Gender Gap: Interview with WIU Professor Dr. Lori Baker-Sperry

We are pleased to share this interview with Dr. Lori Baker-Sperry from Western Illinois University Department of Women Studies.  We asked Dr. Baker-Sperry several questions concerning the topic of gender, especially in regards to rural America.  This interview prompted us to interview key community leaders to also share their experience with things like gender stereotypes and advice to women growing up in rural America today.  Dr. Baker-Sperry provided us with several links to her responses as well that you will find helpful.  We hope you enjoy and please contact us with any questions you might have.

1)Please tell us a little about yourself (teaching experience, etc., What you enjoy about our area)

I received my B.S. from Western Illinois University in 1996 and both an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University in 2001.  I have been a faculty member at Western since 1999 where my primary areas of teaching and research include feminist criminology, feminist food studies, and feminist theory. I teach several sections of Introduction to Women’s Studies (WS 190) and Introduction to Feminist Theory (WS 355) each year as well as courses on Women in Popular Culture (WS 370) and Women and Crime (WS/SOC 435).

I am originally from the Macomb area (I graduated from Northwestern High School in Sciota) and love to read, do yoga, and watch movies.

Most of my family is in Macomb and I love being so close to my mom, mother-in-law, brother, etc.  Macomb is a great place to raise children.  I love the fun rural things they have been able to do: fishing, four-wheeling, hunting, sledding.  I cannot imagine teenagers learning to drive in the city!

2)What do researchers mean by gender gap and what should we know about it, especially concerning rural America? (i.e. Does it pertain to specific subjects/jobs)

The gender gap is a generic term used to refer to many of the patterned gendered discrepancies between males and females. The gender pay gap is more specifically referencing the gap in pay between women and men (generally gap of $0.20 cents on the male dollar per year recently). This is a succinct report:  http://www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap/

These patterns are not individual, or a result of our individual differences, but a systematic, one-directional historical pattern. Men own the wide majority of the world’s wealth.  The pay gap is worse for women of color and older women.  As you can see from the report, this issue is often discussed by state or by race.  Illinois is listed at 79%, but Illinois is binary in that it is both heavily urban and markedly rural, depending on the area.  

The same patterns of gender gap exist in terms of occupation, sexual liberty (sexual double-standard), psychological and gendered roles, etc.  These patterns exist everywhere (there are no known matriarchies, even egalitarian societies are extremely rare), but some discrepancies are more severe in rural vs. urban society. For example, in policing, women are much more likely to be promoted to higher ranks in a municipal, urban police department. In terms of reproductive rights, women have much more access to birth control, and government assistance with birth control, in urban areas. (Over half of Planned Parenthood Facilities are in the Chicago Area https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-illinois/locations).

3)What are your thoughts about the explanation that ¨girls are just naturally smarter than boys?¨

The cultural stereotype has historically been that men are more intelligent, rational, and capable than women. This has been the historical argument used against educating girls, first in primary and secondary education; later it was used as the rationale for excluding all women from colleges and universities (the first women we allowed entrance only a little over a century ago).

More recently, the trend is to think boys are better at math and girls at reading. The serious problem with this is that these are self-fulfilling. We have no way to quantify how much impact telling girls they are not as good at math has on their success- the same is for boys- their reading levels are surely impacted by such beliefs about them. A gender discrepancy exists here. What makes the gender discrepancy boy-favored is that we can correlate future salary to math achievement. Math and reading are not equal or equally remunerated in our society.  However, it is important to note that boys need to be encouraged and told they are good readers as well- their ACT and SAT scores depend on it.  The bottom line, do not limit based on gender, but tell boys and girls they can be successful in academics by their own merit. Stereotype threat is real http://www.apa.org/research/action/stereotype.aspx. (The bottom line in terms of stereotype threat: people are impacted by stereotypes and they directly affect behavior and performance.  No stereotype, no negative behavior.)

4)Have you personally experienced or been witness to gender gap issues in your own life?

Definitely. Growing up, I experienced the sexual double standard in the form of expectations of modesty (girls are much more subject to pejoratives based on sexual behavior, this serves as a form of control of female sexuality- my traditional family expected I wear dresses and skirts to school, and no makeup or heels); the domestic role expectations of females (I did dishes, laundry, cooked, etc. while my brother did none of these growing up);  the expectation that I was not strong academically or college bound (1989).

More recently, role expectations as a parent are not the same for mother and father (and I have experienced different issues as a parent than my spouse has at work because of children who are ill, maternity leave, etc.). I am expected to exhibit feminine characteristics on the job, even though workers are not rewarded for femininity (http://www.ravishly.com/2015/03/20/why-we-need-stop-devaluing-femininity).  That is  real Catch 22- women must be feminine or they experience repercussions, but femininity is not valued as masculinity is in the world of work – so they experience repercussions.

As a professor, students often assume I am “easier” and will understand when their male professors are not expected to. I am reasonable, but when reasonable is not in their favor, they are shocked and I am condemned- much more quickly than male colleagues.  We have had some productive conversations about this in class, but it still happens!  I also receive comments on my student evaluations on my physical appearance, dress, and their amazement at my knowledge. This is consistently a female prof phenomenon.   I have been teaching for 20 years.  In this time, I have slowly seen women move into leadership positions.  We have a female provost now.  But, WIU has not had a female president and most upper administrators are men.  5/8 Board of Trustees are male, President is male, Four Vice Presidents are male (1 Female Provost)  http://www.wiu.edu/table_of_contents/administration.php

5) Are there any concerns you have for young women today, especially those growing up in rural America/Forgottonia? What advice would you give students in general that are growing up in rural America today?

Women absolutely need to understand the patterns and work to ameliorate these trends for themselves and others.  As long as these stereotypes and patterns exist for men and women, women and girls must realize that they have to take action in their own interest.  Do not ask if a company that is hiring is hiring people that look like you (this works for marginalized groups: women, people of color, transgendered, etc.), ask if they are promoting people like you!  One of the most important things a woman can do, if she marries, is to marry an equal partner.  This is particularly important if there are children. https://www.amazon.com/Drop-Ball-Achieving-More-Doing/dp/1250071739

And most importantly: Do not be defined by others.  BUT at the same time, know others will define you- you must be prepared to navigate this.  This is the ultimate in knowledge.  Just moving along with the stream means that women earn less, own less, and have less social and political power than their male counterparts.  It is not a feminist fallacy.  It is just a fact that we have not yet overturned.

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