Student Voices
Feb. 07 2017

Among Women: Navigating Mailman as a Man

It’s a quiet Thursday afternoon in November and a group of five graduate students—four women and one man­—is gathered in the lounge of the Allan Rosenfield Building. We’re trying to refine a way to measure sexual consent. Four of the five are vigorously discussing the subject, but I, the fifth, am sitting quietly, struggling to participate. I follow the discussion, but when they consider aiming the scale primarily at college-aged males, my anxiety starts to rise.

My mouth opens briefly to disagree, but I hesitate. Aiming the scale at heterosexual college-aged males, to me at least, incorrectly assumed that they were the only group to disregard sexual consent. I imagine them responding, “While females could certainly fail to obtain consent, failure to obtain consent was, in reality, a disproportionately male problem.”

I decide to keep my mouth shut, not just because their counter would be superior. In that moment, I also became aware of what I would have become: a man about to tell women about a topic they knew more intimately.

The fear of “mansplaining” is especially real to me considering that most of my colleagues are likely to be—and are—female. According to information from Columbia’s Office of the Provost, 76 percent of Mailman’s students are women. But Mailman isn’t alone in this circumstance: 71 percent of Johns Hopkins’s, 60.2 percent of Harvard’s, and 68 percent of Michigan’s students of public health are female.

The enrollment rates appear to translate to the workforce: 71.8 percent of medical and health services managers are women. Unlike other experiences I’ve had, the flipped male-female ratio has offered me new learning opportunities and personal insights I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

In Mailman’s January Teach-In, a school-wide conference that presented evidence-based approaches to policy, Professors Chavkin, Westhoff, and McGovern hosted a session on reproductive health that considered future challenges, including to Planned Parenthood, which provides care to 2.5 million women in the United States. The political currents suggest that reproductive health will be more difficult to access in the years ahead, but if the turnouts for the Women’s Marches are any indication, it seems that women are unlikely to relinquish their hard-fought rights to reproductive choice.

Still, being denied access to safe care, women are likely to pursue unsafe alternatives—a preventable danger, one of which I am privileged to be nescient. If I hadn’t met and worked with proactively vocal and intelligent women nor motivated by a deep-seated drive to learn and discover, my perspective would likely still be biased towards men.

Being exposed to women’s issues has felt like learning something new about an old friend, and it’s caused a whirlwind of emotions in me that range from alienation to comradeship. While sharing their needs and obstacles has created opportunities for common ground, grappling with the new concepts inherently created some distance as my preconceptions merge with what I’m finding out.

The moment in November when I found myself in the minority of the discussion on sexual consent is only one of a number of experiences that have made me increasingly aware of my male experience. My involvement with the 5th Annual Virtual Conference on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) on WASH in Schools was particularly eye-opening, if only because it highlighted my complete absence of thought on a significant aspect of the female experience.

Guided by Professor Marni Sommer in conjunction with the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion, I spent part of the summer and fall reading about female genital mutilation, MHM interventions and MHM in emergencies. As I was reviewing a compilation of materials used by women and girls to manage their menstruation, I realized how little I knew about MHM materials, and how little I had thought about menstrual hygiene.

The initial reaction is brow-wiping and basking in my luck: I won the genetic lottery, being born a male, and I get to live with my privilege. The thought is bittersweet, however, because I believe that how a life is lived and the quality of life expected should never be a matter of chromosomal chance.

I suspect, in addition to sexual consent, reproductive health, and menstrual health, that there are even more issues to which I am completely oblivious and the inclusion of women’s voices in research is insightful, making me glad to see them included in schools of public health. The inclusion of a diverse collection of voices in the academic and political conversation, committed to a common goal, will bring to light obstacles and barriers a single-minded group will likely overlook.

Yet, translating research into public health practice demands more than curiosity and discovery. Translation demands conversation, and that conversation will require input from all of us. Reaching across disciplines and identities will not only encourage collaboration, but also fairness. No dimension or issue of health stands alone. Harm to women will eventually harm men. Now that we understand the need for more interdisciplinary collaboration, we have to put it into action. As we work to create positive change, my hope is that we stand vigilant, informed, and unified.

Patrick Robles is a second-year MPH student studying social determinants of health. He is particularly interested in understanding what factors influence people when making decisions about their health.

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