Friday, October 9, 2009

Female-centric assumptions in academia

One of the courses I teach this semester has a lab component where I work with groups of 10 or so students on specific skills. These lab courses are conducted in a fairly informal manner and there is a lot of casual conversation going on as skills are practiced. I have the opportunity to hear and participate in some interesting and sometimes disturbing conversations among the students. Mostly I just ask questions to hopefully encourage them to think about what they are saying.

A few weeks back I alluded to one such conversation where a female student claimed a young man who was a neighbor of hers in one of the student apartment complexes was a “loser”. She made this claim following a few minutes reporting how he helped her move heavy objects and how he gave her back rubs. He had asked her if she would knock on his door and wake him up the next morning when she left for class. She said she told him, “No, I’m not your mother”. Apparently asking her to do something helpful for him after doing helpful things for her was just too much to ask and thus earned him the title “loser”. I asked her, “So, what exactly makes him a “loser” and she had no answer to my question. Other young women in the class did proclaim her “mean” but most of them (not all though) still laughed.

This week I also had a conversation about the ever present myth that men are unfairly paid more than women. One of the young women was talking about when she worked at a local Halloween haunted house/ hay ride type of attraction last year. During the conversation she mentioned how cool all of the make-up effects were and that going through the attraction was so scary that she was scared when she went through it even though she worked behind the scenes regularly. She talked about how during the hay ride young men dressed in black with scary masks etc run out of the corn fields and chase and actually jump up on the hay wagon and grab at the people in it. She mentioned that the owner only hired males to do this job. Later in the conversation she mentioned that it was common knowledge that the owner paid the men more than the women. Another female student agreed that was unfair. I asked, “Do the guys do different jobs than the girls?” She answered, “Um, well, yeah I guess they do, they do the chasing the wagon where they stay outside all the time and have to run after and catch the wagon and jump up on it.” I asked, “Are there no women that earn more money too?” She answered, “Well, yes, the make-up artist is a woman and she earns the most.” Hmm….that is always an easy conversation to have, as such it is amazing to me the “it is unfair that men get paid more” myth endures because it is so easy to refute that any difference is due to different types of work and or lifestyle choices made.

Today, a female student was talking about her out-of-state internship this past summer where she dated a medical student she met. She was joking with one of the male students who was also on an internship in the same state who came to visit her one weekend had “chased off” this medical student. “Thanks a lot , he was going to be a doctor!” she joked. “He kept asking me ‘Is he your boyfriend’ and I said that you were just a friend.” She then went on to relate the last conversation she had with the medical student. “He invited me to the lake. He said ‘You’re so pretty, let’s go to the lake. The atmosphere will be perfect.’ Isn't that creepy? Ha ha! And I said, ‘Um, perfect for what?” I asked her “Did you really say that to him?” and she said she did. I said, “Hmm, maybe it wasn’t your male friend visiting, maybe he didn’t take kindly to your assumption that he had some nefarious purpose in mind?” She seemed stunned at the thought, for a second, and then laughed.

Not that the news is all bad on that front. Some of you may recall me mentioning a student complaining to my boss that I had insulted her when I was attempting to give her some feedback about immature behavior. I have not had much more contact with that student until this semester when she is in two of my courses. She has remarkably matured and is taking constructive feedback very well. I am impressed. I guess the threat of my being “reported to social justice” was worth it.