Classroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women?
Over the course of the last two decades, the women's movement has prompted an extensive reevaluation of the various gender-related aspects of all our social institutions. Social problems, such as the systematic exclusion of and discrimination against women, have been well documented. Higher education is, unfortunately, no exception in terms of the presence of institutionalized sexism.
From their first days on campus, women students encounter multiple patterns of gender bias that are liabilities both inside and outside the classroom. It has been repeatedly documented that women are at a distinct educational disadvantage in the classroom (Hall & Sandler, 1982; Krupnick, 1985; Sandler and Hall, 1986; Moses, 1989; Nieves-Squires, 1991). Three of the elements which have been identified as contributing to a "chilly classroom climate" are as follows:
Although the majority of students in higher education are women (53%), approximately 72 percent of all faculty are men, of whom 79 percent are tenured (American Council on Education, 1987). Conversely, of the 28 percent of faculty members who are women, the majority are instructors, temporary appointments, or untenured. This underrepresentation greatly diminishes the opportunities for role modeling and mentoring...and, the educational experiences of both women and men students are lessened by infrequent contact with women faculty.
In addition to who is doing the teaching, there are the related concerns about what is being taught. Beginning in the early 1970s, feminist scholars found that the traditional curriculum is overwhelmingly biased toward white males. The status, history, and achievements of women, Blacks/African-Americans and other minorities have often been misrepresented, distorted, or completely omitted. The lack of an inclusive curriculum has serious negative consequences for all students, not just women and minorities.
The question of how the curriculum is taught raises important gender-related issues of classroom environment. Hall and Sandler (1982) have identified a "chilly classroom/campus climate" for women students that jeopardizes their full personal, academic, and professional development. Such a climate puts all women students at risk. Those "chilly classroom climate" behaviors which are blatant include using sexist "humor," expressing stereotypical views of women, or making derogatory comments about women; there are also more subtle forms, such as speaking exclusively in male terms, interrupting women's students' responses more frequently, not learning the names of women students as quickly, giving less verbal support, reinforcement, and guidance to women students, and referring to women students as 'girls' and male students as 'men' (Hall and Sandler, 1982).
The preceding commentary is based on an article by Dr. Sabrina C. Chapman, director of the Center for Women Students, entitled, "Helping Diverse First Year Students: Women Students," which appears in The Freshman Year Experience: Helping Students Survive and Succeed in College, edited by M. Lee Upcraft and John N. Gardner, San Francisco: Bass Publishers, 1989, pp. 287-302.
These inequitable patterns have serious consequences for women students; it is not unusual for women students experiencing such classroom climates to participate less frequently, attend class less often, lower career/professional aspirations and/or manifest lesser levels of intellectual self-confidence. Also, there are clear and strong correlations between academic environment and recruitment/retention of women students in higher education settings.
These issues are confronted by girls/women from their earliest experiences with formalized, institutionalized education throughout higher education. These matters have received considerable national attention recently, due to the release of a report by the American Association of University Women entitled, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," which reviews 35 national studies conducted between 1983-1991 (February, 1992). The study documents repeated findings of unequal attention and differential opportunity for girls/women, as well as persistent discouragement and devaluation.
Women Students Particularly at Risk
Although all women students are at risk for experiencing the negative effects of an inequitable classroom environment, certain groups of women students have been found to be in even more vulnerable circumstances; these groups are as follows:
1. First Year Women Students
It has been documented that students in this category have been found to have significantly less intellectual self-confidence than first year men students of similar abilities (Hall and Sandler, 1982; Whitmore, 1987)
2. Racially and Ethnically Diverse Women Students
Students in this category may be multiply discriminated against on stereotypes/prejudice related to gender, compounded by race and ethnicity (Hall and Sandler, 1982; Moses, 1989; Nieves-Squires, 1991).
3. Women Students in Nontraditional Areas
Persistent climate problems have been documented in these areas, where resistance to women entering the field(s) is often high and women faculty/administrators are few (Hall & Sandler, 1982; Sandler & Hall, 1986).
4. Women Graduate Students
Unique characteristics of graduate study include: one-section courses, advisor/student relationships, reliance on Master's/Ph.D. committee members for credentialing/recommendations; all this tends to place this group of women students particularly at risk; their situation is further complicated by low numbers of women faculty members on graduate faculties and higher male enrollments in graduate programs in most academic disciplines (Hall & Sandler, 1982; Sandler & Hall, 1986).
5. Returning Adult Women Students
Reports indicate that women in this group may be discounted on bases such as gender, age, part-time status and/or questioned on the seriousness of their intent (Hall & Sandler, 1982; Sandler & Hall, 1986).
Assessing the Classroom Environment
Introduction: "Most faculty want to treat all students fairly and as individuals with particular talents and abilities. However, some faculty may overtly - or, more often inadvertently - treat men and women students differently in the classroom and in related learning situations. Subtle biases in the way teachers behave toward students may seem so normal that the particular behaviors which express them often go unnoticed. Nevertheless, these patterns , by which women students are either singled out or ignored because of their sex, may leave women students feeling less confident than their male classmates about their abilities and their place in the college community."
From: "The Classroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women?," Roberta M. Hall and Bernice Sandler, Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, Washington, D.C., February, 1982.
Faculty Behaviors: Some New Questions
Faculty, administrators, researchers and women students themselves are beginning to consider the importance of faculty behaviors in creating an institutional "climate" that fosters the full development of all students, and to ask questions such as the following:
- Are women students less likely to be called upon directly than men students? Do faculty tend to ask women and men the same kinds of questions? Do they encourage women as much as men to think for themselves?
- Do women students receive as much informal feedback, encouragement or praise as men for their academic efforts?
- Are women interrupted more often than men during class discussion? Can this lead women to feel that their views are not being listened to or taken as seriously as those of their male peers?
- Do teachers tend to make more eye contact with men when they ask a question of the class as a whole, thus "recognizing" men and inviting responses from them?
- Do professors often assume that women students are uncertain about what they want to say (or perhaps, not saying much that is worthwhile) because women may tend to state their classroom comments hesitantly or in an "overly polite" fashion?
- Are some professors more likely to remember the names of the men students in their classes than those of the women?
- Are teachers as likely to choose women as men for student assistants and to give them the same responsibilities?
- Do some professors inadvertently discourage women from enrolling in traditionally "masculine" majors or from the "harder" subspecialties?
- Are graduate advisors more likely to contact men students when publication, research, and other professional opportunities arise? Does this make it more difficult for women than for men to see themselves as potential professionals and colleagues?
- Do some professors use sexist humor to "spice up a dull subject" or make disparaging comments about women as a group? How does this affect women in the classroom?"
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Evans, Nancy J. & Vernon A. Wall. Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals on Campus. Alexandria, VA: American College Personnel Association, 1991.
Fleming, Jacqueline. Blacks in College: A Comprehensive Study of Students' Success in Black and White Institutions. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1984.
Gardner, John N. & A. Jerome Jewler. Your College Experience. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1992.
Glazer, Judith S., Estela M. Bensimon, and Barbara K. Townshend. Women in Higher Education: A Feminist Perspective. Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Hall, Roberta M. & Bernice R. Sandler. Out of the Classroom: A Chilly Campus Climate for Women? Washington, D.C.: Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1984.
Harebeck, Karen M. (ed.) Coming Out of the Classroom Closet. Binghamton, NY: Harris Park Press, 1991.
Krupnick, C.G. "Women and Men in the Classroom: Inequity and its Reminders." Journal of the Harvard-Danforth Center, 18-25, 1985.
Livingston, David W., et al. Critical Pedagogy and Critical Power. NY: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1987.
Moses, Yolanda T. Black Women in Academe: Issues and Struggles. Washington, D.C.: Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1989.
Nieves-Squires, Sarah. Hispanic Women: Making Their Presence on Campus Less Tenuous. Washington, D.C.: Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1991.
Olivas, M.A. Latina College Students. NY: Teacher's College Press, 1986.
Sadker, Myra & David Sadker. Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls. NY: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1994.
Sandler, Bernice R. & Roberta Hall. The Campus Climate Revisited: Chilly for Women Faculty, Administrators, and Graduate Students. Washington, D.C.: Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1986.
Shor, Ira and Paulo Freire. A Pedagogy for Liberation. NY: Bergin and Garvey Publishing Co., 1994.
Sleeter, Christine E. Empowerment Through Multicultural Education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
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Trend, David. Cultural Pedagogy. NY: Bergin and Garvey Publishing Co., 1992.
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