As a female graduate student at (practically) all-male Yale, Cynthia Russett GRD ’59, Ph.D. ’64 knew she was in a tough position. But she did not realize exactly how tough that position was until, sometime in 1958, a dean told her flat-out: “You girls are not here to interrupt the studies of our men.”
Forty-six years later, Russett, now a history professor, sat in the Women’s Center Tuesday night and recalled the dean’s words for a small group of students and professors contemplating how issues of gender are incorporated into secondary and higher education. This “Education Exchange” panel — the third in a series sponsored by Students for Teachers — covered how issues of gender affect everything from high school sex education to medical school curricula to activism on college campuses.
Two of the students on the panel, Noah Dobin-Bernstein ’06 and Aliza Hochman ’05, spoke of their experiences teaching and mentoring New Haven middle- and high-schoolers. Discussing her work with eighth-grade girls as a member of the group Women and Youth Supporting Each Other, Hochman said the group’s “empowerment agenda” tries to help the girls get at underlying questions behind issues of gender in society.
“We don’t just ask [the mentees] ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?,’” Hochman said. “We ask them questions like, ‘What does your mother do and what are the reasons she does that? How is motherhood and child care a societal burden?’”
Acknowledging that race, gender and class can often serve as barriers between Yalies and the students they work with, both Hochman and Dobin-Bernstein agreed that being a good mentor or educator comes from a willingness to listen to students.
“It’s about respect for the opinions of the students in the class,” said Dobin-Bernstein, who teaches health education in New Haven classrooms as a member of the student group Community Health Educators. “If you honestly believe the students in the class have as valuable an opinion as you, you’re really going to move ahead in this process.”
The third student on the panel, Women’s Center coordinator Emily Regan Wills ’04, discussed incorporating issues of gender into higher education. Wills urged those participating in the discussion to remember that everything at a university — from academic disciplines to political activism on campus — has a “gendered aspect” that needs to be considered.
Citing the phenomenon of “gender week,” Wills said it is not enough for professors to set aside issues of gender in their disciplines and raise them only at one point during the semester. Instead, she said, it is necessary to “integrate diversity into the curriculum at the ground level.”
Medical school professor — and Trumbull College Master — Janet Henrich had a similar message. Noting that medical schools too often consider women’s health important only from a reproductive standpoint, Henrich said few schools teach about how women differ from men in how they experience various diseases and conditions.
“We need to take it out of the pelvis, so to speak,” Henrich said of the discipline of women’s health, calling for increased sensitivity to women’s and gender issues on the part of medical school faculty.