women's colleges

Hilary Bates hbates at amgen.com
Mon Nov 27 16:29:23 EST 1995

hcorbett at bisance.citi2.fr (Heather Corbett) wrote:
Quoting Karin:

>: Sweden. I'm presently taking a class about women and (their) research in
>: the sciences. In this class I'm going to write a paper on women colleges,
>: how sex segregated class romms work, if women at women's colleges do
>: better (mainly in sciences, maths) than women who go to co-ed universities
>Dear Karin,
>	While I can not offer you statistics, I can tell you al little about 
>my personal experience. I went to a women's college (Wellesley) and
>the greatest benefit I derived from it was the presence of role models
>- both peers and older. The faculty at Wellesley is divided about
>50-50 male/female - no co-ed university could offer this! I also spent
>a year at Somerville College in Oxford University which at the time was
>all women - all the professors as well as the students. I think this
>worked less well.

Heather, I'd be most interested to hear you expand on what worked less well
at Oxford than at Wellesley. Again, I can only offer personal experience,
but I was an undergraduate at Somerville for four years (1976-80) and found
the all-female environment suited me very well. I was taught by some highly-
respected people, including a former prize pupil of Dorothy Hodgkin's, and
was enabled to take some tutorials (one-to-one teaching) outside Somerville.
The two tutors at Somerville were very different - one single, living in
college, but had turned her tiny apartment into something that was very much
a home and was very welcoming to undergraduates. I was a terminally shy
18-year-old, but even I was able to relax and get more than two words out on
occasion! :-) The other was married to a fellow academic and had four
children, two of them younger than school-age at the time she was teaching me.

 It was very much harder to create a sense of achievement in
the lecture- and lab-based teaching which were arranged on a university level,
and therefore mixed gender. (At that time, the ratio in the Chemistry dept.
was about 5 males to one female.) There was always a feeling of competition,
and of having to do twice as well to be considered half as good. Although in
lab. classes women often got extra assistance, it was usually at least a
little patronising. I often found it a relief to be able to retreat to the
all-female atmosphere at Somerville, and just get on with the work without
competing. I'm disappointed that the college has finally yielded to the
pressures to go mixed, though I do appreciate the reasons for the decision.
There are always *some* people who are happier, and do better, in a single-sex
environment for their undergraduate years. There's plenty of social life to
be had outside college after all! In fact, in my day, the small handful of
mixed colleges was far more insular than the many single-sex ones.

  The important benefit is derived from having top
>professors, whatever their gender, with an eye on encouraging their
>female students, and a supportive learning environment. My peers
>were women I respected a great deal, who went on to make the myriad
>choices available to an educated woman - law school, family, doctorates,
>Peace Corps, Watson fellowships. Some travelled and some stayed at home.

I can echo this experience. I'm one of the ones who's travelled, as I'm
now working in the U.S. where I've been for 3 years. A recent college
reunion showed that a large percentage were juggling demanding careers
with husbands and children (though most could afford live-in child care,
which of course makes a big difference) and several had gone on to have
three or four children, not just the statistical 1.8 or whatever it is
these days.

>But to learn that all these choices are legitimate is a lesson that
>I think is harder to assimilate in a co-ed environment. Self-worth
>in America seems to be based very much on the prestige of one's employment.

Hear hear! I'm in a field which is extremely difficult to describe -
information science. ("Yes, I'm a sort of librarian, but my background
is in science, and I only handle technical information, rarely books and
most of it's computerised...") I can watch people's eyes glazing over as
I speak! :-(

>At Wellesley I was able to see that intelligent women from my college
>were present in every sector of society, and that self-judgement of
>one's worth is more important than someone else's opinion. Women who
>came out of Wellesley seemed to be proud of their choices.

Again, this was my experience at Somerville.

>	Whether they are or not, I couldn't tell you! But I am at least.
>I am doing a doctorate in developmental neuroscience at UC Berkeley.
>At Wellesley I had a great role model in the form of my undergrad thesis
>advisor, a woman who did both fine research and has a family of husband
>and three kids of whom she is justifiably proud. At Berkeley I came
>into a similarly progressive environment, though my advisor is a man.
>My classmates are equally divided as far as gender is concerned (not 
>by race, unfortunately for those few minority members of the class, who
>don't find those role models with whom to identify yet). And yet, funny thing,
>very few of them are married, and none have children to my knowledge.

Does this go for the men as well as the women? If so, I wonder what
particular pressures have caused that. If it's only the women who don't
(yet) have children, then it's probably a case of same old, same old.

>I think that I can trace back to Wellesley not only the belief that
>I will be a good researcher but that I can realize my potential as
>a woman at the same time. Why not start a family while doing a doctorate?

I think this is probably the next wave of progressive thinking! First
of all, it was 'get established first, then have kids', forcing some
women to wait until very late to have their families - which, as always,
is fine for some women, but not ideal for others. (I have no kids, BTW.)
But it makes sense to have children when you're at your physical prime,
and when you want them, rather than waiting years and years.

>Who says that you have to be 100% established with tenure first (though
>Io see that the security is attractive). I know, from my experience
>at Wellesley, that there exist those who will judge me on the total of
>my accomplishments. When I don't find them, I now have the courage to
>create my own niche if necessary. What a gift, this confidence!
>	Who do I admire more than the woman physician in our laboratory,
>who has just finished her PhD, runs a practice, has three school-age
>children and manages to write her articles nonetheless! Don't I
>count her family as one of her many accomplishments, and marvel at
>her organizing ballet lessons as well as running successful cDNA
>library screens?
>	Sorry to be rambling, but I wanted to offer my testimony to 
>the intangible benefits of all-woman's colleges. The day when a co-ed
>college can offer the same role models, the same cooperativity between
>the students regardless of their gender, the same prestige for art
>history as for astrophysics despite the predominance of women in the
>former and men in the latter, I will admit that women's colleges 
>(and black colleges, and so on) are no longer needed. Perhaps in Sweden
>this system is already in place. I know that in France, where I am
>working presently, the university system is sufficiently alienating
>that both men and women are equally lost in it. THere is also less
>participation in the lectures and what in the US we call 'discussion
>sections'. It is a more passive learning process, which is conceivably
>more egalitarian on the surface. Yet the CNRS is made up very
>predominantly of male-run laboratories!
>	Enough - good luck for your research paper.
>Heather Etchevers

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