Ask the grumpies: Classroom gender resources

Grad Adviser asks:

I’m hoping that you have some ideas for resources that might help the graduate students in my department.  First, a little background.

The female graduate students in my department are in the process of raising the issue of an uncomfortable (I don’t know that they would say hostile) climate – there isn’t one specific incident that strikes anyone as completely outrageous but there is a pattern of behavior that they find dispiriting. Hopefully this will lead to a discussion among the faculty about what to do – including changing what we do in the classroom to foster a better climate and what we can do to help the graduate students be aware of these issues (so that they behave more professionally while students and then be a part of the solution, rather than the problem, once they are faculty members themselves).  But, when we get to that point – assuming we can convince my colleagues that there is a problem – the question is what to do.  The female students say that they are interrupted more, and talked over more, than the male students, and that this leads to them not speaking up as much in seminars.  Then they get criticized by the faculty members for not talking enough. (Some of them also feel uncomfortable during seminars because of inappropriate sexual statements from male graduate students, though I heard about this third-hand so don’t know that it is appropriate for me to bring it up, or to whom, or in what context. It’s a problem, though.) The female graduate students say that they are not encouraged to pursue [important mathy stuff] as much as the male students are, and that if they express any doubt about their abilities (which women are more apt to do), it changes how the faculty see them (in ways that does not seem to occur with the male students). Classroom dynamics seem particularly bad in the [mathy] classes, except for the one that I teach.

Do you have suggestions of books/articles/online resources that address managing the graduate classroom in a gender neutral way? (I’m not even sure that ‘gender neutral’ is the best phrase to use.)  Or that address advising and mentoring as well, now that I think about it?

It might help if we had a more diverse department, as well – one of you mentioned, in one of your posts or in a comment somewhere, that search committees in your department follow some kind of ‘best practices’ that allow you to mitigate problems of implicit bias etc. somewhat – we don’t do anything like that but I would like to suggest it as something we ought to be doing.  Do you have  suggestions of good sources of information about this?

I have tried to look for material on these issues, but most of the classroom-related content I’ve found is about primary or secondary education, and I’ve seen a few outdated (or, pretty old) websites about hiring.  I was hoping that you would have better suggestions.

Some initial thoughts.  We’ve found that things that work in secondary education also tend to work in collegiate education.  20-somethings aren’t that different than teens, even the motivated ones.  And, several of the studies from the 1980s+ are actually still valid today, at least the ones that you’re likely to have come across are still valid.  So don’t completely discount them.

The hiring stuff we do is to a priori decide what the important things we’re looking for in the search are– Research fit, Scholarly publications, Teaching, Diversity, or whatever you want (it doesn’t actually matter so long as it isn’t something that has disparate impact!).  Then each faculty member ranks each resume (or each resume that makes the initial cut) on a Likert (1-5 or whatever) scale for each of these items.  This ranking serves as a check to each faculty member’s implicit biases– you don’t put the numbers together and average them or anything.  It’s just a way for people to see how they’re stacking up the candidates against each other and they can notice when they’re giving someone (usually a guy) with 5 top articles a higher score on research than someone (usually a woman) with 7 top articles.  It’s a little extra paperwork but pretty eye-opening.  (There’s mixed research on whether or not asking people to justify their answers helps or hurts– I would not add that step in here.)  And I should have citations for you, but unfortunately I refereed that paper when home on house arrest and it didn’t end up getting accepted to the AER or wherever I was reviewing it for, even though it was really good.  So I can’t find it.  :(

The other step is that after you’ve made a short list, you simply look at the highest ranked woman and the highest ranked targeted minority groups and compare them to the lowest ranked person on your short list.  Sometimes you’ve accidentally overlooked someone good because of implicit bias.  Sometimes the pool just isn’t very good and the next highest ranked woman or minority is a standard deviation below.  That’s ok, the point is just to make that check.  If it turns out that the woman or minority is equal or better, then you replace someone or add another person to the short list.

Since you are in an NSF-defined STEM field (for readers at home, NSF includes several social sciences in their definition of STEM along with engineering and sciences, but does not include most interdisciplinary departments like B-schools, Med schools, etc.), one good place to start looking for more up-to-date information is from ADVANCE.  ADVANCE is an NSF-funded program to transform the climate for women in academia in the STEM fields. They’ve funded many colleges and universities around the country to study and fix these issues. Check out their list of who they’ve funded and see if there are any schools whose ADVANCE centers you’d feel comfortable asking for information, particularly if there are any that are geographically close to you that could send someone out to do training.  You may even some day want to put forward your own ADVANCE grant, though that would be a university-wide thing, not just for your department.  In addition, they have some resources through their webpage, including this one from VT.  Best hiring practices can be found here and here.  Here’s a pamphlet for your chair.  There’s lots more.

I’m not finding much on teaching, though, possibly graduate students are not ADVANCE’s main focus.  There was recently a study on Harvard business school that made a lot of news…

#2 should have some information on this though… except I don’t.  My suggestions involve things like asking people to read and discuss articles about the effects of subtle biases (e.g., this one), especially this one, and Virginia Valian’s book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women.  There are pedagogical techniques for working with classrooms where some students dominate and interrupt other students and so those other students don’t get to contribute; you can find out about these things from places like teaching websites or even maybe google how to run a good meeting as a manager.  Strong role models of female full professors who can prepare students of all genders for the challenges of science and academia are what really helped me, and you may have to be proactive in seeking out speakers and getting students connected with positive mentoring through their professional organizations.

Come to think of it, seek out the professional organization(s) for your area and see what resources they have for students and early-career faculty.  Often sciencey orgs will have some sort of gender program with resources (e.g., Society of Women Engineers).  You should check out whether AAAS has programs — if they don’t, they should.  Their publications sure have put their foot in it enough!  This article has a bunch of links to resources that may help you.

Do our readers have any suggestions on literature about how to run a gender neutral classroom?  How about best practices in hiring?


17 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Classroom gender resources”

  1. CR Says:

    For general information, it might be worth looking at the Athena SWAN award stuff in the UK. There’s separate awards at the institutional and departmental level, and my (just awarded gold) STEM department are making efforts to promote/support women at all levels, including graduate students. Concrete actions and widely disseminated information on those actions have made a definite difference!

  2. Practical Parsimony Says:

    I don’t have any answers, but an observation. I was 47 when I was in grad school. When I would make a statement in class, something I read or a study that seemed relevant, I had so many professors shoot down what I said, while babbling on about why I was wrong. EVERY SINGLE TIME, a female professor was the culprit. And, each time, a young male student “rescued” me, offered that he had read the same article. Then and only then, did the female professor offer to consider the statement I had made and either stated she concurred with the statement/article, my contribution to discussion or ask the young male more about the article. I was ignored in the discussion. By then the damage was done even though I felt vindicated. Often I was the only person over 25 and usually the only female over 25. I can feel my cheeks becoming warm as I even think about these instances.

    Not to be wholly intimidated, I did continue with my contributions to class. But, from then on I felt there was little value to what I thought. Most of the time, my views/statements were absolutely correct. However, when I was off base, I accepted the correction graciously. Yeah, what else could I do.

    The one prof who did accept what I said even when it was doubtful information, was a male chauvinist who thought he was not. He would ask me to explain, inviting me to keep discussing the article I had read. When he could never find anything wrong with the premise of the article after a class discussion, he was very gracious. Once, he interrupted me and asked me to teach a whole class concerning a book “Jennifer Fever” as it described a man’s actions in a novel. He showed me more respect than any of the female professors.

    As for students talking over me, they would not dare. I just kept talking and gave them a “look.” That fixed that problem. However, I had more problems with female students trying to talk over me. I think it was the “old lady” factor. In the case of students talking over me, the female professors turned their attention away from me. The male professors kept their attention on me, ignoring the female interrupting me. In the case the female wrenched the floor from me, the male professors made it a point of inviting me to keep speaking, saying something like, “Now what were you saying before you were interrupted.”

    This was so prevalent that I gravitated to male professors for all my grad classes. Okay, I noticed all the same things as an undergrad, so maybe those professors should be included. I was not in a mathy environment in grad school, just and literature environment.

    Okay, sorry for the long-windedness. I am up late and this struck a chord in me.

  3. Liz Says:

    Something to consider might be how women’s issues/studies are integrated into classroom discussions and content. Research strongly suggests that calling out a particular characteristic in a great person/thing serves to reinforce the biases against that characteristic, rather than resolve the issue over time. So it’s important to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to integrate discussions of, say, black scientists, female mathematics, etc. into the content without actually trying to draw attention to the fact that this is part of an attempt to discuss more black scientists or female mathematicians. Kind of like if you tell women that they are expected to do less well on a math test than male peers, they probably will – even if they are actually BETTER than their male peers. It sets an implicit negative expectation.

    Of course, that’s not to disparage or discourage things like Society of Women Engineers. More that the framing of the call-out group’s purpose has to be intentionally positive – not, “because women aren’t represented or respected,” but more like “a space for women engineers to discuss their work in a gender-specific environment” or something like that.

    Another technique (from a PhD in qualitative studies, an expert in focus groups) is to train teachers or discussion leaders how to identify the dominants and submissives and use subtle prompts to facilitate a more neutral environment. For example, gloss over what the dominant says, while extending the discussion of the submissive’s contribution. And call out ways in which the dominant subverts a submissive’s attempt to be original (e.g., the dominant says the exact same thing as a submissive – don’t give hir credit for contributing; credit the original speaker). Emphasis on subtle and respectful, however.

    Finally, Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on body language was eye-opening for me. I don’t always care what my body language says, but I’m much more aware of it as a tool in critical conversations with difficult people.

  4. Bardiac Says:

    There was a similar sort of problem in my grad department. At one point, all the women in a seminar met and agreed to support each other in the course meetings. So, for example, if a man interrupted a woman, another woman would say something like, “Excuse me, John, but Jane was speaking and I’d like to hear what she has to say.” And when a woman spoke, another woman would try to follow up, acknowledging something the previous speaker said, and building from it (or disagreeing, whatever; the point was to work together to make an intellectual effort).

    We did it, very effectively for a couple weeks, and then less effectively, but still, it was amazing. And amusingly, the male professor (a decent person who wasn’t always aware of his biases) was overheard saying that something amazing was happening in his seminar and students were really having great conversations. Because, of course, we were. Rather than just trying to make points with the professor, we were working together to have a real conversation, something that happened all too rarely in the other graduate seminars I experienced.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      This is one of those things that I believe is recommended in What Works for Women. But it does take coordination and people able to notice and willing to do it.

      • Bardiac Says:

        And there’s a certain point where it’s not the students’ responsibility to keep jerks from being jerks.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It really isn’t. It never should be.

        These kinds of institutional changes really do seem to work best (and come fastest and easiest) when the white guys in power are aware of the problems and take charge in fixing the environment.

        There was recently a study out of Michigan, IIRC, that showed the units that made the most positive change for women faculty were the ones who saw that they had a problem and instead of trying to explain it away were shocked and asked what they could do to change it.

      • Debbie M Says:

        This is one of those situations where you shouldn’t HAVE to do this, but at least it’s something you CAN do.

  5. Funny about Money Says:

    Plus ça change, eh? Good advice here, particularly in terms of pedagogical techniques to help insure fairness for in-class participation. A lot of empathetic mentoring is required, too — of the male students as well as the female students, since the men often bound along like oblivious puppies and don’t even sense that they’re pushing women classmates aside. Men often expect, I think, to be pushed back when someone feels put upon.

    IMHO, Practical Parsimony makes a good point about negative experiences with some female faculty — many of whom no doubt are well-meaning. My office at the Great Desert University was largely staffed by research assistants and associates who were advanced graduate students in the history department. My observation was that feminist scholars in the department tended to be hostile to female graduate students who did not buy into their point of view or fit their stereotype of how a female scholar should look, act, and think. Two students who come to mind were a Mormon woman who had the good sense to keep her mouth shut about her faith but who did have one child whose interests were not subrogated to her career aspirations, and a very pretty, rather conservative blonde chickadee who made no secret of her Christian beliefs.

    Both of these young women were discouraged at every turn, not because they were incompetent students but because their personal social attitudes were disliked by the predominantly hyper-feminist faculty — apparently because of their relatively traditional lifestyles. The Mormon woman was informed, explicitly and in so many words, that she was not cut out for a PhD in European history because she was unwilling to put travel and research ahead of her child’s welfare. She quit when she finished the MA, even though she would have made a fine academic. That one was smart enough to figure out how much sh!t is too much to pile on the dinner plate. Today she is managing editor of the largest journal of organizational management on the planet. She will be traveling to China next month as part of her job.

    The other one was discouraged at every turn, often in ways that can only be described as scurrilous. When the department’s dominant faction tried to pressure her out of the program at the ABD stage — they had no legitimate reason to do so, because her work was not substandard, her progress was on target, and her dissertation topic was original and outstanding, despite the fact that she was a single mother of two young daughters — I lost my temper and recruited as her dissertation chair a prominent scholar (a Macarthur “Genius” fellow) who happened to have dual tenure in history and a different department in which he preferred to reside. To say this man was hostile to these kinds of shenanigans is to understate grossly. The guy went in there like a pit bull and beat back the politics. She wrote a dissertation that in his opinion was publishable — he should know, because he has a string of scholarly and trade publications that fill several shelves. The committee, still populated with the department’s mostly female faculty, rejected it. She rewrote the dissertation from beginning to end and resubmitted it this spring. This month, thanks to his mentoring and support, she will receive her diploma.

    My point is similar to the one Practical Parsimony makes: women faculty members are not necessarily the best mentors for all women graduate students. There are many kinds of diversity; if we don’t honor them all, we don’t honor any of them.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Particularly this:

      And if you think that making hiring practices more fair is a bad thing because then (by counter-acting implicit bias) you end up with more female faculty… then we suggest you check your misogyny. Because, as you point out, women can be sexist too. In that respect, the patriarchy isn’t particularly discriminatory… it’s equal opportunity permeation.

    • Practical Parsimony Says:

      In my statements above I deliberately left out the fact that I was working on a Women’s Studies Degree along with taking grad level English for the MA. I could critique literature from many angles. One person, a female, asked me why I always did the feminist critique. (Everyone suspected I was a lesbian, because, after all, only lesbians were in Women’s Studies!) I told her that no one working on their masters was critiquing that way. I assured her I could turn in a paper critiquing from many perspectives–Christian, Marxist, etc. What did she want?

      The female English professor who was a feminist thought I was entirely too harsh. The art history teacher whose Renaissance Art course was cross-listed with WS such a b***h and shut me down all the time. She sat in front of the male students and talked to them instead of the huddled females. She made statements that were so odd for a PhD whose course was a cross-listed course, “I am a feminist, but I have a husband and children. I am not a lesbian!” She said that while directly talking to the males in that class. Those males knew they were golden.

      I complained to an Art History major in the class, a female. She told me that professor shut down people all the time, that I was not the first, but her victim was ALWAYS female. She said most people don’t keep speaking up like I did. Lots of people dropped her course in the first two weeks. Well, I was good friends with the head of the WS dept at the university. So, I marched my little self to her and tattled. That prof will never have a course cross listed with WS again. The statement I mention was only one of dozens that were horrifying. The head of WS prof was good friends with head of honors, another feminist. So, they asked me about the cross-listed courses I took. I confirmed the one male professor was the strong defender of females that they thought he was. He let none of the guys get too overconfident in their assumptions about females.

      The funny part was that I started through menopause about the time I started grad school, and I took nothing off anyone. So, they got a double dose of me. And, I do not regret a thing I said or did. Several months of premarin subdued me a bit, but I had my voice and was more judicious and did not cry when I arrived home.

      The worst semester was when I took Conflict and Violence followed by a class in Byron where we were reading Prometheus.

      By the way, there is a name/term for women not helping women–“Queen Bee.” There can be only one queen bee, so all other women should never be allowed, encouraged, or helped to attain lofty heights. Besides, when a woman has cracked the glass ceiling, she sometimes wants that lofty height for herself alone so she will be seen by males and females as very special.

      At this university I was very lucky to have been accepted into the homes of many women professors, feminists and not. The feminist professors were mostly all very encouraging. The ones who weren’t encouraging never attended the meetings or dinners in the homes of the professors.

      Sorry to be longwinded again…sigh. I know, I should quit saying that I am sorry. Sorry.

      • Practical Parsimony Says:

        And, I am a very committed heterosexual who had many lesbian friends as well as straight. One young woman who knew I was straight came out to me. I was shocked. She could not tell her mother, so I suppose I was “it.” Yes, I did associate with gay men in my life at that university.

  6. Cloud Says:

    I don’t really have anything to add, except… this is valuable work. Thank you for taking it on. Your description of the female students’ concerns closely matches what has happened in my career- talked over, ideas discounted until recapitulated by one of the guys, steered out of the more math and computational types of work only to have the other work I was steered towards be considered less worthy of respect, and on and on. I have always considered myself a feminist, and occasionally paid some attention to women in science type issues as a younger scientist, but mostly thought that I’d be OK if I just focused on my work and being really good.

    I’m here to tell you that it didn’t work. I am, by many objective measures, damn good at what I do. But I’m quitting and hoping to transition to doing something else. I haven’t really reflected enough on what has happened in the 15 years since I left grad school to have a coherent story, but I suspect someone more familiar with the literature on bias and related issues would not be at all surprised by my trajectory and the frustration I now feel at where I’ve ended up.

    While I am not unhappy with the career I have and the changes I’m now making (I’m very excited by the new direction, actually)… I do wonder what might have been.

    Also: while I appreciate all of the strategic advice in books aimed at helping women navigate the career minefield, I’d be more appreciative at more effort at disarming the mines. I tried, I really did, to follow the advice, even when it felt very uncomfortable for me. I did better than I would have without it. But it is so damn exhausting to have to constantly be so damn strategic about my personality. It is like having another job. This is particularly challenging in work cultures that are particularly aggressive (such as the one I’m leaving soon), because the line you have to walk as a woman in an environment like that is razor thin. It sucks energy that I’d rather spend on interesting work. Hence- I am leaving that environment. I think I have finally explained this to my boss so that he understands. But he still goes around telling people I’m leaving to spend more time with my kids. It is easier for them all to just believe that than to look at what it is about their “rigorous scientific culture” that makes someone like me unwilling to sacrifice any more of my personal life to stay here.

    Sorry. Long and ranty. This one touched a nerve.

  7. GA Says:

    “Grad Advisor” here. Can’t thank you enough, N&M, for posting this and for the valuable advice everyone has offered.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We at Grumpy Rumblings are happy to be of service. Great and very important questions. Do check back in if you find any helpful resources and I’m sure they will be helpful to everybody. I wish we had more info to give you.

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