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The Podium

Gender equity on college campuses

Dr. Susan Hockfield’s announcement that she would be stepping down from her post as the 16th president and first female president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology got me thinking. Since women first began enrolling in and graduating from four-year degree granting institutions, a lot of positive movement has occurred for women in higher education. More, however, still needs to be done.

As an African American female professor, I stand on the shoulders of the many women before me who paved the road for women in higher education, but I know, too, that there is still a lot of work to do in promoting not only the attendance of women in college, but promoting their leadership in those institutions as well. Currently only six of the 29 public institutions of higher education in Massachusetts are led by women (Bunker Hill Community College, Cape Cod Community College, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Middlesex Community College, Salem State University, and Quinsigamond Community College). This mirrors the nation, where, according to the American Council on Education, less than a quarter of our colleges and universities are led by women.

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New England, long considered the birthplace of higher education, should be ashamed to have fewer women than the national average leading our colleges and universities. Sadly, women (in particular faculty and administrators) are still relegated to the status of a minority, as defined by sociologist Richard T. Schaefer, on our campuses.

I say sadly because there are so many issues pertinent to women in higher education. The number of women enrolled in and graduating from programs in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is one. Although increasing, the number still remains low. In 2006, only 15 percent of all female first-year students planned to major in a STEM field compared to 29 percent of male first-year students.

Various forms of violence can be found on all college campuses, and though both men and women are victims of sexual assault, the number of female victims are disproportionately higher.

Consider also the issue of full-time faculty appointments and fair pay for women faculty. The American Association of University Professors’ faculty gender equity indicators report shows that women make up just 39 percent of full-time faculty nationally. Men, on the other hand, make up 61 percent. The same report found that “across all ranks and all institutions, the average salary for women faculty was 81% percent of the amount earned by men.

And what about conditions on campus for working mothers? Many campuses still do not have private space for lactating mothers or changing rooms for mothers who may need to bring a baby or young child on campus, nor do they have — or partner with — any type of child care facility.

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So who’s working on these issues? Who cares about the status of women on college and university campuses? Frankly, anyone who is on a college or university campus should care, and should take steps to work on any — if not all — of these issues. We cannot sit back and wait for the AAUP or the American Association of University Women to take action, but rather must find our own individual ways to solve these problems.

So, contribute to a scholarship that supports girls majoring in the sciences, math, and/or engineering; write your legislator about supporting pay equity legislation and an adequate Family and Medical Leave Act; rally campuses to have facilities that support new and working mothers; and fight back against cultures of violence against women as promoted by college athletes, fraternities and alcohol use by minors.

Women’s voices on college campuses are an important part of this nation’s culture and vitality. More women in the STEM fields helps the nation be more competitive internationally; equitable appointments and pay for female faculty allows for greater collegiality and productivity; support for working mothers helps to decrease absences and increase morale; and greater safety for women on campus promotes empowerment and creates an environment of mutual respect.

It is incumbent upon all of us, male and female, to take a pledge to become more pro-active in supporting gender equity and safety on college and university campuses.

Shannon Mokoro is assistant professor of social work at Salem State University.

The Podium features local experts and advocates weighing in on the issues of the day. Read more here.

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