Universities as Women-Serving Institutions

Rather than focus narrowly on lagging male enrollments, consider what would it mean for a university to truly be a women-serving institution, Sanjam Ahluwalia and Frances Riemer write.

By Sanjam Ahluwalia and Frances Julia Riemer

We write from a university campus with a student body consisting of 63 percent female-identified and 37 percent male-identified students. Women now outnumber men not only on our campus and on many U.S. university campuses, but also elsewhere in the Western world. A similar trend appears to be transforming the makeup of universities in much of EuropeCanadaAustralia and New Zealand. Even in India, the University of Delhi, one of its premier institutions of higher learning, is reporting women students outnumbering men.

This current shift is even more striking given the history of girls’ education. During much of Western history, women were denied access to the written word. Formal learning and education were understood to corrupt the feminine mind and body, distracting women from their primary responsibilities of motherhood. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that women were allowed some access to higher education in the West and in parts of the colonized world. In 1836, Wesleyan College, in Georgia, became the first women’s college in the U.S.; by the late 19th century, more than 50 additional women’s colleges had been founded in the U.S. While it is important to remember that women and girls across locations in the Global South continue to face multiple societal and familial obstacles in gaining access to education, the gendered demographic shift across many Western institutions of higher learning is widespread and, given this long history of hostility and denial, particularly remarkable.

While there is an awareness—or, to be more accurate, rising anxiety—around changing gender demographics across higher education, there is little understanding of how we got here. What is even more disconcerting is the lack of political will to fully acknowledge this changing reality and to fundamentally rethink both university culture and its financial priorities. While universities today are women-serving institutions, they are also becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Universities across the U.S. are enthusiastically embracing designations of being a minority-serving or, as in our instance, Hispanic-serving, Institution. We see an equally strong commitment to serving Native communities and, given the geographical location of our university in northern Arizona, this effort is both necessary and commendable. In fact, in our recently adopted university Strategic Roadmap, justice, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives rose to prominence, reflecting our administrators’ commitment as well as their acute appreciation of the shifting racial demographic realities of our specific location. However, the document makes little mention of the university’s female-identified students, nor do the initiatives reflect women’s concerns.

As feminist scholars, we foreground decolonial, intersectional and global analysis here to offer explanations for the current shifting gender demographics across higher education. While seeking to understand the genesis of our new reality, this essay is also an invitation for a careful collective consideration of the implications of being a women-serving institution. We ponder the change from women being barred from universities to their making up the majority of our student body today.

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Even before we can take a moment to celebrate women’s remarkable successes within higher education, the dominant discourse across the American academy has adopted a ring of alarm and despair around shifting gender demographics. Instead of devoting time, energy and resources to fully understanding what it means to be a woman-serving institution, we are asked to account for “missing men” in the academy. We are asked, “Where are the men; why are men missing from our campuses? What needs to happen to bring men back?” Men command and demand all material and intellectual resources when most universities were established as spaces of learning for and by them. And now in their absence from these spaces, too, men once again are centered as “true” subjects who need our collective intellectual resources in order to return them to university campuses.

Victims of Patriarchy: Underperformance Among Men and Male-Identified Students

So why are men “missing” from university campuses? Before we propose a working hypothesis, we reflect on the shameless appropriation of a feminist metaphor, one that was coined to capture and convey the murderous reality of the lives lost of millions of unborn female fetuses, young girls and women across the world. “Missing women” is a term that refers to a range of violent modalities of femicide that include sex-selective abortionsbenign neglect of girl children in India, culturally rooted daughter aversion across many geographical locations and missing and murdered Mexican and Indigenous women. In this context, men and male-identified students have not gone “missing” from university campuses on account of physical violence and/or murder. Instead, they are actively opting out of colleges and higher education for a variety of reasons. Yet The Chronicle of Higher Education thought nothing of it and published an entire issue titled Missing Men (July 23, 2021).

That said, we trace the absence of men both to the K-12 educational system and the grounds of university campuses. Sociologists point to male students’ disengagement in their K-12 education as explanation. About 90 percent of elementary teachers and 60 percent of secondary teachers are female. Given the history of teaching as a feminized profession in the U.S. and the respective low salaries of K-12 teachers, fewer men have been attracted to the occupation. The absence of role models for male students translates to decreased engagement and an increase in male dropouts and helps fuel the insidious school-prison nexus.

While higher education has had a male-dominated history, by the late 1980s, male bachelor degree completion rates effectively stalled as female completion continued to rise, creating an exaggerated appearance of male failure. Salary differentials in the marketplace translated to women requiring higher levels of education to earn the same income as men. As female single heads of household increased, more women entered the workforce.

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The percentage of 25- to 29-year-old men who have attained bachelor’s degrees has actually increased by about 11 percentage points, from 24 to 34.7 percent, over the last 40 years. However, as college has become a growing necessity for women, female attainment rates for bachelor’s degrees more than doubled over the same period, growing from 21 to 43.8 percent.

Feminist, queer and trans researchers across humanities and social sciences have argued that dominant patriarchal scripts of masculinity have supported a “toxic masculinity” that also hurts boys, men and male-identified individuals. Their work argues that strictly binary gendered expectations in educational institutions and the wider society do our human collectivity a disservice. In releasing masculinity from unrealistic restraints, we would allow the spirit of inquiry and individual expression to flourish in unimaginably new and creative ways.

Centering Women: Foster Belonging Among Women and Female-Identified Students

”Women-serving institutions” is not the current dominant lexicon used to self-represent universities. But what we want to also flag here is an issue bigger than nomenclature. As decolonial feminists, we recognize that reigning colonial and patriarchal tropes and vocabularies do need to be fully exposed for their biases and half-truths. The film The Hunting Ground narrates the chilling institutional culture of sexual assault and rape of women and female-identified students on American university campuses. Despite mandatory training around Title IX and the Clery Act, along with shifting gender and racial demographics, university culture continues to favor patriarchal, misogynistic and racist sensibilities. The new gender composition of universities by itself has not and will not engineer these as supportive and/or feminist spaces.

This is not a project to be realized in some distant future; across U.S. universities, women make up almost 60 percent of the student population. In other words, universities are currently women-serving institutions. Acknowledging and embracing this reality will strengthen our institutional commitment to serve our current student body.

To begin simply, universities and community colleges can consider anachronistic terminology like freshmen—which harks back to a time when university-going students were singularly men. U.S. universities may want to adopt a gender-neutral term like “first-year students,” instead.

We can also examine university sports culture. Despite Title IX interventions, male coaches get paid at rates disproportionally higher than women coaches. Male athletes and men’s sport teams occupy greater prominence and attention than do women’s teams and female athletes in university marketing and recruitment. A conversation across the university about sports advancement and promotion is long overdue. It might also be beneficial to rethink the tradition of women cheerleaders, who are both sexually objectified and experience patterns of sexual harassment. Female cheerleaders are recruited to encourage male athletes from the sidelines, a task that need not be gendered and sexualized in the current manner.

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Universities continue to be recalcitrant in addressing the glaring lack of childcare facilities for students, staff, faculty and administrators. Upper administrators argue financial constraint to explain the institutional failure to ensure safe and adequate childcare for their employees and students. Yet we know, across universities, childcare is vital in promoting best workplace cultures. This support is especially important since, in our patriarchal cultures, women and female-identified individuals continue to shoulder disproportionate childcare and parenting responsibilities.

Installing restroom dispensers with free menstrual products equally reflects an institutional culture of recognition. Through this simple enactment, universities can signal their acknowledgment of their student, staff and faculty needs. The messaging is simple: menstruating bodies move through and occupy university spaces, and we are institutionally committed to our students’ care to ensure their educational success. In line with this commitment is the designation of lactation rooms in buildings on campuses. While the cost of setting up lactation rooms is fairly minimal, the gesture normalizes lactating bodies in classrooms and other university spaces. Here, too, we signal that students are seen and welcomed as members of our community.

Aligning these demographic shifts with institutional change will take work and time. Here is where we want to put our energies; we invite various constituencies across higher education to collectively design curricular, programmatic, administrative and structural initiatives and interventions that will allow us to be reflective of and responsive to our changing demographic realities. We anticipate success will require those of us in the trenches of our classrooms and those with an elevated university-wide and statewide vantage point to look for synergies and work together in creating higher learning institutions reflective of our students’ needs and aspirations.



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