When I was considering my graduate assistantship, the most common questions I got were “Are you sure? Won’t that be difficult?” This wasn’t because my assistantship was in a subunit that I had no experience in – I had plenty of Student Activities experience and the position was perfect for me. It wasn’t even because it was in the South and I come from the North. The reason I got so many questions was because the assistantship was at a small, private, liberal arts women’s college. You read that correctly – I am a male graduate student working at a women’s college. As a cis man with a male gender expression, I have had the unique opportunity to learn from the environment that I work in about privilege, empowerment, and gender roles.
Privilege is not having to think about it
Working at a women’s college has given me the opportunity to become acutely aware of my male privilege and how it affects me and those around me; as well as broadening my awareness of the inequalities it creates. I am able to realize my privilege because I can go a whole day without thinking about it, if I so choose. For example, because I am male, I never have to think about how my successes and failures at work will reflect on my sex. At my place of work, though, I am able to see the inequalities of the general world more easily because my environment is one that values women’s’ leadership and success. For example, a very common aspect of male privilege is being able to assume that supervisors or, “the person in charge,” will be the same sex as I am. This is not the case at my institution, and it gives me the chance to fully understand the injustice that comes with these common inequalities.
When I tell people of the structure of my institution, many assume that these women got their jobs because the college wanted to hire women for these roles. On the contrary, these women are in their positions because they are exemplary leaders and the institution chose not to downgrade their abilities because of their sex. Assumptions such as these come from the privilege males are accustomed to – whether people realize it or not. I am humbled to be in an environment that provides me this dissonance from the status quo. This is not to say that my privileged is “lessened” while I am on campus – I am still never at a disadvantage when it comes to my environment, but I get the opportunity to explore an environment where privilege is challenged and inequalities are actively worked against.
The elephant in the room
One of the challenges I find in my role is building rapport with some of my students. Although there are many different reasons a person chooses to come to a women’s college, my gender can make it difficult for a student to feel comfortable discussing matters to the degree they might with one of my female colleagues. Part of the issue here is the institutionalized idea that men cannot be empathic, which could make students feel as though I may not want to hear about their issues or that I won’t understand. It is assumed that I won’t emote or won’t admit to emoting to the degree that a woman would. I can completely sympathize with my students who use caution because of this schema. To combat this, I do my best to self-disclose my personal experiences, so that students can visualize me as a real emotive person, but I can only do this to a certain degree.
Another challenge comes in the process of advocating for and counseling students facing oppression. There are instances when I have been in conversation with students who identify as LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) or who identify as people of color and I cannot relate as well to experiences due to my white, male privilege. To combat this, I am extremely transparent with my privilege and am sure to identify that I have had different experiences. This does not mean that I cannot advocate for these students or that a connection with them is less possible, it just means that I have to be very transparent in “unpacking” my privilege. The challenge comes from the different relationship I have with each student, some whom I have gotten to be transparent with and some whom I have not. This means that I have to speak intentionally because I can never assume that a student has understood my admission of different experience and assurance of motivation to help. Not being able to go through this process can sometimes hold me back from being able to help or advocate for a student to my fullest ability. I often hear of situations later than is helpful or hear negative feedback that could have been prevented, and I think this often comes from a disconnect of understanding with students or even an assumed lack of compassion.
Does this glue gun come in green?
As I have stated, my graduate assistantship is in the Office of Student Activities, which means that I aid in planning events on campus for all students. When I tell people this, a reaction I commonly receive is “so lots of glitter and sequins, right?” Responses such as these come from assumption of gender roles and an embrace of institutionalized binary that is often followed by “poor you, you must hate that.” While it is true that we do crafts as a type of activity and that I buy more glue guns and craft sticks than the average person, the assumption that programming for women detracts from my experience or is different from programming for a co-educational institution is both hurtful and incorrect. I program at an institution of intelligent, diverse, involved students that enjoy a diverse, enriching, and engaging range of programs. For every crafting event I assist in planning there are at least three events such as music that exposes students to a new culture, sci-fi and action movies, and lectures and discussions about leadership, and that is only a small representation. In fact, the largest event we have all year is a class versus class football game. To assume that the students at my institution prefer one type of programming belittles both my ability to create engaging, worthwhile programs and our students’ passions – a microaggression my colleagues and I have to actively fight against.
It’s important to remember, though, that those that make this assumption are more often than not coming from a place of misinformation and misunderstanding. The gender roles that challenge me and my colleagues go far beyond higher education. When I go by the glue guns that I sometimes have to get, I find them to be mostly pink to appeal to those that the company believes is their target market with an occasional blue to show that they cater to everyone. The colors chosen to represent sexes themselves, though becoming increasingly challenged by new generations, are just one example of the ways we create a separation for ourselves. The assumed separation is increasingly clear when thinking back to the “poor you, you must hate that” comment that I receive when discussing my work. People assume that I couldn’t possibly like glitter and sequins, or that the fact that I’m not planning activities for men must be very difficult for me. It’s not. I get to challenge these assumptions every day in my role by being a follower, a feeler, a crafter, or a listener. I love that I get that opportunity to do that. I love my job. I love the students I work with, and that they challenge me to constantly be innovative with my programming. I love that I get to plan an event on cupcake decorating one day and then get to plan an event on slam poetry the next. There is absolutely nothing about the environment that I work in that detracts from my experience because I am male, and I think it’s important to state that. Being a man in student affairs comes with its challenges, but those challenges are not reductive to my ability, instead the challenges limit the culture we live in and the progress we can make.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Ann Marie Klotz on Women in Student Affairs