Women still face “chilly classroom climate.” – classroom environment in women’s education

To ensure that women are treated fairly in college classrooms it is not enough for colleges to end discriminatory behavior. They need to change a “chilly classroom climate,” says a new study by the National Association for Women in Education.

The report by the National Association for Women in Education offers solutions to the state of affairs last highlighted by NAWE 16 years ago when it said women faced diminished opportunities for learning and advancement in American colleges. The new findings focused on the cumulative effect not only of behaviors and biases but of other factors, including the lack of role models, teaching style and curriculum content.

The report, which was released in late February, was written by Dr. Bernice Resnick Sandler, a senior scholar in residence at NAWE, Lisa Silverberg, a women’s education and health expert, and Roberta M. Hall, director of foundation relations at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN.

Troublesome practices by faculty members identified by the study included: using women students as examples in hypothetical situations with sexual or other inappropriate overtones; interrupting women’s comments more than men’s; responding extensively to men’s comments with praise, criticism or coaching but to women with patronizing brush-offs; and attributing women’s achievement to luck or affirmative action but men’s to talent or ability. The study even documented the tendency of faculty members to frown more at women than men students.

To conduct the study the authors examined dozens of quantitative and qualitative studies, conference procedings, video recordings of classroom discussions and other information, including anecdotal information submitted by students.

The report, funded by the Lilly Endowment and the Fund for the Improvement of Post-secondary Education, made 270 recommendations that could be made by administration, faculty and students at little or no cost to institutions.

Some of the recommendations were:

* Institutions should develop a process involving the whole campus community to examine the institutional climate and recommend changes.

* Institutions should ensure that all programs and initiatives are responsive to the concerns of women of color and other groups of women.

* Institutions should develop standards for student-to-student and faculty-to-student behavior in the classroom.

* Faculty members should examine their own teaching behaviors to see which students get the most and best responses such as praise, attention, encouragement, feedback, eye contact and coaching.

* Faculty members should avoid jokes, analogies and language that assume common experience among diverse groups.

* Faculty should intervene when students interrupt or intimidate each other or otherwise discourage their peers from contributing in class.

Some other findings of the study have led to further research, including an examination of the differences in the learning styles of men and women, Sandier said. “It’s hard to generalize, but some of the findings have shown that men tend to like a classroom where there is more argument and sparring. They like to know the `right’ answer and may be more comfortable in a hierarchial classroom,” she said. Women, Sandier explained, “tend to like a more participatory, collaborative classroom.”

The new report looked more extensively at the effects of race and gender than the 1982 study. “Women of color have different experiences than white and other women, said Sandier. “It’s not a double whammy, it’s a different entity.”

Although more research needs to be done looking at gender and race in the classroom, Sandler says, the study did show that faculty most often ask questions of white male students, followed by minority males and then white women. Black women received the least number of questions and the least amount of concern in the classroom, Sandier said.

The study also looked at the way women faculty members are treated in college and university settings and found that women faculty members are frequently evaluated more harshly by students and colleagues. The study noted that U.S. Department of Education statistics show that the percentage of women faculty in postsecondary education remains disproportionately low at 32 percent.

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