Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why gender discrimination should end - an insight from Faculty Resident's Study Breaks

During final examination periods, I host faculty resident’s study breaks from 10:45 until midnight. There is fresh fruit, fresh coffee, hot water for tea (both caffeinated and herbal), hot chocolate mix, juice, soft drinks (Mountain Dew is the most popular) a selection of cookies, candy (from the supply I use for fire alarm evacuations), and a refrigerator well stocked with ice cream bars. Prominently posted signs describe the norms of this event for newcomers: “it is ok to grab a snack and run;” “help yourself to ice cream from the refrigerator;” “feel free to take something back to your roommate.” Some visitors do grab a snack and run, but many more stay for conversations, with me and each other, on a variety of topics. Now that my alternating sunday night dinners have become so large, 25 to as many as 50 guests are the norm, study breaks provide one of the best opportunities for wide ranging conversations with students that I particularly enjoyed.

One night last week, the topic was intercollegiate rowing. A young woman whom I had not met before spoke about competing in high school and, now, in her first year at AU. When I told her that I rowed at Dartmouth, we shared experiences of training and competitions. Both us had raced on Philadelphia’s Schukill River, Boston’s Charles River and Annapolis's Severn River. We compared the modern training methods she used with the more primitive ones that had had been the norm at Dartmouth (‘if it doesn’t hurt it isn’t doing you any good’ was our coach’s motto.) At both institutions rowing was a ‘Club Sport” which meant that we paid our own way. She described the challenges of rowing in DC’s Anacostia river, which is often strewn with debris and malodorous with industrial and human waste discharges. Shortly before midnight she left, saying that she had to be up and 4:30 AM for practice.

This young woman was typical of AU’s female athletes, a group of students that particularly impress me. Most are articulate and strong academically. They carry themselves with poise and self confidence. They are responsible, active members of our community. At Commencement, a young woman was honored as AU’s top undergraduate student. Not only did she have a near perfect grade-point average, she had an an exemplary community service record. She also played on AU’s Rugby team.

For the opportunities these young women have been given, we can be thankful to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, now know as the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act in honor of its principal author. Patsy Mink, whom I knew as a friend when I was active in politics, fought racial and gender discrimination throughout her long, path-breaking professional career.

Gender discrimination is still a fact of life, most egregiously in countries of the Middle East and Africa. Its residue persists in the US Congress, in business and even at enlightened institutions like American University. (At AU, the President, Provost, every Vice President but one and every Dean but one are male.) In Afghanistan under the Taliban, to cite the worst example, we saw the lengths to which men are willing to go, if unrestrained, to protect their gender-based power. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’ reminds us that Taliban-like repression of women is at least a hypothetical possibility, even in the United States or another western nation.

When the young women with whom I spoke and others like her are of an age to assume leadership roles in politics, business and at major universities, I hope to see a continuation of recent trends rather than the reversals many men secretly favor. Were politics, business and university administrations, throughout the world dominated by women, as they are now dominated by men, I believe the world would be a better place in which to live for all of us.

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Blogger Eric said...

I think you forgot about one of AU's Vice Presidents. Half of them are women.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Aaron Matthews said...

Honest question, but something I've been wondering for awhile now. How would Patsy Mink feel about Title IX not only allowing but in many cases requiring discrimination against young boys? Was she the type of person that wanted girls to have an equal chance, or would she be happy knowing that young boys today face quotas and are an afterthought in many schools and classes?

7:35 AM  
Blogger dormgrandpop said...

Response to Aaron
Patsy Mink was seeking equal opportunity. Legislation such as Title IX is always an imperfect instrument, but as David Sadker's work and that of many others have demonstrated the scales are still weighted towards young men in both education and athletics. However with and more women becoming attorneys and political leaders, the balance is shifting.

7:49 AM  
Blogger dormgrandpop said...

Response to Eric
Thanks for the correction, AU's University Counsel is a Vice President, though she is not a very visible member of the senior administration. However I believe the substance of my point, about the male-dominance of AU's senior administration is still correct.

7:54 AM  

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