This International Women's Day, I am thinking about my female students. As a teacher and alumna (and woman) I have had a unique, albeit privileged, view of women's experience in academia, and one thing is clear: until we can create equitable classrooms, we will never be able to address women's inequality in general.
An equitable classroom takes into account the different challenges and circumstances faced by its students and faculty before arriving on campus, and allocates resources and policy changes accordingly, and for young women, gender norms are obstacles to receiving education. Research shows that, from a very early age, the tasks assigned to boys and girls are different, with boys' education being considered a more efficient use of resources, while girls are generally assigned household chores. There is evidence that the early childhood curriculum can reinforce stereotypes about women's work.
When a young woman struggles to overcome these challenges to reach higher education, she faces a new set of obstacles: she often works and deals with domestic responsibilities while taking classes, faces sexual harassment on or off campus, or comes across with faculty that, for the most part, does not look like them. Women in this school are judged more harshly in student evaluations and are assigned more extracurricular responsibilities than their male counterparts.
As a result, young women are less likely to graduate or advance to higher degrees and remain underrepresented in STEM fields. These obstacles have enormous implications for the labor and wage gap.
The first step towards gender equality is gender equality in the classroom, both for those behind the podium and for those at the desks in the classroom. Assuming that the university campus is the great equalizer — that the admissions process is a model of meritocracy — or that meritocracies are the ultimate form of "justice" is a false narrative. Women, especially those belonging to minorities and indigenous peoples, have reached their positions despite generations of challenges. The university has to imagine a place that can account for these profound disadvantages and take action to create equitable classrooms.