Posted by Irresponsibility
“Higher education is becoming feminised,” a dinner companion said last week. A professor of sociology, he was discussing the preponderance of women students in his courses and his remark was, presumably, meant as a neutral statement of fact. But to at least two of the women at the table it didn’t sound like that. Nobody ever worries about education (or anything else) becoming “masculinised”. Because anything men do well, or take an interest in, is automatically assumed to be of worth. The reverse is not true.
One of us – also a professor – made the case that women are attracted to higher education and, in particular, to study abroad, because they have little to lose. They’re not “to the manor born” so they are more willing to move and take risks. The knock on effect, she pointed out, is professional insecurity because women are out doing and learning, rather than cultivating the cosy relationships needed to ensure plum posts. “You see a lot of very intelligent women with great CVs who can’t get jobs,” she said. Tacit punishment for neglecting to nurture ties within the old boys’ clubs women aren’t allowed into in the first place.
I was at the wrong end of the table to jump into the discussion, but its fragments have been stuck in my brain like burrs. There is more to it than either Jim’s simple statement, or Patricia’s interpretation of it suggests. Yes, statistically speaking, more women than ever are entering higher education – often far more than men in similar disciplines. Why? Because higher education remains one of the very few ways women can legitimately access freedom and power. The legitimate part of this equation makes it a double-edged sword. Girl-children are taught obedience. They learn fast and young their duty to please and seduce. Performing well at school is an easy way to win approval and the further they continue in education the more likely it is women will be performing for men’s approval. The ivory tower is still held by, principally, male academics. By the time a woman climbs that high she will, for survival’s sake, have internalised enough femininity to make her non-threatening.
Yes, women are entering higher education in ever-larger numbers. But they are entering at the behest of the men who keep a beady eye on the corridors of intellectual power. There is a method to the masculine hierarchy’s apparent madness in allowing this female invasion. Crude segregation has finally, belatedly, lost out (less than 40 years before I started my writing career there University of Pennsylvania’s Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper didn’t allow women on staff). Women’s irritating ability to thrive within the formerly sacrosanct halls of academia means simply that academia, like every other profession in recorded history that has become “feminised”, is being devalued. The more women achieve intellectually the more men view intellectual achievement with suspicion. The more men cling to football and beer, and the more schoolboys taunt each other into idiot mischief because doing well in school is girly. This isn’t idle speculation. The humanities are already suspect because they attract large numbers of women while hard sciences and maths still have the lustre of masculinity.
Better still, as men opt out of higher education – or certain parts of it – those remaining are treated with increasing reverence. As endangered species they are coddled, protected, solicited, and the media worries aloud about the damage to boys’ egos. Again: this isn’t fanciful, it’s fact. Primary and secondary education is already reverberating with bleating noises about boys “trailing” behind girls. Experts are convening to figure out why the poor, maligned male children aren’t in their rightful place of superiority. The misogynistic absurdity of this is clear in the fact that no one ever raised one tiny word of objection to girls being “left behind.” That’s the natural order of things. It’s only when boys or men are in danger of losing their footing on the towering pedestal of privilege that anyone starts a fuss. Nothing changes. As more women gain status through education men will simply reassign “status” to some other non-feminised field.