When circumstance leads to insight: women undervalued in university settings

How patriarchy impacts the standard of education

Carolyn advocates for gender equality in academics.
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The male dominance in academics at Queen’s is subtle. But coming from a unique background, it’s amplified for me. 
 
Having spent the past six years in an all-girls school, the idea of gendered spheres didn’t exist simply because they couldn’t. Granted this perspective, my first year at Queen’s unveiled the presence of male preference in co-ed classrooms—from subject matter to verbal evaluation. 
 
I first noticed it in my tutorials, when male students were often afforded the benefit of the doubt more than females when they answered questions incorrectly. They often received a response from TAs of, “I think maybe what you mean is […]” rather than being told they were wrong.
 
Anecdotally speaking, a friend of mine shares this frustration with their TA, who constantly questions every girl’s answers in her tutorial while being far more accepting of similar points made by men. 
 
Although reactions to these instances may appear oversensitive, this is a common theme throughout most post-secondary institutions. 
 
Studies show that teachers tend to overlook wrong answers when interacting with male students, while disregarding right answers when they’re supplied by female students.  
 
At the beginning of first semester, I often waited to participate until I knew I could offer TAs a correct answer. In high school, this wasn’t the case. The all-girls culture was one. where we were encouraged to use our wrong answers as a means of finding the right ones—participation had validity. 
 
Now, I find myself afraid of being shot down if I say something incorrect. 
 
In isolation, this could be chalked up to normal frosh fear. But in reality, my behaviour is part of a wider trend of women’s voices in the classroom being overwhelmed by that of their male counterpart’s.
 
I often notice my female peers waiting patiently and quietly with their hands raised, in comparison to men who’ll confidently shout their answer without reluctance. Even volume, something that seems insignificant, differs between men and women. 
 
Repeatedly, I watch female students raise a point in class, only to be yelled over by a boy—sometimes with an identical point—whose voice is prioritized. 
 
Upon discussion, my high school peers observe the same phenomenon, regardless of whether they’ve gone into ArtSci, Kinesiology or Commerce. But when I brought the topic up to my friends educated in co-ed environments, these classroom trends were considered typical.
 
Despite the fact my classmates at Queen’s see this as normal, male students receive more instruction from teachers and are eight times more likely than girls to call out answers, according to a report by the American Association of University Women
 
Gender discrepancies at Queen’s don’t exist in a vacuum. Male contributions in the classroom are valued over female contributions—no matter how subtly—based on the history of male-dominated culture.
 
More often than not, the biases we hold are implicit and slowly fostered since childhood. Most of my male friends would be just as shocked and upset to hear that I feel secondary or uncomfortable in class.
 
By 2019, much of the blatant sexism our mothers and grandmothers experienced in the past has been addressed and accepted as a problem. However, that doesn’t mean these attitudes have completely dissolved.  
 
In my history class, we read the works of 66 thinkers that are supposed to represent an overview of the Western intellectual canon. Six of those thinkers are female. 
 
Similar ratios exist in many of my other classes, giving the impression that women are simply spectators in a great male story of humankind. This kind of academic preference encourages gender disparity in the study itself. 
 
When women in history aren’t sought out as much as they should be in attempts for equal representation, it implies female voices are unimportant. 
 
Gender preference at Queen’s goes beyond these academic subtleties—it’s embedded into the physical institution.  
 
In December, I took an exam in an engineering building. When I asked where the washroom was, I was told I’d have to go through a corridor that connected the building to the neighboring one. The building my exam was in simply didn’t have a women’s washroom. 
 
A quick Google search led me to find out that at Queen’s, female professors are paid approximately $11,667 less per year than male professors—and this is one of the smaller wage gaps as far as Canadian universities go
 
All of these facts seem to chalk up to an overall undervaluing of women as academics and members of the Queen’s community. This is the direct context of the behaviour I’ve noticed. 
 
If this is the sentiment our courses and infrastructure at Queen’s imbue in us, we can’t be shocked that it translates into real effects in the classroom.
 
While a societal re-vamp may be out of reach, Queen’s specific factors aren’t. 
 
We can easily push for the inclusion of a wider variety of authors in our syllabi and support female professors by showing up to their talks and citing their research. 
 
Once we become more aware of classroom gender dynamics, positive and progressive changes in behaviour  will follow. 
 
Raising these issues from the subconscious to the conscious doesn’t take much, but it can make a big difference. 
 
We’ve been afforded the post-secondary privilege of time and opportunity to think about our ability in influencing culture and perceptions. 
 
If we’re aware of the challenges gender presents in academia both societally and systemically, we can begin to dismantle them. Maybe by the time our kids get to Queen’s, equality won’t take as much effort.
 
Carolyn Svonkin is a first-year General Arts student. 

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