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Alternate Study Leads in Addressing Gender Issues on Campus

Although it has been 20 years since girls returned to Deerfield, gender is still a hot-button topic on campus.

This spring, seniors Hillary Hoyt and Elizabeth Schieffelin took up the topic for a directed study project with Philosophy and Religion teacher Michael O’Donnell involving external and internal research. Their findings led them to work with Head of School Margarita Curtis, Dean of Students Toby Emerson, and a student ethics committee headed by Mr. O’Donnell to plan a student panel for Trustees’ Weekend on April 25.

The co-ed panel, made up of eight juniors and seniors, discussed gender separation and inequality among the student body. The panel has stirred numerous responses on campus.

Some students have questioned whether natural gender differences and attitudes are being blown out of proportion by some of the girls and the administration.

“This is meant to be a conversation, not a confrontation,” said Ms.. Curtis.

Hoyt agreed. “Our study is not meant to attack specific people or groups,” she said. “It is not a debate; it’s about making the school a better, more comfortable place for everyone.”

Essential information for Hoyt and Schieffelin’s study came from the results of a survey though the Independent School Gender Project. Every three years, freshman, seniors, and faculty take the same survey as twenty-two other independent schools and then compare results. While Deerfield can claim overwhelmingly positive results in most parts of the survey, other parts reveal that boys are favored and hold more influence.

“First and foremost, I would say when there is a perception, as the survey results show, of inequality, that should make everyone at the school pause and look at how we do things. Boys should not feel threatened by these discussions; instead we should look at these conversations as a means to do things better,” said Mr. Emerson.

Schieffelin and Hoyt noted that a major challenge of the independent study was distinguishing which gender responses are part of normal adolescent culture and which are unique to Deerfield.

Most students do exhibit school spirit, but there have been examples of certain students taking this too far in the name of “tradition.” Girls as well as some underclassmen boys report that they often feel less welcomed as participants. While the cheerleaders are a co-ed group, many female students feel the spotlight is on the male members and male sporting events.

Several senior girls described a change in their male friends from freshman to senior year. Boys and girls begin to inhabit two distinct cultures and isolate themselves, as a junior girl explained, “I feel like we go to single sex schools.” Even a sophomore boy stated his list of priorities from highest to lowest importance as, “Bros, sports, academics, chicks.”

The President of the Student Body and one of the students on the panel Thomas Hanson ’09, reflected on his experience from sophomore to senior year, “When I first came to Deerfield, all I wanted was to be on the dominant, male side of the gender line.  Being a part of student council and knowing that my little sister will come here has given me some personal distance from the issue, and I think once you reflect on it, it’s hard to miss how ridiculous some things that we consider normal really are.”

            Schieffelin commented, “It is important to remember that we did not create the culture, but rather we inherited it. Still, all of us, boys and girls, are responsible for our everyday actions and for figuring out as a group how we can get along better. In the end, it all comes down to respect for each other and respect for the school.” 

            Hoyt noted, “We need to stop, think about what we do and why we do it, not just follow traditions for tradition’s sake.”

Both girls have devoted much of their senior spring to this work and the prospect of “leaving the school we love a better place.”

During the coming year, the conversations about gender and ethical living will continue, and there will be more opportunities for people to voice opinions or offer suggestions. New ideas and opinions will be added to a working list of specific recommendations for the improvement of student culture for the Board of Trustees to consider.

Mr. O’Donnell stated, “I have been thrilled with the commitment, the candor and the quality of ideas coming from the members of the student ethics committee.”

In response to these discussions, the Board has organized a committee next year pursuing this topic as well as diversity in general.  As these seniors move on, it will be up to the rest of the community to consider its legacy.

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