Gender differences in response to student-faculty interactions

There's an interesting commentary in the current Chronicle of Higher Education about how men and women experience college differently. The author is Linda Sax, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Here's the part that first caught my eye:

Second, men who work with faculty members on research or receive advice, encouragement, and support from them hold more-egalitarian views on gender roles. They become less supportive of the notion that "the activities of married women are best confined to the home and family." For women, the opposite is true: Those who spend more time with faculty members, especially in the context of research, become more committed to traditional gender roles.
Faculty members would benefit from a better understanding of the implications of their actions for students. They need to recognize that even when they believe they are treating male and female students the same way, the two genders may internalize those interactions differently....What sorts of messages do professors send -- intentionally or not -- regarding women's social roles?

Here's what I wonder. Is it that professors are still subconsciously favoring men and doing a better job of encouraging them to move forward in their careers? Or is it that women students who spend time with faculty get a picture of what a busy, over-committed professional life is like and decide that they want no part in it?

For undergraduates, I bet it's predominantly the former ((sub)concious male favoritism) but by the time these women reach graduate school, I wonder if it isn't the latter (stressful careers) that adds the lethal punch and reinforces stereotypical gender roles. Following the conversations around the grad student blogosphere over the past couple of years suggests to me that women really are "opting out" for fear that continuing on leads to unsustainable, unhealthy work and life patterns.

All of that makes Sax's next point even more interesting to contemplate:

Yet the presence of female professors appears to bring a broader range of benefits to male students, including gains in mathematical confidence, scientific orientation, leadership ability, and emotional well-being. An obvious implication of those findings would be for colleges to hire more female faculty members. That could be an opportunity to shape the academic climate, as female faculty members have been shown to be generally more concerned than male faculty members with students' emotional development, character development, and self-understanding.

Questions for future research: Could the trend of males' benefiting more from the presence of female faculty members result from such professors treating their male students more favorably than their female students? Or, taking another perspective, might the developmental benefits accrued to men result from having less exposure to male faculty members? Are these findings due to a larger climate shift that occurs when an institution employs more female faculty members? In other words, how does the representation of female faculty members shape the culture of departments and institutions, and what impact does that have on male and female students?

Something to mull on, indeed.

Sax has a just-published book called "The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men."


More like this

This is from a study published in the latest NEJM: The "Gender Gap" in Authorship of Academic Medical Literature — A 35-Year Perspective [ href="">abstract/ rev="review" href="">full…
We're always talking about this curious phenomenon, that we see lots of women at the undergraduate and graduate level in biology, but large numbers of them leave science rather than rising through the ranks. Why is that? It seems that one answer is that elite male faculty in the life sciences…
Mary Ann Mason has a column in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education describing the importance of role models and mentors for women graduate students. Though Zuska recently wrote a provocative post that argued that "the problem of motherhood" might be a red herring for those interested in…
Early last year when the whole Larry Summers saga broke out, I posted some data on gender and science that was floating in the public sphere. Here I've reposted some of this data. THEN I'll tell you some recent data from Harvard ... From a NY Times article Feb 22nd, 2005Women in Physics Match Men…

While I agree that it may be the former (professors favoring men) that has the most subconscious effect, seeing how busy it is and scaring us into "traditional" roles goes to a deeper level. If you really feel that you need to run home, that is probably because at some point you have been taught that the men shouldn't stay home with the children, that it is OUR responsibility to give up career if family is the factor. Sad, but there is more to this... I just wonder what it is.

Wow, that's some interesting stuff. And a bit depressing. There's so much reinforcement of traditional gender roles all around in society, even when we *try* to raise our kids equally, they'll still get that subconscious message that women = primary caregivers. Tons of people were surprised that my hubby took 10 weeks off when Baby Grrl was born 2 years ago. How does this relate to college? Well, when you've got these messages ingrained into your subconscious, it takes paying attention to your actions and what you say. It could very well be unintentional on the part of the professors, yet still having an effect.

Oh, and if the women do make it into a science career? Over half of them leave.

Hey, first time commenter here. The topic of this post is actually a large part of why I first started reading your excellent blog. I'm a research assistant, currently applying for grad school, and frankly sort of terrified by the prospect of trying to "have it all."

It's absolutely true that working with women faculty members and researchers has impressed upon me the difficulties of juggling the field and a family. I'm guessing, as you said, that for a lot of young women this is the first time they really get direct exposure to those difficulties. In college, even if you participate in research, you usually don't know much about the personal lives of your professors. As a full-time RA, though, I get the daily update on all of life's difficulties. And it's scary. Some women definitely pull it off, but it's usually the ones with flexible schedules, a strong support network, and the money to pay for child-rearing assistance. Otherwise, it really ends up being much, much, much easier to choose one or the other: career or family. It's hard to have two full-time jobs, after all.

And like Mimi said, women are under a lot of pressure to have kids and be the primary care-givers, so it's definitely not a choice that's being made in a vacuum.

Hrmmmmmmm indeed. Different people certainly experience academia very differently (even if their academic environments seem similar/identical from a third-party perspective).
There are some weird findings in that book. Men's scholarly self-confidence, but not women's suffers from choosing a scientific major?
Majoring in biological sciences, participating in research, and time spent outside of class talking to faculty all increase gender role traditionalism in women? That makes me really nervous about what socialization I've been subjecting myself to! Of course, I can always be the outlier...
Interesting that "challenging a professor's ideas in class" decreases gender role traditionalism in women, yet causes them to report increased stress... there's something important there.

I read someplace that male students are concerned to be treated fairly, but females are concerned to be recognized as individuals. This is, of course, not 100%. However, a number of times I have spent five minuts, mostly just shooting the bull, with a female student and observed her performance to immediately go up a grade level or more. I once got a card from a student, after about 10 years, telling me that the five minutes I spent with her completely changed her life and put her on the track to her present high level of success. That is kind of scary, to think that a casual conversation might have such an effect.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 01 Oct 2008 #permalink

So glad you blogged this (at least in part because now I feel like I don't have to!). It was indeed a very intriguing article. Like Becca, I thought some of the findings were a bit odd. But I love the part about the presence of female professors having real benefits for male students.

maybe its different for me. I teach at a small liberal arts college, and pretty much expect that A) the female students are going to be the brightest, harder working students, and B) the females students will be the leader in most group activities. because that is what I see everyday. However, at the end of the day, males often "out perform" (grade wise) females by a slight margin. I attribute this to the fact that males rarely take leadership roles in extracurricular events, males are very good at manipulating females to do the work for them.

at the real end of the day, I often find reasons to put enough flexibility in my syllabus to reward the female behavior and move them up the ladder (grade ranking) in the final grades for the classes. (I also try to make a point to let the females know I know what is going on.)

Another first time commenter here :-) This is a really great discussion!

"Here's what I wonder. Is it that professors are still subconsciously favoring men and doing a better job of encouraging them to move forward in their careers? Or is it that women students who spend time with faculty get a picture of what a busy, over-committed professional life is like and decide that they want no part in it? "

As a grad student in science, I'm feeling the effects of the second point. I want to have it all, too, but the juggling act is quite terrifying. I don't know how that feeling is shared between genders, however. For one, I know that my post-doc significant other is similarly worried about such things, and he also wants to "do it all." Be a researcher, a good teacher, have a family and hobbies and a life. So through him, I've seen this more as a "young scientist" or "parent-scientist" issue and not strictly a women's issue in science. But maybe there's a selection effect there, since I'm likely to choose someone with goals such as mine!

It's an interesting debate, but I'd like to know more about the background of the subjects outside of the faculty. I'm unemployed at the moment, but I'm a biology technician and undergrad the rest of the time, working fulltime with a family and a home.

From my own experience I wonder if the women see not the busy professional life and decide they want no part in it, but they see the busy professional life coupled with more activity domestically than males in the same profession and decide to halve their workload and stick to traditional roles?

I know that I, as well as other women I have worked with, do more in the home whilst working fulltime than the men we work with. I'd like to know if that is both more widespread and, if it is, do women who work with faculty members pick up on it?

I completely agree with rb. Males figure out ways to manipulate females into doing the work and they take 'credit' for the supervision really, not the work. I'm glad there are people who see around that shit and reward the worker bees. It's the same as having a long line of co-authors on my papers of people who wouldn't know hypothesis 1 from 2 on any given day but are "token authors" because they gave me A sample and INSISTED on AUTHORship. I'm basically padding the CVs of token males because they hoard stuff (and manipulate distribution). Some papers/projects I've dumped because I didn't want to deal with certain boys' clubs.

I'm teaching a class of all women this semester and there are 3 of 16 who repeatedly step up and take charge in group discussions and lab projects. 5 of them wouldn't participate in a discussion if I electro-shocked them! The rest chime in here and there and participate if they don't feel dumb doing so. The 3 leaders will be really great in whatever they go when they leave college - they can certainly hold their own, and I think will be fine in male-dominated areas. The others are still building up confidence and like Jim Thomerson says, just by spending a few extra minutes here and there, I hope will make a difference for them.

I will invest in buying the gender book.

As a former PhD student and a woman, I "opted out" for a few reasons. 1) Research was not at all what I expected it to be when I started the program at age 22. I was naive going in, and I was extremely unhappy with my day-to-day life, even though 'breakthrough' results were exciting. It wasn't enough
2) For various reasons I managed to fail my quals twice. I saw it as a light at the end of a dark tunnel, grabbed my MS and left.
3) Watching women profs I respected who had 2 small children at age 50 was also an eye opener. Also, the ones who chose not to have any kids.

All of it made me realize that I wanted a 9-5 job that I could leave without feeling guilty at the end of the day, that paid well. I wanted to raise kids before I hit 35. I have some regrets about 'what could have been' but I'm much happier now.

I would think the question of faculty influence versus exposure to the lifestyle shouldn't be too hard to tease apart. In the case of the change being due to a better understanding of the lifestyle, I would also expect the number of females who don't intend to have children to increase. In other words, one would see a widening of attitudes about roles rather than a shift in one direction, even though the average change would be toward more traditional roles. In the case of subconscious influence from the faculty, I'd expect a more unidirectional shift.

It's too easy to blame 'unconscious' influence when results don't fit the expected pattern. No one, male or female should be pushed into a role artificially, but when you consider family 'care-giving' to be entirely societally forced on women, I think you ignore that in *every* mammalian species, the female is far more active in care-giving. Why should humans be different?

Please do NOT think I am suggesting that women's options should be limited by pre-conceived notions of gender role. However we should not be surprised, or run to blame unconscious coercion, when a higher percentage of women seem to follow that path, absent any external force.

But jayh, you missed the point of the article. The percentage of women choosing traditional gender roles increased with the amount of student-faculty interaction. The differences between two populations of women cannot be explained by anything innately female. Here there is a very clear external force at work. What we're trying to do is figure out *why* interaction with faculty skews the distribution.

Does anyone ever feel like there are a lot of faculty out there (male and female) who are much harder on women who do not fit defined roles than men who fit defined roles (whether that role is "ideal woman" or "ideal grad-student")?
My personal feeling is that the pressure to act in certain ways is very high. In grad school, I've spent a lot more time/energy on figuring out how to interact with people than I have on figuring out the biochemical pathways I need to study. Maybe that's because the interpersonal skill lessons take active attention for me, and I can make some level of progress on the science working more or less on autopilot. Or maybe that's why I'm not as far along scientifically as I should be for this stage.

Anyway, I always assume that men have equal pressures to act a certain way- I just don't notice all of them.

And I've always assumed that I'm the outlier and that everybody else "gets" how to behave and doesn't have to work on it (i.e., I considered myself borderline socially-retarded for much of my life).
But maybe that's not the whole story.

"he differences between two populations of women cannot be explained by anything innately female."

to speculate (and this is no more speculation than the 'unconscious' hypothesis) is that, as women became more educated and confident, they felt less of a need to fit a pattern, whether that pattern was a male societal one or a common perception that women who do not fit a hard-boiled stereotype are betraying feminism.

Perhaps they are in a better position now to choose their own role rather than one constructed by an external ideology.

Given that there is a definite and ubiquitous societal expectation that caregiving roles (whether children or elderly/ill family members) fall to women first, I don't know why or how you make the statement about "absent any external force", jayh.

There is an equally unspoken, definite and ubiquitous societal expectation about certain jobs -- like, say, the vast majority of nurses are women, because there is an apparent expectation that it is more a woman's job than a man's. I've noticed a certain level of discomfort with male nurses, although it is usually kept subvocal. It is telling that one needs to specify "male nurse", because the automatic assumption that most people have if you just say "nurse", is "female."

That level of expectation definitely operates as to who should be bonding more with and caring more for children. To say that the unspoken cultural expectation doesn't exist as any outside force defies reality. I'm absolutely positive that many women support and carry that expectation themselves, but those of us who feel very little actual maternal instinct find ourselves faced with a high level of "oh, but you MUST feel...", and to us the automatic expectation that childcare or elder care will fall on us before it falls on our husbands is especially noticeable.

Given that this has a very long historical precedent, it is not possible to separate internalised cultural values from any "biological" impulse to say what is "natural", imho.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink

Jayh: Citation needed for the 'mammal' primary giver there, dude. It's way more diverse than that. As for sexuality, roles, blah.

And the sooner that anyone, not just male and female, but any sort of person is not forced into a role by society, which is essentially bigotry accepted on a wide scale, the better.

By Brackets and Link (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink

"Citation needed for the 'mammal' primary giver there, dude. It's way more diverse than that. As for sexuality, roles, blah.

And the sooner that anyone, not just male and female, but any sort of person is not forced into a role by society, which is essentially bigotry accepted on a wide scale, the better."

You would be hard pressed to show more than a handful of mammals (if that many) where the female did NOT spend far more time and effort with the young than the male.

No one should be coerced into a role, as individuals vary greatly. But neither should one be surprised that there are overall patterns which appear in populations. Evolution has established some optimizations that have over human and pre-human time scales been effective for reproduction.

we have not escaped our history.

Jayh: Then show the evidence, then, would you? Primates, nearest to us for a start have widely varying ways of being 'caregivers'. This is also due to population statistics as well as 'who or what breeds'. Humans as a species are also are prone to this, but our population is large and the 'who' controlled by society due to how social we are. I'd also like to point out that larger male mammals tend to die or not breed due to interactions and environment and statistics on how likely they are to mate.

Humans aren't exactly affected hugely by that anymore. Why shouldn't we escape history by starting now? Or are you suggesting that we should enslave any other humans that look different to us based on skin colour? Because 'Evolution has established some optimizations that have over human and pre-human time scales been effective for reproduction' has also been an effective reason for that, just replace 'reproduction' with 'intelligence' or 'strength' or any other stupidity used in the last 10000 years.

In short, there is no real reason now why females should be primary caregivers. When they're things like babyfood/milk and vaccines, you've already moved two main reasons for that.

By Brackets and Link (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink

Jayh: You come off as a concern troll to me as well dude. Tread lightly.

By Brackets and Link (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink

I enjoyed reading the blogs. As a statistician, final copy editor of the book (and father of the author), I'm biased.

By frank sax (not verified) on 05 Oct 2008 #permalink

As a recent undergrad who does very much want to go into academia and also very much would like to have children, I can't help but be pre-emptively scared off by thirdhand hearsay. However, I knew quite a few female professors who managed to balance work and family even better than women I know with jobs in the private sector. Obviously, they're in a higher tax bracket, are more likely to have a husband enlightened enough to help out with the kids and the housework, and have summers off and the odd sabbatical to spend at home, even if they're in the study, working.

A lot of the problems that female academics face in the U.S. are not only based on gender roles and expectations, but the lack of state-sponsored childcare. I would like to see some evidence from European countries on whether female professors over there feel the same tensions that their stateside counterparts do.

I can definitely say that I would appreciate having more female professors, I have only had one during the nearly four years that I've been in university, and she pretty much stopped me from losing my sanity during first year. I also had a delightful professor during second year whose philosophy was, "Girls need compassion, boys need DISCIPLINE!" when it came to interacting with students. It seemed to work well with us, I think sometimes all we wanted was to hear someone tell us that we were indeed quite smart and we were going to be able to succeed in that class, even if we didn't ace the midterm. Even if it's a lie it can make such a big difference when you're stressing out about grades and exams.

I think part of what might stop women from getting more advanced degrees is that it's seen as a waste of time if you get a degree, but then decide to take a few years off and have a baby. It can also ruin you, academically, because of "publish-or-perish" type stuff. Personally, I think if you enjoy getting a degree and you learn something interesting to you, it's worth it whether or not you 'use' it. I'd be all for getting my husband to stay home and raise kids, if we adopted any, but I get this feeling that some people would look down on me if I married someone with a bachelors or without a degree, if I had a Ph.D. It seems sort of like society still expects us to marry a man who is equal or superior, measured by what level of degree they have.

We are students from Mountain View College in philippines taking up BS nursing. We are having our research on "Exposure to male and female nursing clinical instructors and perceived quality learning of the students. We are humbly asking for the tool that you used in this article for our releted studies. It is our pleasure to read more articles releted with our research topic from you.. Thank you and more power. .

By Jordie Jayne C… (not verified) on 29 Jan 2009 #permalink