Many of us have been part of a department that contained problematic faculty with obvious gender biases against women. If you have been lucky, those faculty members have been in the minority and not in a position of significant influence in the department (i.e. Chair, Dean). Of course, even one sexist person in a position of power over students is problematic. One-on-one sexist communication between faculty and female students can negatively affect students’ performance and mental health. Just as important is the example such faculty present for others in the department. If newer faculty and students see others get away with sexist behavior, it’s more likely to be seen as acceptable and even sanctioned. This perpetuates the problem, and creates departments that have a culture of discrimination. In those departments we can’t just wait for the problem to disappear with time as older faculty retire. Some fields are more likely than others to have individuals and departments with gender bias problems – STEM fields are particularly problematic – but these issues are in no way field specific. Any department that houses a culture of discrimination is less likely to attract, nurture, and graduate female students.
Since I started my faculty position last year I have been mentally cataloging sexist instances (both hostile and benevolent) that I’ve experienced, witnessed, or heard about secondhand. As a mentor and role model I see part of my job as doing what I can to make my college a place where women are treated equally and fairly. I have been brainstorming with colleagues how to push back against a culture of discrimination present in one particular department. It has been challenging to think of meaningful steps that we as untenured women faculty in male-dominated departments could achieve to make a difference in our students’ lives.
In the process of brainstorming and talking with other professors, HR, and other people in academia, we’ve talked about some ways forward in changing departmental culture.
- Encouraging women who have experienced specific, actionable instances of sexual discrimination or harassment to come forward. Administrators can’t act on hearsay. Of course, the issue with this is that ultimately there may be a ‘trial’, which can be stressful and embarrassing for the student. This can be a particularly large problem when a student needs letters of recommendation from other faculty in the department or from committees. Most students prefer to just get through the class or program and move on with their lives.
- Developing a portfolio of evidence that there is a problem. We are working with human resources to develop anonymous surveys that would allow us to quantify the extent of the problem. One problem with this strategy is if we don’t get a high response rate it will be quite easy for the naysayers to say that the survey takers don’t speak for most of the students. We’ve also thought about having recent alumni file letters of complaint after they have successfully moved on to a job or graduate school.
- Requiring sexual harassment/discrimination training. Our institution has no discrimination or harassment training, whereas my previous academic institutions have required yearly online lessons. I’m not sure these do much good, but perhaps they are better than nothing?
- Developing professional development opportunities. We are planning to organize lectures and workshops to engage faculty in a discussion about these issues. With the support of the Dean, who can suggest attendance by all faculty, perhaps we can even reach those who most need to be thinking about these issues, rather than just preaching to the choir.
In the interim, how can we work within or around problem departments or individuals? We’ve thought about reducing the likelihood that problem faculty interact with the most vulnerable students (freshman and sophomores) or are the primary advisor for female students. Of course, this is basically a reward for bad behavior – not having to teach introductory classes and not having to advise students. At a more personal level as advisors we can gently nudge students away from problem sections or classes whenever possible.
Another critical piece of the puzzle is to provide a safe space for students to talk about discrimination and harassment they have experienced on campus. When I arrived at my institution, the first thing I looked for was a local chapter of one of the groups focused on issues of women in academia, such as the American Association of University Women or the Association for Women in Science. I had a positive experience in one such group in graduate school, and I highly recommend them for students and faculty that would like to talk about issues they’ve experienced. They can also provide a great place to brainstorm potential solutions. Our institution had nothing of the sort, so we have been developing one of our own, starting by organizing some informal meetings to see if there is a need and interest. I’ll write about the complexities, successes, and pitfalls of that process in a future post.
I’d like to hear from all of you – what are some solutions or work-abounds for problem individuals or departments? How do we best support students and peers that have experienced harassment or discrimination at our academic institutions?