Commentary: Despite improvement, gender inequality still exists

The role of women in higher education is a subject that has been in the news lately. In February, Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers announced his resignation following comments he made claiming that women did not possess the same “innate ability” of men when it came to math and science. When I first heard Summers remarks, I was saddened to see someone in such a high academic position demonstrate such sexism. A recent class discussion of Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel “The Crying of Lot 49” once again brought this topic to my attention.

The discussion started off well but before long, the class seemed to divide into two separate camps – those who enjoyed the novel and those that vehemently despised it. Interestingly, the divide seemed to fall along gender lines. Most of the males (myself included) sang the praises of Pynchon’s work while the majority of females in the class dismissed the novel, calling it “obtuse,” “confusing” and “pretentious.”

While these criticisms of the book are completely valid, the men (again, myself included) did not respond well to them, and it was not long before the class discussion descended into a shouting match between the two camps. At one point, the idea that the novel was too “intellectualized” for some readers to appreciate got thrown around, a sentiment that did not set well with the women of the class. “So, if I don’t like Pynchon I’m not intellectual?” one female student asked.

Eventually our professor was able to refocus the attention of the discussion toward more constructive topics, but I left class that day with several nagging questions. Why did all my female classmates disagree so strongly with me about the book? Had I unintentionally made sexist comments? How can I characterize the dense nature of this book without making some feel ostracized?

I resolved to be more selective in my comments and aware of any potentially elitist remarks I might make. Sadly, it wasn’t long before I again encountered such elitism and chauvinism in higher education. Just last week, I read a review of Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield’s new book, “Manliness,” a quality he defines as “having confidence in risky situation.” I was struck by Mansfield’s blatant sexism. Since when is confidence an exclusively male trait?

Our society has made a great deal of progress toward equality of the sexes, but clearly there is still much ground to be covered. Despite advancements in the last 50 years, we can have subtly sexist or elitist tendencies from time to time. We should all try to be mindful of these tendencies and avoid them as much as possible.

– Carleton Atwater is a junior English major and a member of The News staff.

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