It’s an interesting and lucky phenomenon
when two apparently unrelated news stories have the power to
illuminate each other. When this happens, it’s the combination of
two reports that can educe the more inscrutable below-surface
happenings, tendencies and attitudes of an institution, group or
administration – underground insight that might otherwise have
escaped our notice.

Kate Green

One year ago, I wrote a column about a peculiar front page of
The New York Times, on which one article weighed the arguments for
war in Iraq and another directly below it celebrated the merry
beard shaving and TV-watching in the aftermath of the “liberation
of Kabul.” Last week, two stories came out of the University which
have arguably less consequence for the peace of the world, but
which similarly seem to show us that something is awry – this time,
in our own University community. By way of these two stories’
invitation to contrast and comparison, last Friday I drew the easy
conclusion that there are some deep problems at this University
with the way that it, as an institution, views and treats
women.

On Friday, the Daily reported (‘U’ boasts rise in female
faculty, enrollment, 10/03/03) on the progress that the University
has made since 1990 in increasing the female presence on this
campus – in administrative positions, as department heads and
tenure-track faculty. The data show that while female hires have
increased, they are not commensurate with the number of doctorates
granted to female students nationwide. Since 1980, the fraction of
female assistant professors has languished at about one-third, and,
“among staff ranks, females generally cluster in lower pay grades
than men.”

To be honest, reading this article on its own didn’t get me too
worked up; I’m sure that it did, however, rile many of women on
this campus. I tend to think of these things as processes that
inherently prohibit instant results, and try to see the University
as a collaboration of individuals who are all doing the best they
can against difficult circumstances. But another interesting
article ran in the Daily last Friday, an article which I believe is
revelatory of some of the obstacles that women are up against
here.

Wasted again? ‘U’ students find alcohol ads offensive (10/03/03)
reported on the placard-advertisements that have lately been
gracing the residence-hall dining tables. One of these ads reads,
“Wasted again? It doesn’t take a lot of brains or therapy to figure
out why your love life sucks.” Above is a picture of a woman from
below the waist; she is wearing a very short dark skirt and high
heels. In large letters across the top, the woman asks, “Why can’t
I have a meaningful relationship?” Another ad shows a woman in
heels and a short glittery dress throwing up violently into a
toilet. “Guilty of dumping toxic waste?” asks the placard.

These ads stereotype those female students on this campus who
enjoy going out on the weekends as out-of-control, pathetic
relationship dependents. I found the “Why can’t I have a meaningful
relationship” tagline particularly outrageous – is that the
objective of being at the University? The proverbial “M.R.S.”
degree? If we female students don’t have a meaningful relationship,
are we failing – is there something wrong with us? There are no
“male” analogues to these “public-service” advertisements. The
Alcohol and Other Drugs Prevention Program explained that there is
a male-oriented line to be released next year, but that the program
lacked the funds this year to launch both simultaneously.
Apparently we girls are the bigger problem.

The University, as an institution, employs so many people and
ideas that it must be difficult to show a consistent face to the
students and faculty. However, without blaming any one person, it
seems clear that there is a disparity in how the University talks
about hiring female faculty members and how it actually views its
female students – many of whom could represent future faculty
hires. If the University is institutionally perpetuating exactly
the same stereotypes – of women not being serious intellectually or
being too focused on their lovelives – that it claims to be trying
to fight by increasing the percentage of female members of the
faculty, it’s shooting itself in the foot without even knowing.

Female students and female faculty members are not different
species. One becomes and one once was the other. Is it a stretch to
venture that someone who sees this kind of ad at lunch will be less
likely to take a female professor less seriously at his (or her!)
1:00 class? The University needs to seriously examine this most
obvious of competing signals, and seek out places in which there
might be others. Before we worry so much about changing the numbers
on the books, we need to think about changing the attitudes in our
heads.

Hanink can be reached at
“mailto:jhanink@umich.edu”>jhanink@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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