OPINION: We need more women-specific academic programs at the 5Cs

Three women study on a couch with notebooks and a laptop.
The Claremont Colleges must devote more resources to female students’ academic development and women-specific programs, argues Yutong Niu PO ’23. (Alyssa Leong • The Student Life)

At the Claremont Colleges, I see countless women thriving in various academic fields.  Sometimes I forget that academia is a male-dominated sphere that still requires structural change to bring inclusiveness and accessibility. Individual students’ efforts and overachievement cannot cover up the systematic challenges that women have to confront.

 Despite the accomplishments of women across the campuses, there is a general lack of women-specific academic programs at the 5Cs. The colleges should devote more resources to support female students’ academic development — in forms of fellowship, mentorship and workshops — to support their navigation in academia and cultivate leadership that will hopefully make meaningful changes to their respective fields.

 The brutal history of male privilege in access to education contributes to women’s underrepresentation in academia today. Research in 2018 showed that in the United States, women accounted for barely over a third (34.3 percent) of professors, though women held over half (57 percent) of all instructor positions, among the lowest ranking positions in academia.

 In college classrooms, female students report a much higher rate of exclusion and inaccessibility, especially in fields like STEM and politics, where men have historically had opportunities that were denied to their female counterparts, and women often face spoken or unspoken barriers that discourage them from entering the field.

 To address these structural problems, institutions such as universities, think tanks and corporations have designed women-specific programs where they channel resources to systematically provide female students with exposure and mentorship in underrepresented fields. Promising momentum to lift up women is also seen in the Claremont Colleges with the various communities and student clubs such as Women in Computer Science and Claremont Women in Business, but they are limited and mostly pre-professional opportunities. 

 The lack of institutional efforts in the 5Cs to support academic-driven female students is concerning. Among the four coed colleges, only Claremont McKenna College has the institutional setup of the Women and Leadership Alliance, which works with CMC’s research institutes and centers to promote gender inclusiveness and highlight issues faced by women in business, government and similar professions. 

Besides the Women and Gender Leadership Fund that supports student projects to build awareness and empower women and other gender identities, most of the Women and Leadership Alliance’s past events are educational workshops with invited speakers from various fields. 

Limited initiatives like this, that ensure gender inclusiveness and equal representation, have been identified at Pomona College and Pitzer College. Although the Claremont Colleges are known for the abundant academic resources to support students’ pursuits regardless of their gender, we should never take the progressive and equitable environment at the 5Cs for granted. Once women enter academia or related professional fields after graduation, they still have to struggle with the complexities of navigating the male-oriented norms and resources, and setting foot in games where rules were made by men.

Thus, the 5Cs have to dedicate more institutional efforts to equipping academic-driven female students with the necessary support for real-world challenges that they very likely will face in their career. Resources in the form of fellowships, research opportunities, workshops and mentorships that target female students are very much needed to bring about positive changes across academia in terms of gender inclusiveness and equality. 

As the nation’s leading consortium of academic institutions known for the premier liberal arts education, the Claremont Colleges should shoulder the responsibility to cultivate the next generation of leaders, scholars and engaged members of society — and more importantly, to institute progressive propulsion to address systemic problems long existing in society.

We have seen a promising start across campuses. This year, Pomona College and CMC’s Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies co-sponsored the new Women in Security (WIS) Workshop. They support the four selected fellows with resources to navigate post-graduate academic and career opportunities in the security space in which women have been traditionally underrepresented.

Other on-campus centers and academic departments should follow such footsteps to devise more programs to engage not only female students, but all students of other underrepresented gender identities, in their respective academic fields.

Seeing our female peers’ academic accomplishments in the 5Cs sometimes makes us overlook the systemic inequality that will require several generations’ efforts to fix and revise. It is now perhaps hard to imagine the challenges and obstacles that your female TA or class mentor has to confront in her late 20s, but it should not be hard for the institutions and educators to acknowledge the problem and gather resources to support the next generation of scholars that they dedicate to uplift.

Yutong Niu PO ’23 is from Shenyang, China. She appreciates the opportunity from the Women in Security program, which encouraged her to take a step further in security studies rather than wandering around the Carnegie basement. 

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