Co-authored by Megan Walsh, Elsa Roberts and Leah Humphries
On Sunday, faculty and staff, in an event spearheaded by Professor Susie Amato-Henderson and Professor Amy Lark, gathered to distribute professional clothing to women on campus that they had collected over the course of the week from faculty and staff and anyone else willing to donate. Emails went out over the weekend to departments, grad student listservs, etc. getting the word out so women could get professional business attire in time for Career Fair. Even with short notice, nearly 20 women showed up to get clothing so they were prepared to meet with prospective companies. Career Fair is one of the most important events of the semester for students angling for a job or internship. At the same time, the Campus Bookstore had a “Dress For Sucess” sale aimed at providing students men with the proper clothes to wow recruiters.
Why not “students” you ask? Well, the answer to that is that the bookstore doesn’t stock ANY female business attire, and hasn’t for over seven years.
Let that sink in.
That’s right, there are no clothing options at the university bookstore for women who need to buy something for a professional wardrobe. At first glance, this might seem like a possible oversight. The ratio is lopsided here, maybe they just didn’t think women needed clothes (or jobs either we guess).
However, Tech has been consistently pushing for more diversity, including growing their female student body and female faculty. In fact, Tech recently received an NSF grant called ADVANCE for the express purpose of increasing the number of female faculty. This speaks to the university’s commitment to women and developing a better class of institution that draws its students and faculty from the most talented, not just the most talented men.
The lack of clothing for women in the bookstore, though, tells a different story.
One that reminds us that women only comprise a quarter of the student population and a quarter of the faculty. One that reminds us that we are outsiders on this campus because we are women. One that demonstrates quite clearly who the administration seems to value.
The clothing drive was a response to the lack of options for women on campus and found its beginning several months ago when Amy Lark, a new professor on campus, saw an ad in Tech Today for a clothing sale at the bookstore. She decided to pop over and get some much needed professional wear. After surveying the selection she was shocked to find that there was nothing for her because she was a woman. She asked the salesperson, just to be sure, and was told that no, there wasn’t anything for women and that she wasn’t the first person to ask.
Lark was dismayed to find this and expressed her disappointment on social media (Facebook). Shortly after she began receiving responses in the form of comments and private messages from women expressing their anger, irritation, outrage, and disappointment with the inequitable situation at hand. Fast forward to this spring and Dr. Lark again was greeted by an ad from the bookstore for Career Fair for their “Dress for Success” sale. That was when she began to foment a plan to address the issue. Working with other women, she began to develop ideas for a response. Her Department Chair, Susie Amato-Henderson, hit upon the clothing drive as a practical and immediate reply that would, at least in the short term, begin to address the lack of professional clothing for women.
The clothing drive event was well-received and attended by many female students who took advantage of the generous donations of participating women. However, at UNDER_WIRE, we question why this needed to happen. Why does a professor who is unaffiliated with the campus bookstore need to organize an event just so that female students have something to wear? We believe that this is a part of a much larger issue that needs to be addressed not just through this one motion, but in every aspect of the culture at Michigan Tech.
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Back in November, we wrote an article addressing Michigan Tech’s inappropriate response to a sexual assault on campus; the feedback we received was overwhelming, both positive and negative. The difference was that the negative response were public–it was in the comments, it was on our Facebook page, it was defending an email from Les Cook that was anything but defendable considering the trauma that a student had just endured. The positive feedback–meaning, the “keep it up! We really need this!” feedback–existed mostly in private messages. The negative blowback we received was significant and made us realize why it was likely that the positive messages were private. Facing so much public negativity is daunting and the author worried about her personal safety at Tech after publishing. This left us wondering if those who sent us private support were also fearful of backlash. This concern with privacy and fear of retribution is an issue that always has and continues to exist in discussions of sexism in our community.
Similarly, even before she sent a letter to faculty about the clothing drive, Lark received tons of messages from other employees all over campus encouraging the work that she was doing. Suddenly there were faculty and students alike who were realizing that this was an issue and were sending words of encouragement to keep it up. However, just like the messages that UNDER_WIRE received after the sexual assault article went up, the words of encouragement often remained private. Whether the faculty members were afraid for their jobs or just afraid for their image, they wanted their names to remain hidden–they didn’t want to be associated with the pushback. It was only after Professor Lark kept pushing the project forward and garnered the support of her chair Professor Susie Amato-Henderson that women began to more publicly voice their support.
One of the most difficult things that UNDER_WIRE has tried to overcome in it’s three years of existence has been trying to get students involved–trying to get students to speak up about the issues that are affecting them. So many people at Tech seem to think that there isn’t an issue when it comes to the ways in which women are represented here. Or they are afraid to voice their concerns. The idea is that Tech is doing everything it can to be open and inclusive. But why then, are there so many people afraid to even say anything? Why are there so many people who would rather stay silent than engage in any conversation that is challenging to the university?
It’s because there is absolutely still an issue here. The fact that the university is “doing everything it can to bring more women to campus” but still not carrying women’s clothing reveals a gaping hole in their efforts to create an inclusive campus that would attract women or any other marginalized group.
Part of solving the issue requires individuals like Professor Lark, Dr. Amato-Henderson and other women stepping up and tackling it head on from many angles. But another key aspect of developing a truly inclusive and stellar campus is having an administration that can recognize its own mistakes and support the brave people who point them out and start to right them.