Times have certainly changed for women going to college. A glance through an old yearbook shows that female students at the University of Hawaiʻi in the 1920s and 30s, were mostly majoring in education, home economics or similar subjects deemed proper for women at the time.
In the 1940s and 50s, campus beauty pageants were all the rage. Needless to say, change came slowly. Amy Agbayani, director of the Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity program, started going to UH Mānoa in the 60s.
“We were underrepresented as undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and administrators, but we didn’t know it. We weren’t really aware of it. We were just trying so hard to graduate and keep up with the rest of the class. I was frequently the only female in some classes.”
Agbayani went on to get her master’s and PhD in political science and was one of the co-founders of the UH Mānoa Commission on the Status of Women 40 years ago. Reorganized in 1986 to include all 10 campuses, the UH Commission on the Status of Women works to raise consciousness on issues like childcare, pay equity, domestic violence prevention, campus safety and promotion and tenure.
“All my mentors at the time were white male faculty members in political science. So I’m very grateful for getting their support and everything, but as a female graduate student, we didn’t really have any role models.”
The 70s brought about major change, thanks to legislation named after a UH alumna, the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, more commonly known as Title IX.
“We have come from, not having athletic programs for women, to having Title IX and ensuring gender equity in athletics,” explains Kelly Oaks, UH Hilo’s Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and a current commission member. “We have come from not having as many women in leadership positions to having a president of our system who is a woman to having, in the past, chancellors of our campus institutions who are women. We have moved and evolved toward increasing the representation of women in all fields.”
However the work of the commission is far from over. There are still fewer tenure-track women than men, and women continue to earn less than their male counterparts. The UH Board of Regents has been recently criticized for being mostly men.
Michael Hodges, an IT specialist for the UH System, joined the commission to better understand the challenges faced by his daughters. He agrees with the notion that there is still work to be done, and probably always will be.
“We need to continue to focus on women and to help them flourish and to remove as many obstacles as possible. I think biologically, women tend to end up with the children, which is harder than if you don’t have children when you’re trying to make your way forward in the world. There will always be a need to help women, to help families moving forward. I don’t think that will ever diminish. It just should get easier and easier over time for women and families to be successful.”