In a Mustang Daily Poll, 64 percent of students, faculty and staff said Cal Poly does a good job at addressing gender issues and 57 percent said the school does a good job at addressing LGBTQIA.
The debate over gender equality is not new — it is an issue that has been fought over in this country for more than a century. Women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, intersex and asexual/ally (LGBTQIA) community are still working to win more recognition and acceptance in society. Sometimes members of these groups in the Cal Poly community still encounter difficulty in overcoming stereotypes and asserting their right to feel safe and accepted.Despite the many resources available to address gender and LGBTQIA issues and the positive poll results from students, faculty and staff, campus leaders still said there is work to be done.
“All students come to Cal Poly expecting to be safe, successful and to find groups that appeal to their needs,” Vice President for Student Affairs Cornel Morton said. “We still have work to do, especially in education.”
Some Underrepresented and Many Underreported
The Cal Poly student body is statistically male-dominated: 55.4 percent male compared with 44.6 percent female, according to the Fall 2010 PolyView report, although the number of women increased from 43.9 percent in fall 2009. Christina Kaviani is the coordinator of the Women’s Center — or the Gender Equity Center as it will officially become after a ribbon-cutting ceremony this month. Kaviani said there is still a huge need at Cal Poly for programs about female self-esteem and self-awareness.
“We make presentations with (Campus) Housing and to fraternities and sororities about ways to stay safe, but we still need to focus on empowerment,” Kaviani said.
Though Kaviani said she sees a shift in jobs occurring across the country with more women attending college and holding high professional positions, she believes it is still not equal. She said some men love the idea of stronger women, and some are threatened.
“The idea of ‘feminism’ means different things to different people — it’s intended to mean believing that women should be equal,” Kaviani said. “We get pretty good results with our programs and events, but we’re continually in a push.”
As a women’s and gender studies professor, Jane Lehr said women at Cal Poly are overrepresented in some majors and underrepresented in others. Lehr focuses on ways to bring a more social aspect into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discipline curriculum.
“There’s the idea that women have a softer vision when it comes to engineering, but I don’t think there is any biological reason,” Lehr said. “I came to Cal Poly in 2007 and since then I’ve seen more events about women in STEM disciplines that are sponsored by multiple colleges — it’s exciting to me.”
Vice President of Inclusive Excellence David Conn said as an administrator he has heard about experiences women at Cal Poly have with insensitive treatment.
“I’ve heard women say when they’re trying to speak in a male-dominated environment, the men just talk right over them,” Conn said. “I also hear many stories from women about how they don’t always feel safe on campus.”
Kaviani also said spreading awareness about sexual assault on campus is important, and is not just limited to women. She said she has seen many students who want to be educators about women’s issues and sexual assault, and the number of men interested has also grown.
“We want more men involved in learning and teaching others about how to deal with sexual assault — I think every fraternity and club should have some sort of requirement to have a presentation about it,” Kaviani said.
She said she would like to see more faculty and staff involved in education about sexual assault because the first person some victims go to is their professor.
Psychology senior Kara Barbieri and the Gender Equity Center’s SAFER programming assistant, said the center reaches out to women as well as men and focuses on talking to incoming freshman classes.
“Sexual assault is still a big issue and there’s more to be done with spreading the word about protection,” Barbieri said. “People still don’t think it could happen to them. We do have more men realizing they could be a part of the movement — they’re just as much a part of it as women and can be victims too.”
Lehr said she can tell in her Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies classes when her students have been abused and knows how hard it is to talk about.
“There’s a desire to believe things like that don’t happen in a place like San Luis Obispo, but bad things do happen,” Lehr said. “The Gender Equity Center does amazing work in reaching out, especially in partnering with fraternities, sororities and dorms.”
Morton said from an administrative view he believes Cal Poly has good programs for supporting women, but there are still programs and areas of the school where women are underrepresented and have reported hostility and disinterest from faculty, staff and students. Morton said he also believes the number of sexual assault cases on campus are underreported.
“My intuition says these incidents are happening at a rate that mirrors the country’s,” Morton said. “We need to offer more avenues and access for people to report these incidents and reassure the victims that it is taken seriously.”
More of A Spectrum than Black and White
The LGBTQIA community is another group on campus that deals with issues of respect and acceptance. The number of students in the LGBTQIA community is lower at Cal Poly than at other CSU universities, Pride Center Coordinator Erin Echols said.
“On the whole I think the campus is pretty welcoming,” Echols said. “I do hear about people getting offended by phrases like ‘That’s so gay.’”
Echols said there is an interest on campus to be sensitive toward the LGBTQIA community, but she often hears from people outside of the LGBTQIA community that they can’t keep up with the changing terminology. Echols said she believes the trend of acceptance is attributable to more students having gay friends and gay alliances at their high schools.
“It’s becoming more socially accepted, and people are more comfortable with the issue than they were five or 10 years ago,” Echols said. “At the Pride Center we try to be as visible as possible and encourage more discussion.”
Echols said the Pride Center offers Ally Training sessions four times a quarter, or more if a specific group requests a session. The Pride Center is also currently pushing for increasing the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. There are just under 300 state-maintained restrooms on campus, according to a report by Facilities, and 24 are unisex or “non-gendered” restrooms.
Civil engineering sophomore Paul Armer is the housing liaison for the Pride Center, and said as a student he has had experiences with people refusing to sit near him or speak to him if he is wearing something that makes it clear that he is gay.
“But there are also the people who surprise you with how understanding they are; there are more of those,” Armer said. “It’s cool to know that I can be gay and in a major that isn’t stereotypically a major that gay people are a part of and not be judged.”
Armer said he was afraid of living in the dorms when he arrived at Cal Poly as a freshman, but Campus Housing pushes for diversity and acceptance in incoming classes.
“The idea of male or female is becoming more of a spectrum for some people than just black and white,” Armer said. “There are some people who don’t identify with either group.”
Armer said the Cal Poly community is actively seeking more information and more ways to be involved in the Pride Center’s efforts. According to the Pride Center website, there are 194 students and 103 faculty, staff and Campus Housing employees who are involved in or have completed Ally Training since 2007. Armer said he has seen a huge influx of people who want to complete the training since he became involved with the Pride Center.
Lehr said the staff and student work in the Pride Center has been fantastic, especially with the attention paid to transgender students.
“The problem of homophobia isn’t just a problem for the LGBT community,” Lehr said. “It’s also used to police the norms of male and female behavior, like the idea of men crying or women sticking up for themselves.”
Within the last 15 years, students have become more open to a wider range of interpersonal relationships, Lehr said, but they do still live in a world with homophobic stereotypes.
“Some people think that if we just wait 50 years everything will get better, but that’s not true — we need to act now if we want to see a difference,” Lehr said.
Conn said from his experience, larger offenses like the crops sciences incident don’t happen too often, but smaller, more continuous offenses can be more upsetting.
“A few years ago during Pride Week someone painted the rainbow on the ‘P’ back to white — things like that say a lot symbolically,” Conn said.
Morton said the university is making progress in supporting the LGBTQIA community, but there are still people who say and do things that are manifestations of stereotypes.
“When I attend programs put on by the Pride Center, I do see a pretty good cross-section of students,” Morton said. “There’s some great support out there, but there’s also a need for students to engage in discussions of how this diversity can enrich their experience.”