The case for a men’s officer?
Recently, my university residential hall has established a men’s officer. Reading through blogs and opinion news sites, I feel conflicted about what role an officer supporting men has to play in this setting.
For a very long time we’ve had a women’s officer whose role was never really clear in the first place. Once a year the women’s officer would give a sexual education seminar under the guise of a ‘girls’ night in’ and then a ‘boys’ night in’ with the assistance of the sexuality officer. She also has a bunch of condoms in her room, alongside medication for thrush and UTIs. She’s supposed to be someone we can talk to in regards to issues with sex, pregnancy, and sexual harassment. In my first year the women’s officer also advertised ‘No Diet Day‘. Essentially, although the role is confused and very ill-defined, it’s very much based in health and being able to talk to someone in the place you live about the issues that come up.
From this health perspective, I can see why a men’s officer might be useful to have around. Perhaps ‘Boys’ Night In’ would be more comfortable for those involved were it conducted by a man. Additionally, men have issues they might need assistance on too – men need condoms, men need referrals, men get sexually assaulted. From this perspective, men are equally entitled to be able to talk to someone in the place they live about issues that may arise.
However, the purpose of setting up a women’s officer specifically, not just a ‘person you can come and talk to about sex and health’ officer, was to represent the hardships and concerns of women. At this stage, women were extremely underrepresented at a university level and were systematically discriminated against. For instance, at the time when the title was established, you were legally allowed to pay women much less than men who did the exact same job, or even a job that was ‘lower’ on the corporate ladder. The female workforce participation rate was much lower, as was the presence of women in the academy. For some, the question, ‘should we have a men’s officer?’ strikes at the heart of modern feminism. It’s asking ‘do women have any concerns that are substantially different and worse to those of men anymore?’
Some commentators these days point out that it is actually men who are underrepresented at university these days, as 60% of undergraduate students are women. The Manawatu Standard, in New Zealand, suggests that this is because traditionally male-dominated jobs required no university education (unlike female-dominated jobs, teaching and nursing, which now require at least a bachelor’s degree). Additionally, boys are allowed by their parents to shut off during adolescence. They supposedly stop talking and stop feeling enthusiastic about life and start grunting and playing video games. Meanwhile, girls are socialising, working in groups, and thinking that it is a good thing to do well academically. Whether or not this is accurate isn’t the issue, it shows to some extent that boys are treated differently from girls, which can be to the detriment of both sexes.
Often people ascribe the gender disparity in academic fields such as physics and engineering to the way young children are taught to play. Girls, given barbie dolls and doll houses and ponies, are never really brought up to be curious about mechanics and how things work. Instead, they are to think about social relationships, the way people act and talk, about language, and, umm… ponies. Meanwhile, boys are given blocks and trucks, the things required to build, to move, and they therefore pay more attention to the principals that underlie such processes. As a result, neither are really given the opportunity intellectually step out of gender boundaries unless they have a sibling of the opposite gender, or particularly open-minded parents. Therefore, when it comes to university study, it’s rare for someone to not be highly effected by ingrained gender stereotypes – man or woman.
Nonetheless, despite the slight head start women are given by being ‘overrepresented’ at university, women, unfortunately, don’t tend to stay as long as men, and tend not to reach heights within the university. While 60% of those studying a bachelor’s degree may be women, by the time it gets to postgraduate level, its either evened out, or women become the minority. Additionally, the top Ivy League colleges in the US are either 50-50, or the gender imbalance still favours men. This situation seems to describe a little bit of a persisting glass ceiling.
However, if we go to the inception of most universities, we see a situation far worse than a mere ‘glass ceiling’. Many of the old institutions were founded on patriarchal tenets, many not even allowing women to enroll long after their initial inception. This is clearly no longer the case. Universities are obviously admitting large numbers of female students and do not discriminate on that basis (or further, women are granted special scholarships for undertaking degrees which are typically male-dominated), and although there are fewer women than men in academia, this could well be attributed to the time-lag effect. At an institutional level, discrimination doesn’t exist. So, why is it that the institution is pressured to instill a women’s officer as though it does?
This argument may be compelling, but for the fact that the worst discrimination that exists for university women today is not, and probably never has been for our generation, institutional. It is that discrimination that operates at a cultural level that we really need to be looking at. Here are some issues which affect women at university, or women who are about to embark upon careers, that I believe reflect ingrained discrimination and are not felt by men:
The subjects that primarily women study, such as the Arts, are labeled as ‘touchy-feely’, not difficult, and useless, compared to the subjects that primarily men study such as the ‘hard’ sciences.
A woman who has an unplanned pregnancy whilst in university usually does have to make tough decisions by herself and is affected physically and emotionally in ways that the father of the foetus may never feel. Especially given the judgments the general public cast upon young pregnant women especially. There are of course exceptions, but realistically, women bear a much greater burden.
Also, sexually speaking, women are much more readily and negatively judged for their behavior and decisions by peers than men – whether they refrain from having sex or have sex regularly.
Given that women are underrepresented in high-performing jobs, such as in business, women who intend to have such a career path need role models and peers who they can relate to with issues surrounding their rise to the top. This should start at a university level so that women can reap the benefits as early on as possible.
Due to what has been called ‘positive discrimination’, in some educational institutions, as well as in many companies, it is sometimes assumed that a woman was able to get her place/job so that quotas can be filled, feminists can be appeased, etc. It is not always assumed that a woman deserves her place/job, which was why she got it.
- The actions of one women still represent the actions of all women. See this xkcd comic for what I mean by this.
Women tend to have a greater likelihood of depression, anxiety and tend to have many more body image issues than men and suffer from lower levels of confidence. This can have a huge impact on studies and career in terms of how women can focus on their work, and what they believe themselves to be capable of.
Traditionally female dominated industries such as nursing and teaching are notoriously underpaid and undervalued.
Sports, even on-campus sports, tend to be male dominated, or quite patriarchal. Men’s sports are valued more highly and watched more avidly than women’s sports, and some sports instill an anti-feminist culture.
These are all just the things I can think of off the top of my head, feel free to add more.
By all means, if the role of the women’s officer is merely about health, than men definitely need one too, or the two roles ought to be amalgamated. But, if the role is meant to be a representative one, if it is meant to tackle ingrained discrimination, then I think it’s still a realm where women do have special and unique needs to men, and therefore should still exclusively have a women’s officer.
Now, you might be thinking, I just started my post about how the women’s officer at my hall is merely there to give mostly health advice. And in terms of practically affecting the women around her, yes, that is still her basic role. But I think, the fact that she is there, that she has her specific title, draws attention to the fact that discrimination still exists. By naming a women’s officer, she may do absolutely nothing for the cause of gender discrimination, but for the fact that she causes us all to continually reflect on the presence of gender discrimination.
Sarah Cleary writes on why the women’s officer role must be political in order to be worthwhile. Though, I’m not sure that campaigning for women’s rights in public is an effective use of time, given that policy-based discrimination is not a huge concern for Australian women – it’s ingrained discrimination that is a problem. Moreover, I think the act of having a women’s officer in itself is inherently political. For further reading, the same incident Cleary talks about resulted in this interesting ABC interview with students of the University of Tasmania, who did install a ‘Men’s Officer’.
Lastly, men still need a place to go to for these practical matters surrounding health, for sure. Maybe residential colleges should specifically instill a ‘health officer’? I’m interested in what others think on this.