Why do women still deserve special scholarships?

To claim that women are at a disadvantage in school is absurd

My friend Sarah Berman bought me a beer recently. She had come into $1,200 unexpectedly. “Just for having a vagina,” she told me with a smirk. She’s a journalism student in my class at the University of British Columbia and a recipient of a Gwyn and Aileen Gunn Bursary. The awards are only available for female students.

The bequest was made five years ago in honour of the late Gwynyth Gunn, a CBC reporter who had succeeded in journalism at a time when it was still dominated by men. It’s easy to sympathize with Gunn’s estate for wanting to donate her money to young women who face the same disadvantages that Ms. Gunn had to overcome.

While awards like these may be sexist, they’re still allowed as long as women are “underepresented in the faculty,” says UBC’s associate director of enrolment services, Barbara Crocker. The problem is, women aren’t under-represented in the faculty of journalism–or almost any faculty anymore. So why are they still getting special awards?

In my journalism class there are four women for every man. A tally of genders among the smiling graduates in the class of 2000’s photo confirms that it’s been that way from the very beginning. In that very first graduating class  men were already the minority. I called up my friend Karon Liu who graduated from Ryerson’s journalism school last spring. The numbers from his graduating class were closer to five women per man, he says after a quick count.

These affirmative action scholarships may seem harmless, but they have a negative impact on men’s self-esteem. I’ve felt it. The other men in my class have felt it. Favouritism towards women may even be contributing to the shrinking population of males on university campuses.

Darren Fleet, a colleague of mine at the School of Journalism has worked for daily newspapers, produced mini-documentaries and trained journalists in Zambia. But despite his stellar resume, he says he felt discouraged from applying for a recent scholarship after reading the words “equal opportunity” on the form. “What would be the point in applying?” says Fleet. “Even if I had invented the cure for cancer and saved a busload of children from a burning building I wouldn’t get it. I am too white, too male and too straight.”

While some women still cling to the “glass ceiling” argument to justify these scholarships, other women have long since broken through. Just take my school for example. The founding director was a woman. The school’s current director is a woman.  There is certainly no dearth of female instructors, or female role models to meet during our internships. When we went on a class trip to the Vancouver Sun newsroom, both the executive editor and editor-in-chief who toured us around were women.

It’s true that many newsrooms are still slightly more male than female, but they certainly won’t be for much longer. In the past decade, broadcasters have hired more women and promoted women at a faster rate than men. In 2006, nearly two-thirds of all jobs at the CBC went to women. I’m certainly not complaining about the fact that many more women were hired. Considering how much women outnumber men in journalism schools, they almost certainly earned their higher share of recent hires. It is only to claim that women are at a disadvantage in schools that is absurd.

Perhaps the fair thing to do would be to encourage scholarships that only young men can apply to. But the idea of men-only scholarships for programs where they’re outnumbered would be ridiculous, considering men are outnumbered in just about every program but math and engineering. Are we going to give scholarships to women who want to be engineers and mathematicians, and men money so long as they want to study anything else?

Plus, according to Ms. Crocker, a scholarship program aimed at men-only would be “illegal” and “probably never accepted.” (I know I’d laugh.) Perhaps the real solution is for universities to stop accepting scholarship programs that are sexist toward men. No one should feel discouraged from getting an education just because of what they have between their legs.

Josh Dehaas is journalism student at the University of British Columbia, and a former On Campus blogger.