Are Campus Spaces Gendered?

by Mary Liza Hartong | 2/26/15 7:59pm

Like the illustrious David Guetta, you may look around this campus and wonder “Where them girls at?” You may also wonder “Where them guys at?” or “Where them people who fall somewhere else on the spectrum of gender at?”

While your personal musings probably do not “feat” Nicki Minaj or end with a preposition, Mr. Guetta poses an apt question in the midst of Dartmouth’s month-long look at gender dynamics on campus.

The question I set out to answer was not so much, “Where them girls at?” but was more so an inquiry as to whether or not there are female- and male-dominated spaces on campus.

Hold your horses, everybody. I’m not talking about Greek houses. I’m talking about the other nooks and crannies of campus, the Facetimey floors and the quiet hollows of the school, beginning with my own favorite study space: Baker Lobby.

I found Alexa Escalona ’18 in a green chair, poring over a book about 19th-century Parisian art. She took a look around the lobby, thought for a moment and noted a nice balance of gender in the space.

“I think everybody tends to come here to work,” Escalona said. “It’s a good place to be able to work but not be totally silent, which appeals to all genders.”

Missy Cantave ’16, whom I found checking emails at one of the tables on the left side of the lobby, concurred with Escalona. She added, though, that the time of day may influence the numbers.

“Usually when I come in here there’s balance, but in the mornings when I come through to get breakfast I do find that there are more women here,” Cantave said. “I don’t know if girls wake up earlier or what.”

I thought I’d get an expert opinion on the subject, so I sauntered over to Bryan Thomson ’16, who works at the front desk.

“There are usually more women sitting down, but not amazingly more,” Thomson said. “One of the big uses of this space is for group projects, so I think that accounts for the mixed nature of the space.”

With three votes for gender-neutral, it seemed the general consensus was that the first floor of the library presents a balance for students of all genders. Having crossed off the first spot on my long list of campus hotspots, I moved on to One Wheelock to gather additional intel.

There I found free hot chocolate, a Portland coffee shop ambiance and Joy Zhong ’15. She gave the couch-laden haven of acoustic guitar a once over and determined that the space was pretty balanced, even if it leaned a tad more toward female-dominated.

“It’s pretty balanced in general, but if I had to say, I’d say female,” Zhong said. “It’s in Collis, so people like getting food and eating here and doing work. In general, I feel like more girls eat at Collis because there are salads. I see a lot of girls getting salads.”

Andres Smith ’17, whom I found preparing for his open mic night, disagreed with Zhong on the matter. As he placed a variety of pies on the bar — and I took generous helpings of each one — he explained himself.

“I don’t think it’s dominated by any specific gender,” Smith said. “I don’t think there’s anything gender-specific about a nice place to study where there’s free hot chocolate. I can’t think of any study space that is gendered... Maybe there are certain high-traffic places like FFB [where] maybe people feel more on display, but I don’t think that’s gender-specific.”

Sam Cheng ’16, on her way to a study session with friends, echoed Smith.

“I’ve never felt like I’ve been only surrounded by men nor only surrounded by women here,” Cheng said. “There’s nothing particularly suggestive or conducive to one gender in the room. It’s not the décor. It’s not the location. It’s a student center, so everyone comes here.”

Once again, the votes indicated that the space didn’t lean too far in favor of either gender, so I decided to go for a locale I had heard many a comment about in my other interviews: KAF. Oh, KAF, sacred hall of croissants, croutons and coffee. Surely this space would point towards dominance of some gender.

Escalona noted that if there were a gendered space on campus, KAF would have to be it.

“There are a lot of ‘frou frou’ drinks at KAF,” she said. “It’s like bringing the ‘Starbucks basic girl’ you see on Instagram into Dartmouth. A guy would have to be very secure to hold a croissant.”

The term “basic” is an insult often used to describe people who are dull and unoriginal, and it is a word frequently flung at women. Thus, I felt a little troubled — although admittedly not that surprised — that the term would be applied to the only space my interviewees had cited as female-dominated.

Una Lee ’15, however, disagreed with Escalona that guys might not choose KAF because of the food selection. She also disagreed with the idea that KAF falls under the term “basic.”

“If you look at the line it’s more female, but I feel like both genders eat here,” she said. “I’ve seen a guy eating a [brie and apple] sandwich. I don’t spend too much time thinking about what’s ‘basic.’ When I think of gendered spaces I think of the discussion based around fraternities and sororities.”

It was reassuring to me that for the most part, my interviewees did not identify the spaces they frequented as gendered — rather, they saw them for the purposes they served. Still, when they perceive a space as colored by gender, they often thought it was the food that lent a gendered feeling to the room.

Many noted that KAF foods, for example, were feminine because of their fanciness, Collis foods were feminine because they were light and healthy and Hop foods were masculine because they were full of protein.

While clearly a silly association, these ideas make an incorrect — and potentially harmful — assumption that all women are healthy, image-conscious eaters with a taste for the fancier things in life, an affinity for leafy salads and coffees with a long list of specifications.

On the other hand, all men are apparently trying to bulk up, with their tastes leaning toward the fried, meaty options on campus. Most people, I assume, like to eat in all three of these locations. After all, sometimes even a weightlifter craves a croissant.

Thus, in response to Mr. Guetta’s question and my own, I say, “The girls are everywhere” — but we should quit assuming that they are where they are because they want lattes.

Andres Smith is a member of The Dartmouth opinion staff.