The recent release of the Greek Culture Initiative’s Report on Gender and Greek Experience has brought the topic of Duke’s campus climate, particularly sexual assault, back into the spotlight. Having covered the Greek Culture Initiative, we would like to turn to yet another critical study, the Report on Gender and the Undergraduate Experience, which confronts vital cultural issues, particularly academic culture and how men and women experience it differently.
This report describes a perplexing disparity between men and women in the classroom. According to the study, women are outperforming men in almost every aspect of academia. Women earn higher grades than men on average and graduate more often with distinction. Moreover, women are more likely to seek help from the Academic Resource Center and to study abroad. But even in their success, women report having lower self-esteem than men. Student focus groups reported that men often dominated class discussion and that women often underestimated their abilities and spoke only when they thought that they had the correct answer.
Given women’s academic success, why is it that they have less self-esteem than men? It could be that men are more confident in the classroom because past socialization has encouraged their self-assured behavior and suppressed it in women. Although this is a feasible argument, it stands as an issue too large to address here. Instead, Duke should make an institutional effort to take on this disparity because focusing on why it exists may never yield a satisfactory answer.
The most attractive proposal was to hire more female professors in departments that lack female representation in order to attract more young women to those fields. Nowhere is this more needed than in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics where there is a significant lack of female undergraduates. The report showed that female students are more likely to enroll in a course taught by female instructors, so it is not surprising that the STEM fields, which have disproportionately fewer female faculty, have been less attractive to female students. We commend the report for this suggestion and encourage its implementation.
But the report has its flaws. For example, its focus group findings sometimes cite thin evidence. The report includes an anecdote about a female student who approached her male professor about her test-taking anxiety. The professor responded “Sciences aren’t for everyone. Maybe you should look into English.” As such, the report concluded, “Such comments raise the question of subtle gender bias impacting the long-term major choices for women in these fields.”
Although we do not condone the professor’s insensitivity to the student’s testing anxiety, this particular incident is not strong evidence for gender bias in certain fields. Other more powerful, convincing anecdotes surely exist—we particularly want to know about the added value of having a female professor or mentorship within STEM majors. Most importantly, this comes as a reminder that we shouldn’t let our experiences about women in the classroom shape the results we are generating from studies and the recommendations that come from those studies. Rather than relying on evidence that is inherently subjective, we encourage a more objective approach that lets the numbers speak for themselves.