Campus & Community

Concentrating on gender: GSE students study gender issues in new concentration

4 min read

Examining a fundamental yet, until recently, understudied element of the human experience is the intent of a new concentration at the Graduate School of Education (GSE).

Gender Studies is an offshoot of the Human Development and Psychology (HDP) Program at GSE, and is designed for students interested in exploring a provocative subject matter that often lends itself to controversy.

“There is a lot of reluctance to talk about gender, and I think it’s very interesting to ask why,” says Carol Gilligan, Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Gender Studies, whose landmark book “In a Different Voice” (Harvard University Press, 1982) explored the gender bias that affected centuries of psychological, sociological, and medical research. “We live intimately as mothers or sons or daughters or lovers, so we have to look into our own intimate lives, and I think that is very uncomfortable.”

Gilligan, whose 1997 Chair in Gender Studies was backed by a $2.5 million endowment from four donors, including three female alumni, proposed the concentration in gender studies at GSE, believing the time was right to offer students the opportunity to delve deeply into the topic. “I would like to think we are in a time of transformation on these issues,” she says.

Indeed, it is the history of systemic gender bias that most fascinates Gilligan. “There was a common practice … when people were selecting samples of humans to do research on childhood or adolescence or child development, they were selecting samples of men and boys only,” she says. “That is not a representative sample. That is a gendered sample. Nobody was discussing this. … It is really important to say that this [practice] was so culturally pervasive.”

For years, Gilligan contends, the outcome of scientific research was compromised by the bias that excluded female subjects. “It is one of the most interesting pieces of intellectual history — how the taxpayers’ money, government review boards, peer review boards, and editorial review boards [approved] such books as ‘The Psychological World of the Teenager,’ which was a study of 175 boys,” she says. “There are endless examples.”

Exposing gender bias, and examining its underlying tenets are the linchpins of the gender studies concentration, according to Gilligan.

“Once you become conscious, for example, of race as a category, that category breaks down just like gender does. Then racism becomes uncomfortable,” Gilligan says. “And the person who would select an all-male sample, and then conduct research [using it] is going to be defensive, where it used to be common practice.

“The study of gender is to study this part of history, and then, as psychologists, to ask what’s the history behind this, and what’s the psychology behind it,” Gilligan says. “That’s what distinguishes the Harvard program from gender studies programs at any other university.”

Similar programs at other universities focus almost exclusively on women’s studies, according to Jean Rhodes, visiting associate professor at the GSE who serves as director of the gender studies concentration. She stresses that the gender studies curriculum at the GSE crosses over a wide range of disciplines, including the study of men and boys and nonbinary gender theory.

“The things that make this program different — first of all it integrates [the topic] into human development, and with that, the history of gender bias and psychology gets lit up,” Rhodes explains. “Carol’s scholarship has brought in other scholars [to HDP], and that scholarship has led to a better understanding of adolescent girls, and a better understanding of how gender plays itself out in schools and so forth.”

Students concentrating in gender studies must complete eight courses, including two core courses, two courses drawn from the HDP required course lists, two additional courses selected from a wider range of choices, and two electives.

Gilligan and Rhodes team up to teach one of the concentration core courses titled “The Lens of Gender.” The course examines gender-related assumptions people make about themselves and each other. “When you look at the world through a lens that highlights gender, what do you see?” Gilligan asks. “In that sense, it complicates everyone’s way of seeing the world. It’s a lens that clarifies and complicates in the best intellectual tradition.”

The challenge of peering through that lens at such a dynamic subject matter appears to be resonating with GSE students. About 80 students attended the fall orientation session, and Rhodes believes that as the Gender Studies concentration expands and its visibility increases, it will quickly distinguish itself as one of the finest such disciplines in the country.

“If you’re interested in gender studies, Harvard is a good place to come,” she contends.