The Campus Gender Gap
— A Women’s Issue
Feminist that I am, my work tends to focus on the status of African
American women before it looks more broadly at the African American community. Indeed, I have been known to chafe at the policy focus on African American men, especially when it shifts light away from Black women. I didn’t like the Million Man March (or the Million Women’s March either, for that matter), feeling especially bent by rhetoric that said men should march and lead while women should teach and pray. When I see “Black male enrichment programs,” I wonder where the enrichment is for African American women. And, in the policy arena, I think it is a dirty rotten shame that our civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League still haven’t seen fit to place many women at the helm of these groups.
Still, when I entered a lecture hall for a recent campus lecture, I saw statistics come to life, and it amazed and concerned me. There were perhaps three African American women students for every man in the audience, and while I could concede that I am more interesting to women than to men, the audience also looked just like the statistics — African American women represent 62 percent of Black undergraduate enrollment (in 1997, the last year for which data is available from the National Center for Educational Statistics) while African American men represent just 38 percent of the enrollment. The gap has widened since 1990, when men were 39 percent of African American enrollment, and women were 61 percent.
Both Black male and Black female undergraduate enrollment has been growing since 1990, but Black women’s enrollment has been growing more rapidly. While Black women’s enrollment rose by 23 percent between 1990 and 1997, Black men’s enrollment rose by 16 percent. This took place at a time when White enrollment has actually been falling, with men’s enrollment falling more rapidly (8 percent) than women’s enrollment (5 percent).
Whites also have a campus gender gap, but it is neither as wide (men are 44 percent of White enrollment) nor of as much concern to me. And it is interesting to note that the campus gender gap does not translate into a pay gap that favors women. Indeed, because many women still work in typically female jobs, college-educated women, regardless of race, still earn less than college-educated men. Further, there is no gender gap that favors women in math and the sciences, where White women are a minority, and Black women are even scarcer.
Still, in terms of day-to-day campus life, the gender gap is a women’s issue, and it has implications for future gender relationships in the African American community. I spent an hour with a young sister, a gorgeous and well-spoken senior, who told me she had not dated once in her four years on campus. Why? She said she declined to get into “catfights” over men, and refused to casually share her sexual favors in order to get a boyfriend. “I date when I go home on weekends or during the holidays,” she says. “I’m not here to date, I’m here to learn.” Still, she confessed to bouts of loneliness, and to moments of envy. And she compared her situation to that of her White colleagues. “Many of my White friends are meeting the guys they want to marry in college. I’m meeting guys who have become spoiled and self-centered because there are so many more women than men on campus.”
The overall campus gender gap seems to get wider still on some HBCU campuses. A rather uninformed colleague, visiting Fisk University for the first time (where women’s enrollment is about 75 percent) said she thought it was a women’s college. Of course, the enrollment gap does not necessarily mean a gap in leadership roles. Indeed, I’ve heard young women say they chose to run for student body vice-
president to “let” a man take a leadership position. This thinking is exactly the kind of thinking that keeps Black women out of civic leadership in the “real world.” It is shaped by a concern for Black men that seems to ignore the status of Black women. It reminds me of the rhetoric of a decade ago, in which the Black man was described as “an endangered species.” Endangered men acquire, it seems to me, disproportionate value because they are so rare. Endangered status, on campus or in life, tips the scales toward men and seems to reinforce an already rampant patriarchy, suggesting that men come first and women second.
Thus, it is in women’s interest to close the gender gap on campus. It is in women’s interest to make men less endangered and more ordinary. It serves neither men nor women to lift one group over the other. And it makes no sense to treat men as endangered beings who are so much more precious than women are.
The campus gap in Black male enrollment must be addressed early in the pipeline, at the K-12 level. Young men and young women should have early exposure to campus life, especially if they will be first-
generation college students. Both men and women should have a sense of the broadened horizons that they can attain from going to college. And both young men and young women should have access to campus role models who can tell them more about college life. Folks like me will have to soften our position on some of the male enrichment programs and male-only recruiting. While I don’t want to see Black women’s enrollments fall, I’d certainly like to see Black men’s enrollment rise!
Ultimately, patriarchy will be dismantled only by those who have been sufficiently educated to understand that the elevation of one group of people over another is wrong, whether it is Whites over African Americans or men over women. Well-informed Black men and women could be at the forefront of enlightened thinking about gender relations, but not much enlightened thinking will develop on campuses where men are considered an endangered species. Closing the campus gender gap, then, is a women’s issue.
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