For Women on Campuses, Access Doesn't Equal Success

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

October 02, 2011

The influence of gender is lurking on our campuses—in classrooms, in residence halls, on the bleachers at athletic events. It follows students as they study abroad, and it is the elephant in the room when students are learning to lead. The gender-laden experiences of our students have unanticipated consequences in their own lives and in society as a whole, yet those of us in higher education generally behave as if we live in a "postgender" world.

Women and men arrive at our campuses with different self-concepts. Their orientation toward academic work and leadership differs, and they participate differently in what we call engaged learning. Research suggests that college has little impact on these differences, or on helping students take them into account. That comes as no surprise to people who spend time with college students. What is surprising is that we pay little systematic attention to this issue.

That's too bad, because our goal, as educators, in exploring questions of gender should be to ferret out what works (and doesn't work), both pedagogically and socially, for men and women in college. Ideally we would explore ways to support positive outcomes and tendencies and to encourage development, awareness, and growth; yet most institutions fail even to study the issue.

I hope it is clear that I am not making assertions about individual women and individual men; any student may have a markedly different profile than the norm. However, consider the following, which reflect conclusions from national data and are supported by research at my own institution, the College of St. Benedict, and at Saint John's University, our partner institution:

• Women underestimate their abilities and express lower levels of self-confidence than their abilities suggest. Men overestimate their abilities and express higher levels of confidence than their abilities warrant. This difference arrives with them as first-year students and leaves with them as seniors. When I talk about this, or I hear researchers describe this finding, the audience always chuckles (boys will be boys, after all).

Those conclusions lead some people to worry about women, and some to disparage men. But the issue is more complicated. Both of those profiles have some good attributes and some bad attributes, and there is an optimal level of self-confidence to ensure the best results. Underestimating one's abilities probably results in more time in academic preparation and a more team-oriented approach to problem solving. Higher levels of self-confidence probably support innovative practices and may help one nail a job interview.

• Men in college spend significantly more time in leisure activities (especially, for example, video-game play and athletic pursuits) than do women. College women are hyper-scheduled participants in co-curricular activities.

Like my first example, this information yields chuckles. But if we look more deeply, important questions arise. Is there some happy medium that we could help our students achieve? Stressing greater attention to academic pursuits for men and more leisure time for women could better prepare students for work-life balance after college. Consider the consequences for the work force and for families if we are producing a generation of women who think they must work constantly at work and at home to achieve a baseline level of success—and a generation of men who think that they needn't work too hard to be successful.

• Women have higher GPA's than do men—when they enter and leave college—even when the sexes show equivalent aptitude on standardized tests. Is there absolutely something good about having the very highest GPA one can get? Women who work hard to achieve this should be applauded. But we need to understand better the reasons why men's GPA's are lower. Is it simply because they don't study as much on average, or is it in some cases because the learning takes precedence over the grade, something that we strive for as educators? Or could it be that men take more (good) academic risks?

Clearly, our conclusions about gender must be nuanced, and we would be wise to suspend assumptions about whether women or men are doing better or worse. But there are other areas where nuance isn't necessary to see that we could be more aggressive as educators in challenging gender-stereotyped choices.

For example, in a country with a scientific and technological brain drain, there continues to be a pipeline problem for women in mathematics and the physical sciences.

In a country where the health-care and education systems are deeply challenged, men continue to be underrepresented in the important fields of nursing and teaching. Yet one rarely hears of national efforts to engage more men in these fields.

In an ever-shrinking world, men show significantly less interest than women in studying abroad, interacting with other cultures, and learning a second language. Is this why women exhibit greater acceptance of diversity than do men?

In our current economic and political crisis, women remain in the minority in the field of economics, and they show markedly less interest in running for political office than do men. They do more of the background work of leadership and hold fewer titular leadership positions than men. This is true in college, and after college, including in the field of higher education. We need all forms of leadership, but we don't necessarily want approaches to leadership to remain highly correlated with gender.

As I reflect on these issues, I think about what has changed in my lifetime, and whether we are doing any better with gender. In the United States today, women have access to just about every educational opportunity and every career. But access doesn't guarantee outcomes. A gendered culture, mostly in unconscious ways, limits women's expectations for themselves and our expectations for them.

And while we were focusing on gaining access for girls and women, we neglected the needs of boys and men. We didn't plan well for the consequences of a society that taught one sex that it had to work harder to gain access, and the other sex that access was guaranteed. We find ourselves surprised each time we learn that the educational system is not serving boys and men as well as it might. We've barely begun to explore higher education's role in finding a balance that is good for all of our students and good for our country, and it is time we got started.

MaryAnn Baenninger is president of the College of St. Benedict.