Gender, power on the Hill
Six panelists from the College kicked off a conversation on the intersections of gender and power within the Colby community on Wednesday, March 9.
Assistant Professor of American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies Lisa Arellano, Zacamy Professor of English Peter Harris, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty and Professor of Economics Lori Kletzer, economics major Cody McKinney ‘11, women’s, gender and sexuality studies major Heather Pratt ‘11 and Psychological Counselor Jing Ye made up the panel.
President William Adams began the event by noting that Women’s History Month is a time to “honor and acknowledge the role of women in every aspect of our lives,” as well as a time to truly grasp “the distance we still have to travel as a community.”
As the panelists presented their perspectives on the intersections of gender and power on the Hill, the event evolved into a forum to address the unexamined issues of gender differences and sexual violence on campus and the silencing and oppression many students feel has surrounded these issues for so long.
Arellano began the panel by talking about the adverse effects of gender inequality. “Gender differences create power imbalances and create rifts within our community,” she said. She addressed the progress that has been made surrounding gender equality, but also said that there is still the perception that “gender is something that women have and men don’t. Sexuality is something that gay people have and straight people don’t. It is these beliefs that show us just how much change is needed.”
Arellano remarked on a common misconception among young people attempting to foster change in this day and age, saying that, “mobilization does not equate to organization!” According to Arellano, the key to social activism regarding gender issues is organization. Mobilizing a large number of people without the proper organization does not necessarily bring that group closer to accomplishing what it has set out to do. “It is about educating, coalition building and making concrete steps toward the changes you want to see,” she said.
Pratt built on Arellano’s remarks as she presented the audience with findings from her senior thesis concerning sexual assault and silencing on campus. Pratt explained that sexism is a structural practice, which is very much integrated into the institutional and cultural life on the Hill. Silence concerning issues of gender inequality serves to perpetuate homophobia and to create the opportunity for acts of sexual aggression.
Addressing silencing on the Hill specifically, Pratt referred to the double standards that are at the foundation of the campus “hook-up” scene. A man who asserts his sexuality by having multiple partners is revered amongst his peers, but a woman is condemned as a “slut” for doing the same. This shame is evidence of a greater issue of gender inequality.
Even at the College, gender inequality has created a power structure that has led to oppression and silence. But fortunately, Pratt said, “Colby has given us the power to challenge social structures by providing students with the tool of critical analysis. I encourage students to challenge and deconstruct that status quo because activism is a mere extension of our education.”
Cody McKinney ‘11 has successfully risen to this challenge. McKinney is a founder of the campus chapter of Male Athletes Against Violence (MAAV), which is devoted to raising awareness of sexual assault among the College’s male students. “It is all too common for sexual assault to be framed as a women’s issue. This is just not the case: in almost every situation, there are two parties involved,” McKinney said.
As a member of the men’s hockey team, McKinney is keenly aware of the micro-aggressions that consistently occur on campus; he has devoted himself to educating male athletes about the definition of sexual harassment and the negative implications of acts of sexual aggression. MAAV has created a pledge card for members to sign and carry in their wallets. This card is intended to serve as a reminder that “men must hold one another accountable [for violent acts],” McKinney said.
Kletzer shared her personal experience with gender power structures, speaking about her journey to becoming a professional economist in a predominantly male work environment. “I followed in the footsteps of women before me who made some changes that gave me the opportunity to have a true career,” Kletzer said.
Ye said that humans have a tendency to put others on a pedestal and attribute power to them that is not justified or merited. Ye argued that this tendency perpetuates existing power structures. “The superimposition of power serves as an obstacle to true connection and disrupts the integrity of the community,” she said. Ye encouraged the community as a whole to examine relationships with a thorough eye. She stated that “unexamined relationships...[in particular] prompt us to perceive power where it is unwarranted.”
Harris argued that students can only bridge the gap between genders on campus by participating in a process of introspection. By taking the time to understand their own mental and emotional processes, she said, individuals can then mend what is broken in the community as a whole. However, Harris said, “introspection is just a precursor to the larger solution.”
After the panelists offered their perspectives on the gender and power dynamics on the Hill, they invited students and faculty in the audience to join in a discussion of these issues. The event organizers opened the floor to questions, which audience members could direct at specific panelists or toward the group as a whole.
PCB Chair Nicole Sintetos ‘12 commented that she always sees the same faces in attendance at such events. “My question is not ‘why are we here?’ It is ‘why are we here again?,’” she said. Arellano addressed Sintetos’ remark by saying, “We are here because we are not going to stop trying.” Sintetos’ question set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Many of the audience members who spoke expressed frustration about the way in which the campus community currently and continually handles gender issues.
“We have wonderful aspirations as an institution, but we rarely hold ourselves accountable. We are too busy putting band-aids on essential issues instead of taking action,” Associate Professor of American Studies and Christian A. Johnson Associate Professor of Integrative Liberal Learning Margaret McFadden said. “It is time to make a real commitment to take concrete actions against the structures of oppression that play an active role in the Colby community.”
Eli Dupree ‘13 pointed out that every time he goes to events designed to address issues of gender and racial inequality on campus, such as Campus Conversations on Race (CCOR) and PC coffee, he looks around and sees many of the same people in the audience. “Very few people seem to be truly invested and involved in the true reparation of these issues,” Dupree said.
Audience members asked both Adams and Kletzer to address the ways in which the administration plans on effecting change in this area. Adams stressed that the administration considers these issues to be very important, and it will address them “bit by bit and day by day.” A student in the audience responded, “Bit by bit is not enough for me.”
Kletzer suggested that other events should be held in order to make plans for concrete actions. However, the members of the audience believed it was time to move beyond hosting events to plan other events that may or may not eventually address the issues at hand. Audience members made concrete suggestions for policy changes that would address the issues at hand. A faculty member suggested that faculty be required to take a gender and sexuality class that would make them more aware and sensitive to these issues. He highlighted that these issues are not only relevant to the student body. Issues of gender difference are central to faculty-to-faculty interactions as well as faculty-to-student interactions.
Berol Dewdney ‘13, the College’s first gender and sexual diversity student resource officer, suggested that the College develop a women’s resource center. This center would provide resources for women who struggle with issues of gender discrimination and sexual aggression. Dewdney recognized that the ambitious project would require a large financial commitment from the College, but she emphasized that there was an overwhelming need for such a center.
Dewdney suggested that students take the initiative to raise funds for the project. However, she also encourages the administration to match the funds procured by students. “A matching system would be a sign of partnership and concrete initiative taken by all parties involved. It would be all around a step in the right direction,” Dewdney said.
Arellano suggested that gender issues become better integrated into the College’s general academic curriculum. Because students are undereducated on issues of gender difference, the issues continue to exist and negatively impact the community. Integrating these issues into academic departments that are currently removed from this sphere will help spread awareness of gender difference.
Another member of the audience suggested that the administration integrate a gender difference awareness course into the first-year orientation process. In the initial panel introduction, McKinney stated, “When I came into college I thought it was going to be a wild vacation, but I have come to realize otherwise.” By incorporating an awareness course into the orientation process, incoming students will enter into the College with knowledge of the sorts of issues that cause divides within their new community.
Harris emphasized the negative impact of a community’s silence on its ability to progress, sharing a quote from President Barack Obama: “When anyone is diminished, we are all diminished.” Many students and faculty members who attended the panel expressed the sentiment that essential issues of gender inequality on campus are not being addressed and that they are silenced or marginalized in some way. The conversation ended with a plea for the College to take concrete steps toward addressing these issues.