Field Notes: Gendered Success

by Gerise Herndon, professor of English, director of gender studies and Fulbright program advisor

Summer Archways revealed a dichotomy in men and women’s successes. Of the 350 NWU biology graduates who have become physicians in the last 40 years, the cover story said two-thirds are male. Yet the prestige scholars profiled in the issue’s “Student Pride” section are almost exclusively female. That wasn’t anomalous; our Rhodes, Boren, Truman and Fulbright winners have been predominantly female since at least 2000.

Gender SymbolsGender role socialization may explain the predominance of male physicians. We associate doctors with authority, command and leadership—qualities stereotypically considered masculine.

The growing majorities of women studying at NWU and at colleges nationwide don’t fully explain women’s success with national awards. Nebraska Wesleyan’s student body is 57 percent female; our Fulbright winners are 72 percent female; our Truman scholars are 100 percent female.

What explains this discrepancy?

Prestige scholarships require engaged learning, often including study abroad and service. Nationally and at NWU, more women than men serve and travel. Both endeavors require flexibility, humility, resiliency, and even the willingness to risk looking stupid—qualities not historically associated with masculinity.

Gender role socialization also plays a part in the types of awards NWU’s women often win. Of the 12 teaching assistantships won by NWU students since 2000, women earned 10. Teaching has certainly been marked as a predominantly female profession.

I can’t fully explain differences in men and women’s professional successes. But one certainty remains: all students, regardless of gender, class or ethnicity, need solid advising and mentoring to achieve what they might not have otherwise thought possible.