On Gender Gaps and Role Models

When I graduated with a degree in “Religion, Ethics and Politics” (courtesy of a fantastic interdisciplinary program at my alma mater) and marched across the stage with the history majors to shake my president’s hand, I did not think about my gender. I didn’t think about it as I collected the small blue leather diploma and breathed a deep sigh of relief that I hadn’t tripped up OR down the stairs. I didn’t think about it that night celebrating with my academic mentors and my family. It didn’t seem remarkable to be a woman in history, or in philosophy, and not nearly as remarkable as my making it through graduation without falling onto my face.

Then, The Chronicle of Higher Education published this piece in October. “Last year,” the article told me, “women received just 29 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in philosophy, and 41 percent of those in history, according to statistics from the U.S. Education Department.” I was eating a sandwich at my desk while I read this, and I almost choked on hummus and tomato.

“Last year in philosophy, women made up 21 percent of faculty members and just under 17 percent of full professors, according to the American Philosophical Association.”

I stopped trying to eat the sandwich altogether.

“In 2010, women made up just under 40 percent of faculty members in that discipline, according to the American Historical Association’s latest survey. And with women representing just 41 percent of undergraduate majors, “the problem seems to start at the beginning of the pipeline,” says Robert B. Townsend, deputy director of the association.”

I closed my eyes and then opened them again. The piece reminded me of something I had read in another article by The Chronicle, looking at the pay gap between men and women – arguing that it begins as early as the first year out of college. Suddenly it felt like I was back in senior year of college, wondering about the troubling trends at Christian colleges with respect to women in leadership, wondering how, fully 50 years after the Equal Pay Act (1963), we are still struggling to close the gender pay gap.

But now my questions also extend to women in the liberal arts. We have heard (as the article mentions) about STEM fields and the need to attract women to the sciences. But are we having the same trouble with the humanities? What does that mean?

Women earn more doctoral degrees than men, The New York Times reported in 2010. According to a 2011 article in the American Bar Association, “A small difference in the female-to-male ratio at the associate level becomes more pronounced later as ‘female flight gains momentum at each level of seniority.’ the NAWL report says. At the equity partnership level, only 15 percent of the lawyers are women.”

It is easy for me to read these articles in some kind of outrage about gender inequality. And in many respects, I am upset by the lack of real grappling in our culture with these issues. I want us to work harder as a culture to examine our attitudes, not just our statutes: to look at our practices, not just our policies.

But in this column particularly, I’d like to invite us to wonder together about what we lose by a lack of women in leadership position across these disciplines.

We lose role models for the rising generation – role models not just for women, but for everyone who aspires to leadership. By not having women in positions of academic, business, legal or other forms of leadership, we miss out on unique strategies and approaches to the practice of leadership itself. Diversity of any kind is not just about equality: it is also about fullness.

Isn’t that why it has never been enough to eliminate discrimination? Isn’t that why we push for the promotion of diversity? Why we fight hard to bring new people to the table?

When women are missing in philosophy departments, in business corner offices, at history conferences or in court, we miss out on much more than an accurate reflection of the population.

We miss a 360 degree, multi-dimensional conversation about history, business, philosophy and law. We miss giving a group of people the opportunity to share their insights and hard work with their scholarly and professional communities. We miss listening to and being shaped by them.

I think if I had known when I walked and didn’t trip across the graduation stage that philosophy and history departments have very low numbers of women in them, I might have hugged my fellow history-mates a bit harder – men and women alike. If these numbers are going to change, the change will begin with the quality and depth of our conversations in college classes. It will begin with our commitment to ask these questions out loud with each other. It will begin with a shared love of the disciplines we work in, and a promise to search and seek richness – of gender and color and socioeconomic background and worldview and political opinion and all the rest – as we learn and teach about the world.

–Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt