Women learn best from women

What message does a male-dominated faculty send to female students?

Published January 7, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

According to researcher M. Elizabeth Tidball, co-author of the 1999 study "Taking Women Seriously," the most accurate predictor of female students' later success is the percentage of women on their undergraduate faculty. It's not the school's selectivity, faculty-to-student ratio or any of the other indicators U.S. News and World Report uses in its benchmark guide, "America's Best Colleges."

Though top-ranked schools may theorize on equality and stage teach-ins on discrimination, an institution's structure speaks louder than the sum of its faculty's words. Tidball documents a direct correlation between the presence of high-level female faculty and the number of female graduates who earn a place in the Who's Who guide, earn research doctorates in the sciences or enter medical school.

If Tidball is correct, then America's "best schools" might not necessarily be the best schools for women. According to the U.S. Department of Education, men radically outnumber women as professors, assistants, and associates at America's most prestigious institutions. At Princeton and Yale, women hold an abysmal 15 percent of tenured positions. At Dartmouth, the fairest of the Ivies, they have 21 percent. Swarthmore and Amherst, ranked first and second among liberal arts colleges, have a tenured faculty that is 33-percent female, but at third-ranked Williams, the tenured female faculty is slightly over 25 percent.

Harvard's most recent affirmative action report states that women now make up 13.4 percent of the tenured faculty, "up a full percentage point," from last year. Yet prestige is still important to women, and "women's schools" are still looked at with a blend of suspicion and contempt. As a member of the first class of Harvard women who will not graduate from that institution with a degree from both Harvard and Radcliffe said, "Who wants to go to a girls' school when you can go to Harvard?" (Radcliffe ceased to exist as an undergraduate school last year; degrees used to be awarded jointly by Harvard and Radcliffe but now come from Harvard alone.)

But for many, the term "girls' school" still evokes a cloister where women learn to pour tea and manage marriage proposals: not exactly skills that prepare them to compete in what academia likes to call "the real world." Yet in an era when women's colleges are seen as anachronistic, it's worth asking exactly what "real" world our best coed schools are preparing students for.

Perhaps academia's bias against female students remains invisible to administrators, evaluators and even students themselves because sexist assumptions are like any other suppositions embedded in your native culture: Until you've traveled abroad, it's impossible to know you hold them. Yet amidst academia's sea of rationalizations, the all-female Wellesley proves that fairness and excellence are not incompatible. Not only does Wellesley consistently rank among U.S. News' top four liberal arts colleges in the country, it does so with 50-percent women faculty at every rank.

In 1995, in an article in the New York Times Business section headlined "How to Succeed ... Go to Wellesley," Judith Dobrzynski documented the disproportionate number of Wellesley alumnae among America's 390 high-ranking female Fortune 500 business executives. At least 17 of them had gone to Wellesley -- more than any other college. Dobrynski's explanation pointed to Wellesley's economics department and powerful alumnae network. But as Tidball's statistics demonstrate, the real reason may be the gender balance in the faculty.

Even for students steeped in post-feminist ennui, the experience of a fair world is startling. Arrika Finn, who transferred to Wellesley from St. Olaf's College, said she was immediately surprised by how much more her male professors at Wellesley respected and recommended their female colleagues. Then she was annoyed at her shock.

For Ruth Simmons, the first African-American president of Smith College, a junior year at Wellesley was the deciding factor in becoming a professor. Simmons' experience is not unusual: According to Tidball, females who attend women's colleges go on to earn two to three times the number of advanced degrees as those who attend co-ed schools.

Because I loved excelling as the only girl in my high school advanced placement physics class, I chose Wellesley for its excellent science program. I intended to become a nuclear physicist. I thought I'd just ignore the women's college thing. Then I stepped into my first physics class and my heart dropped as I scanned a sea of female faces. It had never occurred to me that I loved physics not for its elegant equations, but because the physics classroom was the only place I went where men had no choice but to respect me.

When even your successes get contaminated by bias, it's hard to stay your course. One recent Wellesley graduate, whom I'll call Maria, only noticed the confidence she'd absorbed when it eroded one summer she took organic chemistry at Georgetown. It was "one of those grueling classes," Maria said, "in which humiliation is part of the learning process." When Maria got the highest grade on the first exam, the professor asked if her boyfriend was in medical school. Maria didn't understand. The professor asked who helped her study.

"Instead of being justifiably outraged, annoyed, or even gleeful that I had showed that sexist pig that a woman could do well in organic, I was ashamed," Maria recalled. "He didn't seem to believe I studied on my own, and I wasn't used to not being trusted. Instead of proving him wrong, I stopped studying as hard, so I stopped doing so well. And I didn't take the second semester of organic as originally planned."

Unlike Maria's Georgetown professor, Wellesley's male professors have been hired, promoted and mentored by women, so they know how to share credit and respect. Kerry Walk, assistant director of the Harvard Writing Project, recalled that Wellesley's integrated faculty made learning "a cooperative enterprise" where conversation, not debate, was the norm.

Fairness feels like the invisible freedom and responsibility most men take for granted: The freedom not to think about sexism and the responsibility to define your study, and life, on its own terms. Perhaps the single most bracing moment in my college education was walking into the presidential portrait gallery in Wellesley's library. With enormous excitement and not a small dose of panic, I realized that all the portraits were of women. Wellesley is the only college in the U.S. to have had a woman president since its inception. I left with a lingering terror of responsibility. Now that the possibility of achievement was real for me, in this one place, there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no one to blame but myself if I didn't make good.

After college, I wandered through a smorgasbord of schools before coming to rest in Columbia's MFA program. At all five prior institutions, at least one fellow student, as well as two faculty members (all male) told me I thought too much. The number of times I heard this at Wellesley was zero. When I asked a Harvard professor to occasionally refer to a generic reader as a "she," he labeled me a feminist and agitator.

Wellesley had a blank book in the library where students could comment on any subject and a member of the administration would respond. Their comments regularly led to minor policy changes. The president also had office hours for students, and when a woman wrote her a letter, she wrote back. The absence of bathroom graffiti at Wellesley made me think that women were the neater gender. Eight years later at Columbia, I found myself standing on the toilet seat to find some free space to scribble on the stalls. While my male classmates networked with professors, the women, who comprised a three-fifths majority, spent their energy forming committees that lobbied for radical causes like getting one tenured woman on the faculty, or a female author on a syllabus of 20th century fiction. We were partisans, not participants. After each lost battle, our only recourse was to decorate the women's room with rage.

At best, what male-dominated faculties teach female students is that their membership in the elite will come at the price of a divided self: though there may be outstanding exceptions to the rule, the rule is that women are lesser, and that if success comes, its price is being a frustrated, isolated and beleaguered token.

I sometimes wonder how my life would have gone without Wellesley, if I had never experienced being treated as a full human being who is also a female. God knows it would be a relief not to feel the scratch of sexism against my skin at nearly every moment, like an itchy sweater I can't take off. Probably I would still be a scientist, excelling as the lone woman among the guys. But even a whiff of fairness is enough to make you chase its scent for decades. For better or for worse, Wellesley raised my expectations, and what I expect, now, is equality.

By Joyce Hackett

Joyce Hackett is an associate professor of creative writing at New York University

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