The Voice: Spring 2001

The Voice

Finding women faculty is crucial, but challenging

By Sally Jongsma

Women students, like Erika Van Den Hul, speak appreciatively of the role a woman faculty mentor, like Dr. Karen DeMol, plays in their lives.Dordt College has been committed to increasing the number of women on its faculty for some time. And it has. Twenty years ago five out of sixty-three full-time faculty were women. Today fourteen out of eighty-four full-time faculty are women--still a low percentage when considering that more than half of Dordt's students are women.

“It is important that we embody the range of gifts in our faculty that are found in the Christian community,” says Dr. Carl Zylstra. He believes that Dordt needs to encourage and inspire all students to develop their gifts-- whether they are men or women. Although Dordt, like others in society today, is also asking whether its male students are being well served by current practices and programs, Zylstra and the faculty agree that if women are to be encouraged to use their gifts as teachers and leaders in our institutions and communities, Dordt must provide them with not only the tools but also models.

“It's absolutely critical,” says Dr. Rockne McCarthy, vice president for academic affairs. In fact, as a result of work that has gone into the North Central self-study report, there is a recommendation to include gender as one of the criteria for hiring new faculty.

McCarthy is aware that this is a controversial issue. Gender is not more important than Reformed perspective, for example, but it must be taken into account in the hiring process, he says. “If the institution believes it should have more women on faculty, it needs to find ways to see that it happens,” he believes.

Dr. Jasper Lesage, dean of the social sciences, also would like to see the number of women faculty increase. He agrees that women students need good role models--but he also thinks that having more women on faculty adds something to the life of the institution. While he is hesitant to generalize about all men faculty or all women faculty, he nevertheless says that women professors tend to be more sensitive to people's feelings than their male colleagues. Even as he says it he thinks of exceptions to the statement--but he still believes he's right. If he is, it makes a difference in the kind of environment both students and faculty are part of on campus.

“We're learning from our assessment results with students that environment is more important for how they learn than we think,” he says. One could ask whether having women in a significant minority on faculty affects how they work and give leadership.

That is not to say that women at Dordt do not give good leadership. The current chair of the faculty, Dr. Karen DeMol, a music professor, is respected by faculty and administration for her leadership. Like DeMol, last year's board president, lawyer and alum Gail Jansen, had the respect of the entire campus community.

Dr. Pam Adams, who teaches in the education department, says that the confrontational nature of many faculty discussions discourages some women from entering into discussions and having a voice. Art Professors Susan Van Geest and Jo Alberda also talk about voice. Van Geest says men's louder, more dominating voices--sometimes with a tendency to interrupt--don't lend

themselves to the more conversant style of dialogue that many women feel more comfortable with. Alberda adds that in faculty meetings and classrooms, women have to work harder to make their voices sound authoritative. “When some of us try to speak more loudly to be heard, we sound screechy rather than impressive,” she says.    

At the same time, Dr. Mary Dengler, professor of English, points out that many of the challenges facing women faculty are much the same as those facing men--finding time to prepare, evaluate papers, spend time with students, keep up with changes in the field, do research, write papers, attend conferences, participate in seminars, and enjoy the arts and recreation.

“Perhaps home and family demands add pressure--though certainly men must also shop, cook, run the home, pay the bills, take care of income tax, the car, etc--they do, don't they?” she asks. “Women don't have the pressures of proving themselves as women in a man's world the way my aunt, a physician, and my great-aunt, a professional artist, did.” And Dengler says she has found her male colleagues at Dordt to be free of stereotypes.    

Dr. Sherri Lantinga was quite happy when she came to Dordt that she would be working with men in her department. “Women are often more competitive,” she says. “Another woman once told me that lone women faculty think of themselves as 'queens' and don't want that role upset by an incoming princess.” She appreciates the more straightforward way in which she thinks men often deal with issues. “Besides, now I can be 'queen,'” she adds with a chuckle.

She is, however, very grateful for women colleagues--even if there aren't as many as she might hope for. Women can provide other women with a more supportive setting on a personal and professional level than men can for women colleagues, she says.

All of the women faculty agree. “Having women colleagues and women faculty is helpful emotionally and professionally, since women use a different language than men--usually suggesting instead of telling, listening as much as talking,” Dengler says. And having women colleagues allows women to fraternize with each other at length without causing gossip and to travel to conferences together--something men take for granted.

But, the real point that women on Dordt's faculty emphasize is that men and women bring different strengths and perspectives to the educational process. A predominance of one gender in an area can foster stereotypes, Lantinga says. “If you see all men in a room or in a department you begin not only to think that only men are interested in that area, but maybe that only men should be interested.” It gives a subtle or not so subtle message to women who may have gifts in an area, Lantinga says, and, more importantly, it doesn't encourage women to develop the gifts God has given them.

Dordt's women faculty are committed to doing all they can to encourage their students--and maybe especially their women students--not only to develop their gifts but to continue their studies and maybe help create a better balance of women faculty at places like Dordt College.

“I encourage all of my gifted students to continue study at the graduate level,” says Dr. Joan Ringerwole. But she finds that women need more encouraging and convincing. The comment made by one student, “I never thought about it. Do you think I'm good enough?” is much more typical of women students than men, Ringerwole says.

Often women are not thinking as far into the future as men are, women faculty say. Some are looking for something to do until they get married and have children.

Adams says she often speaks to her students about how she received her bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree after having a family. “I tell them that they need not limit what they can do professionally because of their desire to have a family. I believe children should come first, but that does not mean the women have to serve only on the homefront,” she says.

“We've done a pretty good job of increasing the number of women providing instruction in classrooms,” Zylstra says. “We've done less well in increasing the number of full-time women faculty despite the fact that we make a special effort to ensure that applicant pools for interviews include both women and ethnic minorities.”

The reasons why the numbers aren't greater are complex. From his experience, Zylstra says, “Women have tended to place their careers behind family responsibilities more than men.” Women are often more willing to follow their husbands to a job than husbands are to follow their wives. For a college like Dordt, situated in a smaller community, this is further complicated by the fact that if husbands of potential women faculty are also professionals, they may have a more difficult time finding a job.

“Our surveys show that women students appreciate the encouragement they receive to develop their talents,” says Zylstra. He hopes that encouragement translates into a larger pool of women candidates from which Dordt can choose its faculty in future years.

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