Women’s History Month: Gender continues to matter, for new reasons

The Latino Student Union at GC, one of our most active student organizations, is led this year by five women. Pictured here with their advisor, Richard Aguirre, diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator: Berenice Rodriguez and Aurora Flores Avila (top), Pamela Ortiz Ramirez and Adriana Martinez Diaz De Leon (middle), and Lisa Rosado Rivera (bottom). (Photo provided by Richard Aguirre)

In 1983, when I was a student at GC, I wrote my senior paper on the topic of gender. That was three years after Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin overthrew their male boss in the movie 9 to 5. Things have changed! But gender is every bit as important today, and for some new reasons.

The gender landscape at the moment seems full of contradictions. On the one hand, patriarchy continues to thrive in numerous ways; witness autocratic male leaders in politics, business and religion, and the continued stream of stories of women harassed in the workplace. On the other hand, in education, female attainment has surged past that of males, including in high-achievement courses in high school (AP, dual-enrollment), college enrollment, and graduate fields traditionally dominated by men, such as medicine, veterinary science and law.

A further complexity is that many of us do not experience gender as binary, male or female. Nonbinary and transgender people bring particular gifts and perspectives to education and organizations, and they also experience extreme forms of bias, harassment and violence. The sources I cite below do not address these important issues, but research and resources are growing.

An increasingly educated female workforce is good news. New research by the Center for Creative Leadership shows that organizations with more women in leadership positions have better financial outcomes, and in addition, happier, healthier workplaces. “Having a higher percentage of women in an organization predicted more job satisfaction, more organizational dedication, more meaningful work and less burnout.” Furthermore, the authors report that “These new findings persist, regardless of participants’ age, industry, organization size, leadership level, ethnicity and gender.” For some outcomes, the benefits of gender diversity were even greater for men than for women.

At the same time, I am concerned for men. In the United States, women now outnumber men in college by nearly two to one. Trends at Goshen College are similar. Alarmingly, the pandemic has not only decreased college enrollment overall, it has widened the gender gap. College enrollment in fall 2020 fell 2.5 percent overall, but the decline among men was more than seven times as steep as the decline among women, reports Jon Marcus of the Hechinger Report.

The acute economic insecurity of the pandemic is driving high school graduates to go straight into employment, choosing a paycheck now over the much greater long-term payoff of a college education. This pull is especially strong for young men. Young women are more willing to invest in education, according to researchers interviewed by Marcus, and such investment pays off in employment. But in the workplace, McKinsey & Company’s 2020 research found women are feeling significantly more exhausted, burned out and under pressure than men, and are more likely to be leaving their jobs — by choice or because of downsizing. And like everything else in the pandemic, these trends are more extreme and adverse for people of color.

If we truly care about all women and men, we need to commit to two things at the same time.

First, to make our organizations most healthy and productive, we need to invite women into roles of all types and at all levels. Give women resources and freedom to be themselves, to shape culture and to succeed.

Second, we need to support men to invest in their long-term future through education, and furthermore to function well in the environments that gender diversity creates: work that is more explicitly meaningful, more relational, more flexible, less aggressive and more profitable.

I started this blog thinking that I was going to write something relevant to Women’s History Month, and perhaps I have. More than ever, our world is highly interdependent. We cannot have prosperity and freedom for women without the same for all genders. Truly, everything connects. 

How are you perceiving these issues at this time? I’d love to hear your views.

Rebecca Stoltzfus