September 29, 1997
Volume 50, No. 6
Bernice Sandler began working on women's issues in 1969, before Title IX and before women began entering the classrooms of colleges and professional schools in large numbers. "More than any other woman in our lifetime," noted Interim Provost Rebecca Chopp in her introduction for Sandler, who spoke at Emory on Sept. 18, "she has made sure that women in education have the opportunity to speak without suffering, to act and to be without harassment."
Currently a senior scholar at the National Association for Women in Education in Washington, Sandler coined the term "chilly classroom climate" with colleague Roberta Hall and consults with institutions of higher education on a frequent basis. Sandler's new book is The Chilly Classroom Climate: A Guide to Improve the Education of Women, and she currently counts The Citadel as one of her clients.
When women scholars began working to correct conditions for women in education, "I will say we were quite naive," Sandler told the Emory audience. "We thought all we had to do was open the door, let the women in and everything would be solved. We were wrong.
"Women students are treated differently in the classrom by men and women faculty alike-as well as by their fellow students-and treated differently in ways that undermine their confidence in their academic ability, lower their academic and occupational aspirations, inhibit their learning and generally lower their self-esteem," said Sandler, who devoted the remainder of her talk to outlining the causes and effects of such treatment.
Sandler and her co-author did not have the resources to visit classrooms extensively in the course of their research. Instead they relied on existing data. "We looked at research by linguists and psychologists, sociologists and educators, communications specialists and so forth," she explained, "as well as campus studies of women."
Sandler and Hall found fewer examples of the type of overt sexism that used to plague women in education but did encounter many "smaller" behaviors with noticeable effects. Sandler stressed the generalities of this research to her audience. "Some of these things happen some of the time," she said.
On average, women participate in classroom discussions about 30 percent of the time, men around 70 percent-assuming a class has an equal mix. One study showed that women contribute to discussion less at the end of the semester.
Self-esteem seems to drop for women the longer they're in college. Sandler cited a study of high school valadictorians that found about the same number of men and women felt intellectually above average after high school. That statistic changed dramatically their last year in college. Researchers found 25 percent of the male respondents still felt that way about themselves at the end of college, up 2 percent from high school. For women, the number dropped from 21 percent in high school to none their college senior year.
"Interestingly enough, the women's grades were slightly higher than the men's," said Sandler, "so it's not that the women are being more realistic about their intellectual ability."
What accounts for this? Some explanations are societal ("Women are expected to be more modest about their achievements, and men are expected to brag," noted Sandler). Other explanations are found in the classrooms men and women inhabit in primary and secondary schools and beyond.
"Teachers generally pay more attention to male students-they may stand closer to male students, call them by name more often, nod and gesture when men are talking, but look elsewhere when females talk," said Sandler. "Men get more feedback, more criticism, more help." Classroom conversations between men and their teachers usually are dialogues. "When females speak, they are much more likely to get 'Uh huh,' which really says nothing more than, 'You said something, and I heard it,'" Sandler said.
"If you're a faculty member," she encouraged the audience, "think of the names of students whose names you know and whose names you don't."
Women are more likely to be touched than male students. "Touch is very often associated with power," said Sandler. Think of Emory's president, she said. "It's not appropriate for you to put your arm around the president or to pat the president on his shoulder. Because he's the important person, he gets to initiate touch.
"We can all touch strange children even though we don't know them because we're more powerful than they are." When researchers asked faculty about touching women students, respondents would say, "I just want to be friendly with them."
"And that's perfectly logical, a perfectly good answer and a legitimate reason if it's a friendly touch," said Sandler. Then researchers asked, "Do you touch male students that way?" "They'd likely recoil in horror," recounted Sandler. "It seems to me that if you want to be friendly you have to be friendly with both sexes," she said. "Because [to do otherwise] tells us the touch has another meaning."
Sandler admitted that she also struggles against stereotypes and biased behavior. "I was astonished one day to realize that I was looking at my watch [during workshops] only when women were speaking," she said. These types of behaviors, she said, that seem small and insignificant are "part and parcel of many women's daily existence over a period of years." While they may feel comfortable and moral, Sandler noted, "they happen so often that they do communicate a message to women and men about women's roles and worth."
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