Monday, September 9, 2013

Inappropriate environments is bad for female students (The no duh edition)

One of the links I posted yesterday was to an excellent post by Samir Chopra. There was a comment on that post, that she has responded to today here. I suggest reading them all in full, but I just wanted to add an additional point.

The original comment suggested:
Since that time, I’ve considered ANY interaction with a female student as a potential minefield to be avoided if possible. I certainly kept my office door open during consultation and only met with female students during office hours. I was a little more casual with male students, sometimes meeting them at a campus coffee shop if, for example, they had class during my office hours. Ironically, then, I suspect that ‘male anxiety’ does not foster more equality, but is more likely to result in preferential treatment of male students by male professors. I still consider my policy a prudent one, but it’s unfortunate that female students had less access to my time than did male students. Sadly, however, the practical effect of male anxiety might be that female students don’t get the best out of male professors which may contribute to an already existing problem: the dearth of women in the discipline.

Okay, let's give all of that the benefit of the doubt (I plan to come back to it shortly). Let's add another point. Say there is a male professor who is known to engage in inappropriate 'banter' in the classroom (maybe often repeating the same middle school jokes about manicures). Say there is a male professor who is known to hit on students at parties, or has been known to have sex with female students. Would a female student feel more or less comfortable having these out of classroom experiences with such a professor? I don't want to generalize this, but I have known female students were downright afraid of going to open-door office hours with a professor because he had a reputation for sleeping with other students in the department. I have known female students who had a male professor crack an inappropriate 'joke' while making a point about her paper. That student froze, never went to see the professor for help again, and was worried she seemed unintelligent to the professor after freezing. I am sure that I can give other examples. Even if things are as bad as the original commentator suggests, having male students enjoy extra coffee shop time with the professor just is not as bad as female students being unable to access the professor during office hours. This is a really simple and obvious point, but inappropriate environments are far worse for the outcomes of female students than the world where you have a slightly more informal relationship with your male students. This is where the arguments made by Louise Anthony and Samir Chopra are completely on point, such objections are just ways of re-centering male anxiety.

Now, none of this to say things have to be as bad as the original commentator suggested.  I think being conscious of the ways we treat male and female students differently is a really good start. Then, the next step, is try to figure out how to confront those realizations in ways that promote and produce a good environment for all of your students.