Columns

Andrea Matthews ’11: In which I bite the hand that feeds

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, February 26, 2010

A few weeks ago, I attended a standard gathering of The Brown Daily Herald opinions writers and editors to lay down rules and explain the ways of the Herald world. Given that I seldom keep track of my fellow columnists, I was excited to see who else was writing. As I scanned the room, I couldn’t help but notice a trend. Looking around the circle of columnists, I saw a boy, a boy, another boy, another boy, a girl … boy … boy … boy … girl …

I counted 13 male columnists and five female columnists. All in all, there are only six female columnists out of 22.

A couple of questions sprang to my mind upon observing this fact. One is, how did this happen?

Columnists apply for positions, and I am not about to make any accusations that the opinions editors deliberately chose more males than females. In fact, the editors deliberately attempted to solicit female applicants, but few chose to apply.

What could be the cause of this massive gender imbalance in The Herald’s opinions section? It could be that females willing to state and defend their opinions publicly are harder to find.

For any readers rolling their eyes (“This issue is so 1970!”), I ask you to consider the second question that came to my mind in contemplating this imbalance: Why does it matter?

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe female students can go to school in an environment where they are taught mostly by men, where they study books written mostly by men, and where they read opinions mostly voiced by their male peers, and not allow any of it to impact how they see their roles in public and intellectual discourse. Most colleges in this country have student populations dominated by women (see: “On College Campus, Shortage of Men” in Feb. 5th’s New York Times), after all. Brown has a female president and dean of the college — how can I argue that this environment skews against female students? 

In light of this argument, I retreat to personal experience. I can only rely on what I’ve seen.
I’ve seen discussions in seminar after seminar dominated by male students despite equal or larger numbers of females in the class (though I acknowledge that the experience varies depending on the academic field). I’ve seen female students who do speak up adopt a “tough” — or dare I say “ballsy” — persona in order to make themselves heard.

Conversely, I’ve heard comment after comment from female students unnecessarily employ minimizing prefaces like

“I’m sorry if someone else already covered this, but … “

“Maybe I didn’t quite understand what you were saying, but … “

“I’m sorry if this is off topic … “

Compare the above with what I haven’t seen. I have yet to see a female professor fall into any category aside from “incompetent” for those whose curricula are deemed too easy and “cold” for those who challenge their students. (In contrast, male professors who lead less challenging courses are “chill” and those who don’t treat students well are “brilliant, but mean.”) I have yet to see a female president of the Brown Democrats or College Republicans in my time at Brown. I haven’t seen a female speaker at the Janus Political Union in two years, and I’ve been informed that the Brown Debating Union is mostly composed of males as well. 

My observations lead me to believe that women at Brown have a hard time joining public discourse. 

Now, to pose a final question: Is there something about the environment at Brown University, or in higher education in general, that keeps women from joining public discourse with the confidence and candor of their male peers?

I would beat a dead horse to argue that this condition exists in the “real world” at large; in politics, in business and in the home, women still face challenges in being heard with the respect and credit given to men, if they’re heard at all. But my concern focuses more on our generation of young adults. Perhaps we aren’t as free from issues of gender difference as we want to believe.

When we hear fewer women speak up in class, when we see fewer women leading prominent campus organizations and when we read fewer female-authored columns in the paper, we inadvertently promote the idea that women and men are not on equal footing in public discourse. Not only does this highlight that we are not beyond issues of gender inequality, it implies that the remedy rests with female students themselves.

I implore female students at Brown to speak up. I ask you to apply for positions of leadership, to raise your hands to contribute in class and to treat each other in the same way you treat your male peers. Please, before you begin your comments with an excusatory preface, remember “Man Law” number 76: “No excuses. Play like a champion.”

Andrea Matthews ’11 initially began her final paragraph with the exact kind of preface she never wants to hear again.