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Where are the men in gender classes?

Speaking to staff and students, Raisha Jesmin Rafa examines the reasons why men are under-represented in gender classes.

By Raisha Jesmin Rafa, (MSc) Gender and international relations

It is not uncommon to walk into a gender class and see it full with women. In her seminal work on the intersection of gender, feminism and politics, ‘Beaches, Bananas and Bases’, Cynthia Enloe pertinently asked ‘Where are the women?’ in global affairs. Today, we are left to ask ‘where are the men?’ in gender courses.  

Since the 1990s, UK universities have gradually offered gender classes and established specialized centers and institutes to facilitate research into gender relations and power hierarchies. Due to a dearth of research in the area, however, it remains difficult to estimate the number of gender-related classes currently offered by universities in the UK and the gender makeup of these classes. A 2006 study showed that 29 institutions were offering one or more master’s degrees in gender and women’s studies

Bristol houses a vibrant academic community, known for producing pioneering works on gender and feminism, including the likes of Charlotte Hooper, Paul Higate, Terrell Carver, Katharine Charsley, and many more. The university’s very own Gender Research Center has been committed to tackling gender injustice and renegotiating gender power relations through cross-disciplinary approaches. Despite such developments, male students still appear to be a minority in gender courses. 

Photo by Raisha Jesmin Rafa

To gain a better understanding of the uneven gender and sex ratios in gender courses, Epigram spoke to students who are enrolled in gender-related classes in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS). 

Li Qian, the only male student in his Gender and International Relations course, states ‘There is nothing wrong with gender programs, but society tends to categorize issues related to gender as a negative thing which may discourage male students from participating.’ 

Sophie, enrolled in a module on Gender, Family, and Migration, echoed this, saying that ‘People see [gender-related classes] as an ‘easy’ and more of a feminine subject, perhaps a subject that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.’

"The ‘gender lens’ should be introduced in week 1 of any study, and not – at best – relegated to some subordinate position in the course diary"

Speaking to Epigram, Terrell Carver, Professor of Political theory at SPAIS, shares his experiences teaching female-dominated gender modules at the university: 

‘I have been teaching in the fields of sex/gender/sexualities studies for about 25 years, with particular interests in the international politics of men and masculinities. The student groups at final-year undergraduate level and at taught master’s level have been overwhelmingly female, sometimes to 100%.’ He adds, ‘There are some signs that the small number of male participants is increasing, though this is happening from a base of zero and very low numbers.’

Gender scholars generally reject the stereotype that ‘gender’ equates to 'women' and 'feminism', which represent two nodes in the larger constellation of what gender courses are about. Masculinities and sexualities feature prominently in gender-related modules, offering critical and empathetic insights into the experiences of different individuals and social groups. 

It is imperative that educational institutions ensure that students graduate with the political and social awareness necessary to challenge gender injustice.

Sophie states that ‘The classes offer an inclusive space for discussions and enhance awareness of how gender intersects with everyday life and with other intersectionalities.’

Lassya, a student in Gender and International Relations, expresses similar sentiments, believing that gender courses have much to offer, particularly in terms of combining diverse perspectives from both Western and postcolonial thought.  

Gender constitutes a central element in our daily lives, influencing how we interact and understand each other and the world around us. Global reports have increasingly underscored pushback on women’s rights and the rights of gender and sexual minorities. A recent survey conducted jointly by King’s College London’s Policy Institute and Global Institute for Women’s Leadership on young people’s attitudes to masculinity and women’s equality indicates signs of an emerging gender divide; the study, however, also cautions against generalizations and advocates for measures to mitigate further polarization.

Gender courses equip students with instructive knowledge and skills which can be particularly valuable in this changing landscape. In response to what initiatives educational institutions can take to cultivate greater interest in gender classes, student interviewees emphasize that there is a need to promote awareness and focus on gender-related subjects from early education to allow students to decide if the area of study is suited for them based on lived experiences rather than stereotypes. 

Lassya suggests that gender classes should be incorporated into school curriculums globally and that the university should have awareness drives, such as workshops, to demonstrate the importance of gender across all fields of study. Professor Carver is hopeful that gender classes will become more representative in the future, highlighting the steps the university has taken: 

“The ‘gender lens’ should be introduced in week 1 of any study, and not – at best – relegated to some subordinate position in the course diary as an afterthought or optional add-on – the famous ‘week on gender’. Currently, the University of Bristol is engaging in a curriculum review for all degrees. So, I am hopeful that some colleagues will seize the opportunity and from that point, more male students will become as intrigued as I’ve always been!"

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In addition to strengthening students’ academic and professional abilities, it is imperative that educational institutions ensure that students graduate with the political and social awareness necessary to challenge gender injustice.

Featured image: Unsplash / Mikael Kristenson