Farkas: More effort needed to break gender barriers


Alana Farkas, Columnist

At an institution that prides itself so greatly on liberalism and diversity, a major sense of inequality still looms over Northwestern students and faculty: Gender gaps continue to persist in certain fields of study.

For example, some of the math- and science-based fields studied at NU have a much greater representation of male faculty than female. The economics department consists of 43 male and only nine female faculty members, roughly 17 percent female representation. Even more significant, of the 238 faculty members in McCormick, only 33 are female or about 14 percent.

Additionally, females tend to dominate in more qualitative or “soft” science fields. The faculty in NU’s Higher Education Administration and Policy program consists of 13 females and four males — about 24 percent. Even the representation of males in Counseling and Psychological Services falls short, showing five males to 13 females.

For the sake of building a strong society and improving quality of life, it is important for NU students and faculty to continue to challenge gender stereotypes. In fields of study that are typically gendered, gender diversity is important because it offers novel perspectives.

This issue is not solely NU’s. Different fields of study are continuously stigmatized as more “male” or “female.” The gendering of academia stems from beliefs that women are inferior to men in terms of logical intelligence, and men do not possess the same sense of human care that women do. A century ago, the French scientist Gustav Le Bon said smaller brain size explained women’s “absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason.”

Even more, men are often portrayed as having a smaller emotional capacity than females. American society usually portrays a female character assuming the role of a nurse, therapist or grade school teacher, but it is often considered strange to see an advertisement or television show with a male playing one of these roles. Stigmas like these strengthen societal gender stereotypes and thus lead to a continuation of gender inequality in certain fields of study.

Fortunately, however, in our current society of evolving technology and research, many of these old ideals are changing. Research shows that females have the same mathematical abilities as males, and males have the same emotional capacity as females.

Contrary to common belief, studies actually disprove the notion that men are better than women at math due to biological differences. According to a recent New York Times article, there is no difference in spatial and quantitative skills between genders before age seven. Research has also shown that many men are as emotional as women or even more so.

So if there is no hard evidence that proves differences between male and female intellectual abilities, why do significant gender gaps still exist in fields of study? Part of the reason comes from society continuing to reinforce gender norms and professional differences. Some may argue that gender differences in fields of study are most prevalent on college campuses like NU, where the gender divide is so clear in certain academic areas.

Still, others may believe gendered academia begins as early as grade school. Drawing from my own experience in elementary school, I remember having to choose between two extracurricular activities: the writer’s group, which consisted of mostly girls and a female teacher, and the mathletes, which was mostly male-dominated. I ended up participating in both, but I definitely experienced more encouragement from my female teachers and mother to pursue writing. This gender-specific influence still exists on a much larger scale at NU. Even on our campus, where gender equality is outwardly encouraged, we still have inequality in fields of study.

Breaking gender barriers across occupations is beneficial for all of society, not just females. Female engineers could provide completely new and effective ideas on innovation solely based on their experiences being women. Similarly, male nurses and social workers could approach their work at different angles that may be more effective with patients and clients.

Further studies support the notion that gendered academia is culturally influenced. Positive correlations exist between more gender-equal cultures and a decreased gender gap in math ability. Thus, if we continue to break down gender barriers in fields of study, we may uncover true potential in males and females alike.

Alana Farkas is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.