It’s Not Easy Being a Woman Professor: Challenging Sexism in Higher Education

“So, are you a student here too?” asked the young IT worker I called to fix my office computer. I smiled, wondering how the student missed my name on the office door, or the row of diplomas framed on the wall. “No, I’m a professor here.”

Sexism against women in college undoubtedly happens, but sexism against female college faculty is perhaps more often overlooked. As a thirtysomething woman professor at a Christian university, I have a unique perspective on sexism in higher education. Before I share my own experiences, let’s look at the data.

Research on Sexism in Academia

I teach a psychology research course, and I require my students to read and critique a research-based article. Among the articles I assign are psychological studies on sexism toward female professors. One study uses student evaluations from online courses to demonstrate that students give lower ratings to a professor with a female name—even when the actual professor was a male under a female pseudonym. Student course evaluations are commonly used for determining promotions and tenure, so the stakes are high and women are often judged unfairly due to these rating discrepancies.

Another study explains that female professors face more student demands for favors like extra credit or re-doing work for a better grade. Furthermore, students are more likely to be upset when a female professor (versus a male professor) refuses those demands. Students expect females to be more lenient and nurturing, and judge women more harshly when they don’t conform to these stereotypes. These biases disproportionately burden women and create a climate in which it is harder for females to advance in their academic careers.

My Experience

Fortunately, I have not experienced overt sexism at my university. My university does have females in leadership at all levels, from the board of directors to the president’s cabinet to the deans. Though I am pleased to see women included in these areas in my own sphere, I think there is still a lot more work to be done until women are equally represented in college faculty and administration. Women are now fifty-six percent of college students and receive about fifty-eight percent of graduate degrees in the United States, yet are only thirty-one percent of full-time faculty and thirty percent of university presidents.

Sexism against female faculty in higher education is often subtle. In my experience, it can come from well-meaning students who don’t intend to be hostile or aggressive. In course evaluations, students frequently comment on my personality or their interpersonal interactions with me—both positive and negative—rather than the quality of my teaching or the content of my courses. I have also had some humorous interactions with parents, students, and staff, who are surprised I am a professor. I’ve heard comments like “You’re a professor? You look like a student!” more times than I can count. I sometimes get emails addressed to “Ms.” or my first name instead of “Dr.” Students seem to expect more leniency on deadlines or assignment requirements. They often assume their personal stress or relational problems are sufficient reasons for me to make exceptions to course policies.

Experiences of Female Professors

I am hardly alone in this experience. In an online forum, I asked fellow female psychology professors to share their experiences of sexism. The women stated that comments about their appearance, clothing, and hairstyle—even blatantly inappropriate ones—were common. They felt unfairly judged as “unapproachable,” “rigid,” and “unreasonable” for the same behavior that earned male professors labels like “tough but fair.” Like me, other female professors were called “strict,” “mean,” and “cold” simply for sticking to course policies or refusing unreasonable requests. They also felt like more service work—extra responsibilities outside of teaching and research—was expected of them, compared to their male colleagues, such as sponsoring a student organization or advising students.

These incidents may seem minor, but all microagressions take a toll when you are exposed to them repeatedly. You start to expect them, doubt yourself, and question your competence. For female professors who may already struggle with imposter syndrome—the feeling that you are “pretending” in your role and do not deserve to be there—comments like these do not help our confidence.

We cannot change a problem if we are unaware of it. We must admit our own personal blind spots and ignorance. Even after my students review and critique the articles showing evidence of sexism against female professors, they are often quick to defend themselves. They claim they do not consider gender when they evaluate their professors. But it is clear that my gender often unconsciously colors their expectations of me as a professor. If I fail to live up to their gender-based stereotypes that I will be more personable or informal, will they judge me more harshly than my male peers, as the research suggests? Most of my students come from traditional religious backgrounds, steeped in complementarian teachings. How do their beliefs about gender roles affect the way they see me, a thirty-something year-old woman with a doctorate, as their college professor? How do their churches’ teachings on gender shape their beliefs about women in leadership? How do their experiences with female role models limit their own dreams and goals?

Challenging Sexism in Higher Education

I am proud to model leadership and equality to my students—both female and male. I hope my female students see opportunities to pursue higher education, or to have both a thriving career and a family—like me. I hope I inspire my male students to have greater respect for the women in their lives, whether that means supporting their future wives in their career pursuits or seeking out female mentors in their careers. I would also love to see the church support and celebrate more females in higher education, both students and faculty.

Though many egalitarians are aware that sexism against female faculty in higher education exists, they may not know how widespread it truly is and how significantly it can limit women. If you are not a college student or employee, you may wonder how this is relevant to you. I encourage you to consider how you treat all the female leaders in your life. Do you assume the female employees at your doctors’ office are the nurses, and the males are the doctors? Do you hold different expectations for your female colleagues than your male ones? Are you quick to judge or label women in ways you would not label a man? If we want to improve the plight of females in education systems around the world, we must also consider how we treat female leaders in higher education. I believe egalitarians should be the first to call out these gender biases when we see them in our schools, universities, and seminaries, and to pursue biblical equality by encouraging women in the academy.

This article originally appeared in the Fall issue of Mutuality magazine. Access the original article here.

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