June was an infuriating month for women in both real and fake science. At the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, the English biochemist Tim Hunt said, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls…three things happen when they are in the lab…You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” The Nobel laureate’s words earned him much deserved backlash in the real world for what he now claims was an “idiotic joke.” But four days later a minimalizing depiction of a woman in fictitious science was rewarded with box office glory. Right out of the gate, Jurassic World surpassed its current (and most of its previous) competition en route to becoming one of the most financially successful films of all time. While viewers likely came to see the prehistoric animals reap carnage, the film’s plot was anchored by Bryce Dallas Howard’s depiction of Claire, the park manager who reinforces the myth that career women can’t have it all. Claire begins the film as a villain for being a stern, childless, work-driven woman who can’t relate to dinosaurs let alone her young nephews. In the end, she emerges as a hero by abandoning her conservative outfit, work focus, and rigidity and morphing into an idealized, empathetic, caring individual ready to embrace both love and motherhood. Avengers director Joss Whedon took to Twitter to call the film “70s era sexist.” Of course Hunt’s words and Claire’s depiction are not anomalous in their respective paradigms, but rather two examples of the gender prejudices that are ubiquitous in the 21st century. The question is: What can we educators do about it?
Personally, I believe misogyny will die a slow death and education will be the weapon that kills it. We have an uphill battle, but now is the time to confront this injustice in ways that our students will notice. We educators are currently enjoying fertile ground to plant the seeds of a much needed gender equality movement. The typical tribal college and university (TCU) student is a single mother with young children, and so our institutions’ successes are directly tied to the elevation of women who provide for their family. Moreover, in colleges across the United States, women are currently earning more degrees than their male counterparts, and this shift means that they’re contributing to the workforce and society in ways that previous generations only dreamed about. Yet despite their educational accomplishments, women are still paid less than men for equal work, treated as the weaker sex by detractors, and are often reduced by popular media depictions.
We educators can help to combat the reductive voices in society by encouraging our students to explore career paths they haven’t considered. All of us have asked undecided students what educational paths they’re contemplating. While this question can be helpful to better understand students’ mindsets, I’m proposing that we instead ask wavering students what careers they don’t want to pursue. Once we learn that our students have strong opinions about what they don’t want to do, we can suggest fields that they may have overlooked. Let’s ask our incoming freshmen to think about engineering. Let’s discuss what graduate school can do for them and their community. Let’s remind them that every educational opportunity is available to them—they just have to pursue it.
I’m especially passionate about encouraging women to consider careers in STEM fields. Although the humanities are my passion, it infuriates me that men like Hunt are discouraging women from entering laboratories. No one ever told me I needed to act on a segregated stage, that I must write in a male-only computer lab, or that having women work around me would cause me progress-impeding emotional distress. Yet Hunt made equally ridiculous claims about women in science, and too many people have publicly supported him. The reality that the percentage of women in STEM fields pales in comparison to men further illuminates why Hunt’s type of bigotry must be refuted.
Of course prescribing our students to pursue a career simply to combat the status quo should never be our intent. But we need to ensure that our students know of every educational option available to them. We can foster students’ exploration through internships. At College of Menominee Nation (CMN), where I teach, many of our students in every major are working as interns through our Sustainable Development Institute, or as educators teaching youths about alternative energy at the local YMCA. On point, my colleague Dr. Lisa Bosman and I are just completing the first of three years working on solar energy system performance estimation and analysis through CMN’s Solar Energy Research Institute. One of our objectives is to encourage female students to join our group. We didn’t choose to do so to fill a quota. Rather we agreed that in our classrooms and workshops we often saw women surrender both mathematical and hands-on scientific endeavors to their male counterparts for no discernable reason other than a lack of confidence. We became intent on changing that.
If nothing else, I think we educators can reap great rewards simply by challenging reductive opinions and popular sexist depictions of women. We have very real gender inequality to combat, but we also have an American over-culture that seems determined to accept demoralizing portrayals of women. This summer’s blockbusters alone brought us Jurassic World’s Claire, Furious 7’s male characters playing rock, paper, scissors for “dibs” on a woman, and even Avengers: Age of Ultron’s depiction of the female character Black Widow who equates her sterility to being a “monster.” Critic Jill Pantonzzi summed up the problem stating, “society as a whole still has an issue with women, so of course Hollywood does, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera.” While we educators can’t end sexist films, we can encourage our students to be critical consumers who use their circle of influence to help advocate against them. After all, America needs all of the feminists it can get.
So many inspiring and enviable women walk through the doors of every TCU campus each and every semester. Some of them are founding presidents, some lead classroom discussions, and some are becoming the first in their family to attend college. They will likely encounter many men like Tim Hunt in their lifetimes, but through education and advocacy we must bolster their confidence and readiness to shrug off aversion as they seek to achieve their full potential. If we’re successful, our students will leave our institutions equipped with not only a quality education, but also the ability to combat both real and fake misogynistic monsters.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
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Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.