Why do more women than men engage in the community?

When I started writing this blog in September, I indicated that this question around the predominance of women in community-university engagement would be one of the topics I would consider. For weeks I have been regretting making this promise because although I think it’s a good question, I did not have a good answer.

Research and anecdotal evidence both show a higher participation rate of women from academia in activities such as Community Service Learning (CSL) and Community-Based Research (CBR). Research in the U.S. has demonstrated that women faculty are more likely to participate in community-based service activities than male faculty (e.g., see Wade and Demb 2009, page 11). (This article also presents an interesting model that describes the factors influencing faculty participation in community engagement.)

The gender imbalance shows up among students, too. It is the norm for research samples of students doing service learning to include more women than men, sometimes by a wide margin. While this predominance of female students among service learners is sometimes remarked on in the literature, there is a dearth of research or even speculation about why this imbalance exists.

Conversations with colleagues in Canada confirm the same phenomenon here. More female than male faculty, staff, and students are involved in community-engaged work. People in national leadership roles are also more likely to be women. For example, the six founders of the Canadian Alliance for CSL (CACSL) were all women (I was privileged to be among them) and the current steering committee is made up entirely of women.  Community-Based Research Canada has an executive consisting of seven women and one man; the rest of the steering committee includes nine women and five men.

In my own experience at UBC, the greater interest in community work among women was evident in the higher proportion of women students who got involved in CSL or CBR, the higher proportion of women faculty who incorporated CSL or CBR into their courses, and the predominance of women candidates for job openings on my staff team. What’s going on?

I have discussed this question with a few faculty and staff colleagues as well as with former students. No one felt they had a convincing answer. Most fell back on conventional ideas about gender differences: women are more oriented towards building relationships and working cooperatively; women are more socialized to take on caretaking roles. The feminist in me wasn’t satisfied.

Is the legitimacy of community engagement a feminist issue?

So then I wondered if the question had anything to do with feminism. Is the perception that community engagement is a low status, marginal activity in the academy related to the fact that it is mostly practiced by women? Is the drive to legitimize and institutionalize community-university engagement a feminist issue? I have never heard or seen it framed as such. Then it struck me as interesting that feminist voices are not front-and-centre in the discourse given the predominance of women in the field. There are explicitly feminist analyses and examples of community engaged scholarship (e.g., Keller, Nelson, and Wick 2003) but they are few and far between. This line of thought didn’t take me very far either.

Then I was reminded of the advice of a teacher from another realm of my life—Dare to think the unthinkable thought!

So in that spirit, in a quiet, solitary moment, I again asked myself, “Why are more women than men from academia involved in community-based work?” The answer that immediately came to mind was, “We are trying to humanize an inhuman environment. We are resisting the inhumanity of academia.”

This answer was a shock. As the words seeped their way into the grooves in my mind, I realized the shock was partly one of recognition. Although I had never thought of my motivations in these terms, it was a valid way to describe why I have been passionate about community engagement. It is true that I have been engaged in acts of resistance to the norms of academia: the dissociation from the body, the erasure of emotion, the competitiveness, and the disconnection from societal issues.

It is not uncommon to hear higher education commentators refer to a need to change academic culture, although they rarely provide specific details about what changes need to occur or why. The assumption seems to be that everyone within earshot understands the point being made. But whenever I hear this comment I wonder what exactly is behind it. I think there are lots of indicators of dehumanization in academic culture, including some that have been discussed in recent issues of Academic Affairs, e.g., high rates of anxiety and depression among students, low completion rates among grad students, and disrespectful comments from students in their evaluations of professors. I even wonder if the focus on tenure and promotion and other types of formal recognition is related to a lack of informal, collegial support and the absence of a feeling of belonging.

These issues are rarely talked about as being linked to a dehumanization of the campus environment. But I propose that we consider this idea. I further propose that we place this observation in the context of the possibility that the larger society has also become dehumanized. Doing so casts a different light on the impetus to engage with communities to address critical issues. This idea also suggests a different emphasis for our work.

If my insight is correct, we who are involved in community-university engagement, both women and men, can be seen as resisting the forces of dehumanization, including traditional patriarchal influences that have shaped so much of academic culture. We are trying to create environments where we can invest our whole humanity in collective effort, spaces where we can laugh and sing and dance and weep as well as talk. Is this something that more women than men are interested in? Apparently it is.

I wonder what would happen if proponents of community engagement began to reinforce the “movement” by intentionally building on its feminine and/or feminist aspects? I also wonder whether we should focus less on getting people from universities out into the community and more on the question of how to get people from the community into campus settings. At the risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes, I will suggest that it might be especially useful to think about what children and elders could bring to campus environments. I also think it might be interesting to ask, “Are men actively avoiding getting involved in communities?  Why?”

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.