By Annaliese Heidelberger
While colleges and universities in the United States are statistically trending towards being “women’s spaces,” the persistent mood and normalization of gender-specific obstacles in higher education certainly prevent it from feeling like it. With conversations shifting towards how to get more men enrolled, it is imperative that the “overrepresentation” of women is not used to write-off the need for continued improvement in the experience of female students.
In the admission cycles surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of enrollment and retention in colleges and universities has been significantly lower for men than women.
While addressing this imbalance is an issue of importance, more often than not, the flip side of increasing resources for men is shifting away from supporting women and contributing to the narrative that gender equality in higher education has been “solved”. In theory, these issues can and should be decoupled, however, in practice it is hard to point to a solid example.
As measures to increase the representation of women in higher education are coming to fruition, the current moment presents a pivotal opportunity for the culture to fully divest itself from patriarchal standards.
Yet, the opposite is seemingly occurring – instead of institutions continually adapting to support female students, women are still internalizing notions that feeling unsafe and undervalued are “just part of the college experience.”
A stark example of this comes from my own observations around the commercialization of women’s safety issues. Before attending college, planning to purchase a personal safety device was as natural a thought as planning to purchase a comforter. Even upon purchasing a portable alarm, the wide array of options, fun colors (mine is a vibrant teal), and general marketing towards women did not phase me.
It was only when I began to note their prevalence in college settings that I became disillusioned: the heart shaped alarm belonging to a woman in my Spanish class, the mini pastel purple pepper spray dangling from my friend’s keys, its adorable presentation masking its eerie symbolism.
Having grabbed my attention, these observations helped me delve further into my personal experience. At the end of my senior year in an all-girls Catholic high school, it was mandated that everyone attend seminars meant to prepare us for college.
Amongst hearing from a panel of college students and receiving academic advice, the sessions included both a self-defense class and a workshop on healthy relationships. At the time, I accepted these lessons gratefully and without question, avoiding unpacking any of the deeper sentiments.
Significantly, the intentions behind personal safety products and the seminars provided by my high school address real needs, but the messaging they reinforce as a consequence is damaging—that violence in some form is intrinsically and specifically linked to the college experience of women, and more importantly, it is up to individual women to internalize the burden of protecting themselves.
Of course, women are by no means the only group impacted by safety issues such as general or sexual violence, but there is a palpable “when, not if” attitude taught to women and gender minorities that profoundly shapes the college experience.
Illustrating this fear, a recent “Inside Higher Ed” survey of 2,004 college students found that women were 10% less likely to say they felt very safe on campus than men.
This gap translates to greater stress and hypervigilance among women, which is mentally and emotionally taxing. To address these issues, to have and promote resources for women such as a women’s center are beneficial, but not enough to counteract broader campus culture issues. For that reason, Institutions need to assume responsibility for making their entire campuses “safe spaces.”
If more is not done to oppose the normalization of these issues, backslides will occur in which women will be expected to handle more gender-specific pressures, worsening effects such as burnout which can derail one’s entire experience with education.
Moving beyond more generic safety measures, institutions should consider safety in the specific context of their campuses and what measures are actually realistic.
For example, the common advice given to women is to not walk alone at night. That limits independence and does not account for the statistic that most sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.
Moreover, it can be difficult to navigate resources that are available on campus, especially when seeking out confidentiality. Increasing or diverting more attention to confidential resources could be a promising step in making women more comfortable and in control of their experience.
Ultimately, these options illustrate that it should be the role of institutions to confront distorted narratives about women’s issues when making decisions about campus safety as well as recognize that women do not want praise for their resilience; they want to feel that the intricacies of their student experience are understood.
Annaliese Heidelberger is a first-year student at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
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