The University’s Sex Problem

The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) has a sex problem. Gender inequality permeates the university, negatively affecting the entire university community. Women faculty are paid less than men; the Women’s Center was threatened with closure; the campus newspaper gets away with sexual harassment; and women’s athletic teams get only a pittance compared to men’s teams.

UAF pays its women faculty less than men, so that female faculty earn, on average, 85-90% of what male faculty make. The pay gap persists across schools and colleges, although the gap is smaller in some colleges. There are lots of justifications for the gender gap: women don’t know how to negotiate; women aren’t as capable as men; women choose lower-paying disciplines; women interrupt their careers to have babies; women aren’t mentored sufficiently. But none of these justifications hold up to sociological scrutiny.

One of the vocal proponents of systemic change to decrease the pay gap is the UAF Women’s Center. Founded in the 1980s, the Women’s Center has always been poorly funded. For years, the Women’s Center was staffed by a part time staff and part time student workers, with a minimal budget for programming and office supplies. Last year,  the university attempted to shutter the Women’s Center in the same way that it effectively eliminated the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity. There was, however,  significant community backlash, and the university instead decided to continue operating the Women’s Center, but reduced its non-salary operating budget to zero. Keep in mind that 60% of UAF students are female; Alaska has the highest rate of domestic violence and sexual assault in the nation; and women across the state earn just 77% of what men earn. The Women’s Center is an important voice for women through its blog, Facebook site, high-traffic bulletin board, and programming. Perhaps the voice was considered too shrill, too pointed, too embarrassingly accurate for it to be allowed to continue without being muzzled.

UAF has additional sex problems. Recently, the Sun-Star, which is the campus newspaper, published two articles that demean and oppress women. The April 2, 2013 edition announced a fictional new building being built on campus that is in the shape of a vagina. A photograph of a building fronted by a woman’s legs spread as if for a gynecological exam accompanied the article. The title of the article mocked women’s genitals by using one of the more offensive examples of sexual slang for women’s genitals: camel toe. A fake quote slandered the very real manager of the Women’s Center. The article was intended to be a spoof, said the newspaper’s faculty advisor. The satire of the women’s center manager was deliberate she said, in response to the community resistance to the university’s attempt to shut down the women’s center a few months earlier. The students who produced the story were claiming their own feminist power, the advisor stated.

Right. Slandering and satirizing a woman staff member in the newspaper is so personally empowering, don’t you think? And the reproduction of patriarchal disgust for women’s genitals through the camel toe reference in the title–clever, very clever way to gain feminist power.

But it gets worse. Just two weeks later, on April 23, the campus newspaper published an article about sexist and racist hate speech on a university Facebook site, UAF Confessions. The story was well-written and would have made a valuable contribution to student journalism except that the real names of actual students were not redacted in the story: “Like if you fucked [actual name of woman student].” “The admin is a fag,” commented another named student. Another named student suggested that a student, who suspected a roommate was pregnant, “punch her in the stomach. She’ll thank you later.” The woman whose sex life was so obscenely discussed was not only named in the article, but interviewed. Commenters on the story noted that the woman was a victim of slut-shaming.

As with the previous newspaper incident, the university administration did not know how to respond. The office on campus which supposedly deals with matters of sex discrimination, Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity (D&EO) first declined to process a complaint, then maintained that the articles were constitutionally protected, then decided to investigate, then decided not to investigate, then passed the hot potato to Statewide Labor Relations. The administrator responsible for student affairs listened politely–twice–when I explained how the Sun-Star was guilty of sexual harassment, but took no visible action until two weeks later when the matter was referred to D&EO. Which had previously decided not to investigate. Finally, when the matter was brought to the Faculty Senate, something happened. The Faculty Senate Admin Committee wrote a strongly-worded letter to the Sun-Star asking that the names of the students be redacted in the second article, and the first article be removed entirely from the online version. As of today, no response from the Sun-Star has been received.

UAF also treats its female student-athletes inequitably. In 2008, the last year for which athletic budget figures are readily available, 71% of the travel funding for athletics was funneled to benefit men’s teams, with only 29% of the total $1.2M travel money for segregated teams going to benefit women’s teams. Travel expenses include funds for coach development and meeting, inbound team travel, outbound team travel, recruiting, and visiting officials and professionals. In all categories, men benefited more than women.

Is there good news on the horizon? Well, yes and no. One really bright spot is the recent reinvigoration of Title IX compliance on the federal level. Title IX is a federal law that mandates gender equity in all programs at all universities and schools that receive federal funding. Title IX makes it illegal for a campus newspaper to sexually harass women students. Title IX makes it illegal to pay women faculty less than men. Title IX makes it illegal to fund women’s teams less than it funds men’s teams. The particular power of Title IX is in the law’s focus on women as a group, as well as women as individuals. Title IX looks at disparate impact–the differential effect of a university policy or practice on one gender–instead of focusing only on individual victims. So, for example, a plaintiff can file a Title IX complaint to allege that a hostile environment exists for women at a particular school and does not have to prove that she was individually victimized.

In the case of the Sun-Star, for example, Title IX could be applied to claim that the newspaper has created a hostile environment for women through its publishing of a sexually graphic photograph, sexual slang mocking women’s genitals, slandering of a female staff member, slut-shaming of a named woman student, and reprinting, without redacting the name, a statement by a male student advocating violence against a pregnant woman. Additionally, the university’s failure to act effectively and immediately to stop the hostile environment and to mitigate its effects are also actionable under Title IX. The university seems stuck in old, pre-Title IX ways of thinking about sexual harassment, the gendered pay gap, differential funding of athletics teams, and related cases of sex discrimination. Instead of examining the problems from a structural standpoint facilitated by Title IX, the university instead continues to search for what I call screaming victims–individual women who can prove that they have been victimized by individual men.

There is more good news. Just weeks ago, one of UAF’s peer institutions, the University of Montana, settled an important Title IX case with the Department of Justice and Department of Education. The U of Montana was forced to make a series of changes to address a range of sex discrimination problems, including requiring staff and administrators who deal with Title IX complaints to be educated about the issues. UAF would do well to study the University of Montana situation and to proactively learn how to avoid the errors our Montana peers committed. Educating ourselves and our administrators about Title IX and sex discrimination would be a good start.

Sources

see “Gender Inequality in Athletics at UAF” https://sites.google.com/a/alaska.edu/towards-equity/reports for analysis of inequality in athletics spending at UAF

see “Snapshot 2012” at https://sites.google.com/a/alaska.edu/towards-equity/reports for data about faculty salaries

“Federal probe of sexual assault case at University of Montana yields ‘blueprint’ for colleges,” Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com/article/Federal-Investigation-of/139177/

get info on Title IX http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/tix_dis.html

About sineanahita

Alaska's fiddling sociologist
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6 Responses to The University’s Sex Problem

  1. Soange Mayer says:

    Thank you for your writing about sexism and bullying, Anahita. I stumbled across your blog because I’m studying how to deal with anonymous trolls. And now that I’ve read through everything I understand the imbalances at your university but I’m unclear about why you are taking issue with the student newspaper. Would you mind a question or two?

    The Vagina Monologues example Jack uses (in a comment on another post) is a good one. It seems to me that type of appropriation of power is exactly the message of the article you reference about the fictional building. When I read it, I thought, what a perfect way for young women to express their ikwe-niimi, their feminine warrior. They have taken the patriarchy and turned it on its head with this parody. When you talked with them about it, what did they share with you?

  2. sineanahita says:

    Thanks, Soange, for your comments. You do not have the facts of the matter, so I can understand why you mischaracterize the issue. Slut-shaming other women, mocking other women, and trivializing the trauma of rape and sexual assault are not ways that women will empower themselves. As I responded to Anon on Steven’s blog, the Vagina Monologues example is not analogous to what was published in the Sun-Star. Regardless of the Sun-Star’s intent, and the motivations of the individuals who wrote and published the two issues, the EFFECT of the articles was sexually harassing and deeply disturbing to survivors of sexual assault and their allies.

    • Soange Mayer says:

      It is so true, I do not have all the facts. I am heartened to know you are reconciled with the young women who wrote what offended you. I’ve heard said: “If we do not meet them where they live, we can teach them nothing.” You have so much to teach them.

  3. sineanahita says:

    Thanks, Soange, for writing. As I responded to your email, there has been no reconciliation. Perhaps what you are referring to is my post about some women students who are organizing resistance to sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus. The true freedom fighters, I think I said. There are many at UAF; we just have to locate each other. The one good thing about the Sun-Star incident is that it helped many to see the light. And to find each other.

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