Many students have been drawn to Mills as a historically women’s college, excited by the prospect of being comfortable speaking up in class and sharing their ideas without cisgender men in the room dominating the conversation.
When cisgender men are in classes with undergraduates, the classroom dynamic changes. The cisgender male students at Mills need to have the same foundation and an additional orientation in social justice that their classmates have in order to provide the learning environment that Mills markets.
Women in male-dominated work fields experience a psychological stress response, according to a study by Indiana University. While there isn’t much research available on the impact of women and genderqueer people in a classroom setting dominated by men, we think the results would probably be very similar.
According to the study, women in male-dominated workplaces “encounter social isolation, performance pressures, sexual harassment, obstacles to mobility, moments of both high visibility and invisibility, co-workers’ doubts about their competence, and low levels of workplace social support.” Continuous exposure to these social stressors can cause dysregulation of the stress response, which makes people more prone to depression and anxiety.
Because most Mills students have been in classroom environments with cisgender men for much of their previous schooling, it is very appealing to have the opportunity to spend the four years attaining their undergraduate degree in a setting devoid of the extra social stressors cisgender men can bring to a classroom setting.
Unfortunately, many Mills students have been disappointed to realize that many of their classes, especially in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) department, will be shared with cisgender men. The field of STEM is notoriously male-dominated, and Mills markets that it offers the rare opportunity of learning Physics and Computer Science uninterrupted by cisgender men.
While many people might argue that we need to “get used to it” because it’s the “real world,” a space for women and genderqueer people without cisgender men provides a necessary break from the constant social stressors of the patriarchy, which can be and often is detrimental to our physical and emotional health.
While many new Mills students are aware that the graduate programs are open to people of all genders, it is less clear that there will be Post-Baccalaureate (Post-Bac) students of all genders in their classes as well. These Pre-Med students take some classes on their own, but are also in undergraduate STEM classes. Because the Post-Bac program currently has approximately 65 students, STEM classes at Mills will often have at least one cisgender male student. This changes the classroom dynamics, which are supposed to be geared towards women and genderqueer people in the male-dominated field of STEM.
Along with the frustrations of having cisgender male students in their classes, many Mills undergraduates in STEM classes have expressed frustration that the Post-Bac students are often not caught up on the material they are learning. This puts extra stress on classmates to teach and explain the concepts to the Post-Bac students, as well as take classes that become skewed towards the MCAT for the Post-Bac students.
Mills undergraduates have also expressed frustration with having cisgender male graduate students in their music, studio art, and English classes. Like STEM, and most other fields, the arts are also very male-dominated. Making and showing art can be a very vulnerable act, which becomes uncomfortable when there are cisgender men in the classroom.
While it would be ideal for the Post-Bac and graduate students to have all of their own classes so undergraduates can flourish at our historically women’s college, Mills doesn’t have the funding for that. As long as cisgender men are present in undergraduate classes, they need to have a strong understanding of how their presence impacts Mills undergraduates and changes the classroom dynamic.
As long as Mills markets itself as a historically women’s college, it needs to ensure the safety and comfort of its women and genderqueer students in their classes first. The cisgender male students need to understand why we choose to go to a historically women’s college and what it means to finally have a space that feels safe to explore and learn in. Until the cisgender male students have a strong understanding in gendered classroom dynamics, the STEM undergraduates will not feel the safety and comfort that a historically women’s college promises.