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The "gender skew" caught her attention.

Devouring college guidebooks at her Westfield, New Jersey, home, high school student Sarah Queller '11 quickly rejected a couple of otherwise "really cool" liberal arts colleges with at least 60 percent female enrollment.

"I think it's just a very strange atmosphere to be so skewed," Queller said. "The corporate world—it's mostly skewed the other way. It's usually men who are in higher positions. It's a very strange kind of inversion of that.

"I remember I looked at Kenyon, and then it was probably 52-48 [percent in favor of women]. You're not really going to get closer than that."

Across the continent, J. Alexander Kaplan '11, in Corte Madera, California, heard a high school guidance counselor describe one of the most important events that takes place in college—meeting a future life partner. "He was trying to give us some kind of context," Kaplan said. "Gender, yes, that's something that came up, and I remember that Kenyon was more female than male when I was applying, and I remember thinking that was not a bad thing."

With the growing tilt toward a female student body, Kenyon students are aware of the gender issue facing higher education. The topic is ripe for conversation if not concern. Kenyon students value the give-and-take in the classroom among students and their professors, and some take note when either sex dominates the room or appears in too few numbers. Members of the faculty respect the students and praise the admissions staff for its skill in delivering a high-achieving, motivated group, regardless of sex.

Yet women have the edge academically. The grade point average in 2009-10 for women was 3.42, for men, 3.26. The retention rate for women also tops that for men. As an example of the trend during the 2000s, the 2006 cohort delivered 91.6 percent of its women to commencement and only 81.9 percent of its men.

Kaplan has felt the heat. He's a political science major, senior class representative to the Campus Senate, and president of Alpha Delta Phi. "I feel like in recent years, in the classroom, women are very actively competing with men," he said. "They like that competition and they're better at it. Maybe they feel they have something to prove.

"As early as I can remember, I was amazed at the work ethic some girls have." He cast back to elementary school, where "the girls are really good at doing their work and the boys just distract each other."

School work is not always his top priority. "I'm a bit of a slacker sometimes. I was that way in high school, and I'm a little bit that way here," he said. "When I think about the female political science majors I know, they're very studious. They're really sharp. They always know exactly what's going on. It's not an intelligence thing. It's a work ethic or statement of priorities."

Ventriloquizing Men

Rather than a trend of female dominance at Kenyon, Jeffrey Bowman, professor of history and faculty president, sees moments. Honors Day is one. The custom of gathering all honors recipients on the Rosse Hall stage sometimes "seemed embarrassing to the fellows in the audience, to look up and see that so many of the people on the stage receiving academic honors and honors for roles for leadership on campus were women," he said.

Bowman dismissed the notion that Kenyon men lean toward slacking. In his fourteen years on the faculty, he has seen incoming students of both sexes become steadily stronger. "I don't feel that our male student population dramatically underperforms in any way," he said. "I don't necessarily feel that I've witnessed any of the male students I teach caught in a great cultural malaise."

The gender lineup in a given class can be difficult to predict. Based on majors, women tend to outnumber men in English and psychology and men turn tables in economics and political science.

"I know in talking to my colleagues, they sometimes are surprised when they have a class that's virtually all men or virtually all women," Bowman said. "They're not really sure why." Overriding gender, Bowman said, is the professor's interest in the student as a person.

Laurie Finke, professor of women and gender studies and the self-study coordinator for the recent College reaccreditation effort, cares less about the nature of students when they arrive in her classroom and more about who they are when they leave. "I think one of the exciting things is when you transform somebody," she said.

As a teacher of women and gender studies, Finke sees more female students. "To me, Kenyon seems like a female school. But that's what I get in my classes," she said. "Teaching, it seems to me, requires that you're always adjusting how you're teaching in relationship to the students. So it would make a difference if there were more men in the classroom, but it doesn't make an absolute difference. If it's a different mix, it goes in a different direction." And women, she said, are handy at "ventriloquizing" the views of men.

Mixing It Up

Sarah Queller appreciates a lively discussion among men and women. She is an English major, editor of the Collegian, and a volunteer at Wiggin Street Elementary School. "Most of my English classes have probably been more women, but not absurdly so," she said. "I took 'Psychology of Women,' and there was one man in that—all women, with a woman professor, and one guy. When we talked about men objectifying women, we all sort of looked over at this one guy, which is kind of unfair.

"It's good to have a mix and have other views."

The female majority does not make a "huge difference" for Will Kessenich '11 of Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, an economics major and Student Council president. "It's a topic of conversation, but it's not an issue," Kessenich said. "People are aware of what roughly the numbers are, but I've never really heard any discontent with what they are."

Boys in high school, he said, probably put forth less effort than their female peers. "I think males generally do step it up when they get to college."

Queller also sees a general "evening out" of academic performance in college. "At this point, if you're a man and you don't have a college degree and someone else has a college degree—it doesn't matter what your gender is."

Rachel Rose Berger '11 of Mansfield, Ohio, is a political science major who finds herself in classrooms that tend to have more men. She's also the senior class president, a Ladies swimmer, and an interviewer for admissions. She was a high achiever in high school, class president, and much involved with extra-curricular activities, including her role as a multi-sport athlete. "I think I had to prove myself to myself," she said. "I don't think men are slacking or not reaching their potential. I just think that maybe we're reaching ours faster.

"I feel like having a balance, just being around the opposite sex, you learn from that," Berger said. "We decided to come to a school with both genders. It certainly is important, and I think we understand what each other can bring to the table, academically and socially."

The social aspect is a key part of the college experience, Dean of Students Henry "Hank" Toutain said. "If we believe that this kind of education is not only about learning how to make a living but to learn how to live, then I think that men and women students benefit by having ample opportunities in a variety of contexts to mix it up with one another," he said. "That will serve them well in the world."