One of the recurrent and logical messages of at least the last four decades is to avoid sexism. For example, we have been admonished to only use ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman’ if we know the gender of the individual being referenced. Therefore, it’s acceptable to refer to Chairman David Smith or to Chairwoman Darla Jones, but not to a general gathering of ‘chairmen’ or ‘chairwomen.’ In general, the term used should always be ‘chairperson’ or simply ‘chair’ if the gender of the specific individual(s) is not known. This should also be done to avoid sexism or showing any gender bias as we don’t want people to assume that all chairs are men or women.
Knowing that sexist language is to be avoided, why both in our society and in education is there a tendency to refer only to ‘single mothers’ rather than to the more unbiased terminology ‘single parents’? The likely explanation is that out of the 13.6 million single parents in the U.S. today, 84% of them are mothers and 16% are fathers. Therefore, there is a tendency to associate single-parenthood only with mothers.
Having acknowledged this percentage, however, it must also be said that being in the minority does not make single fathers unimportant nor should their needs be ignored in academia. There are also some contextual concerns with the usage of the narrower term ‘single mothers’ that may reveal potential gender bias.
Educators need to take the lead in correcting this word choice and helping to alleviate this form of sexism.
To place this within a larger societal context, academia is no different than what is practiced in American society at large, where fatherhood has been marginalized to the extent that it’s rarely even an afterthought. An excellent example occurs in a Nancy Perry Graham’s Father’s Day interview with President Barack Obama for AARP Magazine, ironically entitled: “Obama, the President and the Dad” (June/July 2012). The piece starts out with a nice photo of him with his two daughters, and President Obama saying he just enjoys hanging out with his children for Father’s Day (Graham, N., June/July 2012).
However, Graham immediately highjacks the interview with this question: “What can the many single moms and grandparents in the country who are raising boys with absentee fathers do to build them into men of character?” Obama follows with the usual explanation of how single moms can raise strong sons without dad (June/July 2012).
Add to this another article in the very same AARP Magazine issue that asks: “Who Needs Dad?” by white flag waving Ray Paprocki (June/July, 2012). He shares the following concerns:
• Women hold more than one-half of American jobs.
• Men were hit harder by the recent recession than women because both manufacturing and finance employed more males than females.
• “Single motherhood has become increasingly common; more than half of U.S. births to women younger than 30 occur outside marriage.”
• Two new books proclaim The End of Men and that women are The Richer Sex .
• A study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family (2010) claimed that two women can raise better children than a woman and a man.
That an increasing number of fathers are sharing Paprocki’s question: “Am I obsolete?” (June/July 2012) is evident within education as well. For example, some are asking: “Is a Feminized Curriculum Driving Male Students to Drop Out?” and questioning why there is an increasing gender gap in educational achievement that favors females over males (Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release, 9 February, 2012). Males, especially single fathers who aren’t included in the vocabulary of educators when discussing the needs of single parents, are feeling less welcome in academia.
The larger context above is exacerbated for single fathers who are students. Note that Paprocki makes the same assumption that others do about an increasing number of single mothers while ignoring the fact that the number of single fathers is increasing and that their role during these decades of gender sensitivity goes largely ignored. The U.S. Census Bureau shares the following:
• There are an estimated 70.1 million fathers in the U.S.
• There are 24.7 million father/husbands in the U.S.
• There are 1.8 million single fathers in the U.S.
• 16% of single parents are men, and this percentage has been rising since 1994.
• There are an increasing number of stay-at-home dads (176,000 cared for 332,00 children in 2011) (2 May, 2012)
What is interesting and perhaps telling about these statistics is that the total number of fathers is “estimated” and that the status of 43.7 million or so is not included in census statistics. There could be more single fathers that have not been counted. In fact, other sources list single father households as growing by 60% in the last ten years. Also, because there is a tendency to use only the term ‘single mother,’ I have to wonder how many single fathers there may be who refer to themselves as ‘single,’ ‘divorced,’ or widowed rather than ‘single father.’ I can only think of a few male students who have mentioned that they are single fathers. Are educators really aware of how many students in their classes may be single fathers?
The American Council on Education found that 11% of students below the age of 25 were single parents; this rose to 21% with students over the age of 25. Of all female undergraduate students, 16% were single mothers and out of all the male undergraduates, 6% were single fathers (2005). Chances are good that postsecondary classes do include single fathers as well as single mothers.
Most educators choose a career in academia in order to help people better themselves. Teachers will often say they also love their job because they are always learning. In this area of terminology, we have to train ourselves to avoid sexist diction, to say “single parents” instead of “single mothers.” Only by doing this can we make sure we aren’t disenfranchising the single fathers in our classrooms.
Tomorrow Part II will discuss some additional reasons single fathers are deserving of careful attention.
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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- Parents: Here’s What Professors Would Like to Say to You (Part II)