I identify as female and before graduate school and even now, I don’t think that I give much thought to how this identity impacts my world view or work in student affairs. In the past, this was simply because I didn’t have a framework for understanding the difference between a person’s biological sex and his or her gender. A little kid that was constantly mistakenly called “young man” because of my short hair and lack of enthusiasm for wearing girl’s clothing should have known better, but I was young. I had no idea that gender was a binary system created by society based on the self proclaimed proper appearance, mannerisms, roles, responsibilities, etc. of males and females.
It was not until I met and became friends with people who frequently step across or in some cases completely flip the gender binary on its head that I began to see all of the ways in which gender or at least perceived gender affect lives. More than anything I think that my new awareness provides me greater sensitivity to issues of sexism and gender norming. I can now recognize and point it out on highway billboards, the commercials I watch, in the political campaigns of 2008, etc. I also have a greater awareness, although no where near complete, of the issues that transgender and gender questioning students may face in obtaining their degrees. I think this awareness and ability to articulate it are the most powerful tools I I have toward addressing the issues surrounding the oppression of female and transgendered people.
When it comes to issues of sexism and college campuses, the first thing that comes to mind is safety. I have been a witness at numerous safety presentations to new students and in all but a few of them it was made clear either through language or insinuation that services such as SafeRides, safety lights, late-night escorts, etc. were for female students; males could take care of themselves. Advice about walking late at night in groups, not accepting drinks at parties, and being constantly vigilant against preventing sexual assault were all directed at females with the apparent conclusion that males didn’t have to worry about such things. Granted things are changing. This summer all incoming students at OSU watched a series of vignettes called It Starts Now, that explained to ALL students the responsibilities they have to their fellow students when it comes to preventing sexual assaults. Students learned the huge impact that alcohol consumption has on a large number of sexual assaults among college students, how most of the time assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows, and the steps each student could take to not only protect themselves from being a survivor AND a perpetrator but also the steps they could take to help their friends. More programs like It Starts Now, along with an intentional change in the language for safety services on campuses must continue in order to combat the disparity in how male and female students view safety.
Another major area where change is on the way but still has plenty of room to grow is in the sexism that pervades certain majors and academic colleges. Students who find themselves in majors or colleges that are often dominated by the other sex benefit from programs that set them up with mentors, support and study groups, opportunities to attend professional conferences, etc. that help them overcome the challenges associated with their choice of major. As an academic advisor, I need to be aware of such programs so I can recommend them to students who may benefit from their services. I also need to be aware of the ways in which gender may affect a student’s major choice and find subtle, effective ways to address these issues with students as well as create programming that addresses this issue.
When it comes to transgender students, it is imperative to recognize and respond to the immediate struggles that these students may face in receiving access to safe and secure housing, bathrooms, health services, etc. but also important to create a university community that provides long-lasting support to these students both inside and outside the classroom. Counseling services, recreational facilities, academic programs, residential communities, international education, they all have to be accessible to transgender students. It is only when people such as I, even with my limited knowledge, speak up with these students and provide them with the resources to speak up for themselves, that these departments will recognize how inclusive they are and make strides towards improvement.