The decision to change “freshman” to “first year” is well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive. Calhoun College celebrated one of the staunchest proponents of slavery; even “master” evoked a particularly abhorrent dynamic in American history. In contrast, it’s hard to perceive the sin in “freshman.” The word “freshman” may be gendered, but only to the extent that the English language is gendered.
Linguistics aside, the change to “first year” elides the exceedingly real ways in which sexism pervades the University. On numerous occasions, I have heard students, faculty and alumni scoff at the change, as though the fight for gender equality is nothing more than political correctness run amok.
Who can blame them? Political capital is finite. By expending it on a trivial change in terminology, we undermine real efforts to combat gender bias in the University.
For sexism is not just an unfortunate truth in the academy. A gendered division of labor is embedded in its very operation. Senior scholars, mainly men, have the time and energy to produce great research and take on highly-visible roles, in large part because female professors — particularly young, contingent faculty, often of color — bear the disproportionate burden of advising, mentorship and administration.
Consider, for instance, the demographics of the residential college deans and heads. Eight of the heads are male and six are female; conversely, twelve of the deans are female and just two are male. Whereas men and women share leadership of the “social, cultural and educational life and character” of our colleges, women overwhelmingly provide, in Yale’s own words, “academic and personal counseling.”
This imbalance is no one’s fault. I have a man for a head of college and a woman for a dean, and both of them are great in their roles and as people. But the complex and invidious effect of gender is precisely why we need to have a serious, intelligent conversation about cultural and structural forces — often beyond our immediate control — rather than superficial semantic tweaks.
To be clear, University President Peter Salovey has made important strides in appointing women to senior leadership roles, most notably Heather Gerken as Dean of the Yale Law School. Yet trickle-down sexism animates student life and culture, and that’s where change is most difficult.
Since 2000, just two women have been elected Yale College Council presidents. But we don’t have to look that far back. Ask any student enrolled in a seminar, and they will tell you that men speak more forcefully and more frequently in class — even though women have higher college GPAs nationally. Anecdotally, female first-year counselors are likelier to deal with their first years’ emotional issues, because we are all socialized to see women as agents of emotional labor and care work.
So, let’s dispel the notion that gender equality is about quotas or identity politics. By ascribing gendered characteristics to individuals, we circumscribe what is imaginable and unimaginable to them, materially affecting their life chances. If we are to challenge these discrepancies, we will need difficult conversations — not glib, self-congratulatory moves.
Many have written about the paucity of women in male-dominated fields like mathematics and computer science. But neither should we forget the minoritization of stereotypically “feminine” disciplines, which remain sidelined in the academy. Eight out of ten seniors majoring in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies in 2017 were female — even though questions of gender affect men as well as women, and it is arguably men who need to educate themselves about these issues. Even with subjects which are not overtly gendered, the disparity persists. Be it a seminar on family and empire or on the history of childhood, classes which overwhelmingly attract women are still seen as “niche” and thus marginal.
Another hotbed of sexism — not to mention racism — lies in course evaluations. The research evinces that students consistently underrate women and faculty of color, even when asked to assess facially objective metrics like turnaround time for grading. According to Ben Schmidt’s analysis of RateMyProfessor.com, women are likelier to be described as warm, bossy or nasty, whereas men are described as knowledgeable, brilliant and cool. No surprise, then, that almost all of Yale’s “cult classes” are taught by men.
At the end of October, Anita Hill LAW ’80 will deliver the “Women at Yale” keynote. Hill’s congressional testimony against Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 catapulted sexual harassment into the national imagination. While it didn’t stop Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court, it empowered a generation of women to speak truth to power. I suspect Hill will discuss the progress we have made, but also the work that is to come — at Yale, as in America, as in our world.
As we approach half a century of coeducation in Yale College, the struggle for a fairer and more inclusive academy continues. Freshman or first year, I only hope future cohorts of Yalies inherit a better Yale.
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .