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Gender gap and the elephant in the room at the U

Professor Patricia Pachyderm is ready to make her point.
Courtesy of Michael Dorneich
Professor Patricia Pachyderm is ready to make her point.

Professor Caroline Hayes admits she’s about to do something “very silly” at Thursday’s colloquium of the Women’s Faculty Cabinet at the University of Minnesota.

Hayes plans to dress up as Professor Patricia Pachyderm, sporting pearls and a latex elephant mask she found online. As outgoing chair of the cabinet, she will introduce the guest speaker at the spring gathering.

Professor Eugene Borgida, who seems to possess feminist sensibilities, is scheduled to discuss “Implicit Gender Bias in Everyday Life: Implications for Leadership, Academic Achievement and Law.”

So, what’s with the elephant head? Hayes says she wants to have a little fun yet make a point about the “elephant in the room,” i.e. the implicit gender bias that continues across college campuses and society at large and results in inequities despite laws to correct them.

“First, many people feel that elephants are not qualified to be faculty,” Hayes explains in an email invitation to friends and colleagues. “Second, even when we are faculty, many assume we are willing to work for peanuts, and they fail to mention us even when we are sitting in the middle of the living room.”

Analyzing the gap
How wide is the gender gap — in pay, tenure, promotions, etc. — at the Twin Cities campus? The Women’s Faculty Cabinet, with the help of the university’s institutional research office and the provost’s office, has been analyzing data and surveys and hopes to draw some conclusions this summer.  

“I don’t necessarily view us as very different from a lot of other institutions,” says Hayes, a professor of mechanical engineering. “Our goal is that we want to have the healthiest atmosphere possible, and to do so, you have to know where you stand. I think we have a very widespread issue concerning women in this country … and how they are valued and treated and paid.”

As of 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau calculated that women on average earned 77 cents to every dollar paid a man.

Could implicit gender bias be a factor? That’s what Borgida, a professor of psychology, will address Thursday. According to the program notes, “The science of implicit cognition is grounded in decades of research in cognitive and social psychology showing that people’s expectations based on learned contingencies unknowingly affect everyday perceptions, judgment, memory, and behavior. Mental processes about individuals and groups, as this work suggests, can operate implicitly, or outside of conscious, attentional focus.”

Borgida will look at the implications of the “perceptions and evaluations of women in leadership positions; understanding the extent to which implicit biases about gender may influence Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) career choices and career aspirations, and employment law cases involving sex discrimination claims under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts.”

Addressing perceptions in middle school, too
Hayes, mother of an 11-year-old girl, also is working with Borgida, photographer Nancy Johnson and others on a proposed outreach project to study whether they can change middle-school girls’ perceptions of careers in engineering and science.

“The reason we want to target that group is … it appears that middle school is the age when many young girls start to turn away from engineering and science, and we want to catch them at that age before they have firm ideas of who can or cannot be an engineer,” she said.

Hayes hopes to draw a big crowd for the spring colloquium. The elephant concept arose last fall in a discussion of how to call more attention to the gender gap and/or implicit bias. Talk turned to the Guerrilla Girls, the artists who started donning gorilla masks and showing up at male-dominated galleries and exhibitions in the mid-1980s.

“We thought maybe we need the equivalent of a Guerrilla Girl here,” she recalls. A theater member of the cabinet suggested that they create their own alliterative brand. While “Elephants for Equity in Higher Ed” might be a mouthful, it’s a reminder of the invisibility problem.

It will be difficult to overlook Hayes, um, Pachyderm in the President’s Room, Coffman Memorial Union. But she wants to make one thing clear: She is not a party animal. “I am an equal opportunity, across-the-aisles elephant.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by JP Rennquist on 04/28/2010 - 10:41 am.

    I deeply sympathize with the Prof. Hayes’ sense of injustice I can see why she is mad.

    As a father of two daughters I am concerned about the disparity in engineering careers for girls. But not as much in science as more medical, psychological and other science advanced degrees are being earned by women.

    More concerning to me is that men are lagging behind and there is a freight train of trouble coming in that department as fewer and fewer boys are learning basic math and reading skills, graduating from high school, finishing college and receiving advanced degrees. The disparities are far more remarkable when it comes to students of African American, Latino, and Native American ancestry, especially boys/young men vs. girls/young women (especially white females).

    I actually thought that the article could be about how young men are falling behind their female counterparts on nearly every single score of success. Or maybe the fact that, African American young men are more likely to sit in a jail cell than a college classroom. But I stand corrected, feminists are still talking about how educated, middle and upper white women are being squashed by the “patriarchy” and ignoring how people from other racial groups, and young men are falling even further behind. And to me, that is the real “Elephant in the Room.”

  2. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 04/28/2010 - 05:46 pm.

    Great comment, J.P.!

    I get very tired of reading a stat from the Census Bureau that says that all women on average earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

    First of all, I don’t know what kind of wage database the Census Bureau has that would provide the information to back up that statement.

    Second of all the figure means nothing. It doesn’t take into effect job descriptions.

    Why don’t those oppressed women at the U of MN compare actual wages for men and women at the U?

    I have no idea how that would come out but maybe the women are worried that women might be earning more than men there and that wouldn’t fit their agenda?

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/28/2010 - 06:23 pm.

    As a former college professor, I agree that boys are falling behind, but I assign principal blame to one factor: our macho popular culture.

    When the entertainment media treat talented young athletes as gods and talented mathematicians or artists or writers as despised nerds, we reap what we sow. When the movies marketed to teen boys are all shoot-em-up action flicks with scantily-dressed young women as mere set decoration, while films that have actual plots and characters are derided as “chick flicks,” we shouldn’t wonder when young boys have the attention span of two-year-olds.

    While boys are reveling in dreams of growing up to be G.I.Joe, girls are looking around and realizing that they’d better be able to support themselves.

    As a society, we need to find a way to make reading, knowing things, and learning and exploring exciting and desirable activities for both boys and girls.

  4. Submitted by JP Rennquist on 04/28/2010 - 10:28 pm.

    I think that both Prof. Sandness is completely correct, but that is an extreme oversimplification so its only partly right. Media plays a role, sure, but educators also need to be aware that boys and girls are quite different and they need to be taught in different ways.

    Actually, children of all kinds need to be taught in unique and individual ways. I agree that women of today are behind men of today in engineering careers and other industries, too. However, the boys that are coming up are very very far behind the girls in nearly every marker of success.

    25 years from now it will be men who are behind ,struggling and adrift unable to feed their families properly and working jobs far beneath their potential because they missed out on learning things as boys and young men. We’ll need a guerilla movement to promote equality. So … why not just do that for BOTH genders now and save the next generations a lot of trouble.

    Remember, I said I was the father of 2 daughters. I want them to be successful and I appreciate the effort that anyone expends to help get them thinking about being all that they can be. But I want people to be just as invested in ensuring the success of our boys, too. This is not a zero sum game. When we all do better, we all do better.

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