Students had been in and out of Professor Elizabeth Bergman’s office all morning Feb. 14 to discuss everything from assignments to mental health issues, and she was feeling overwhelmed. She had not prepared for her class the next day and had no idea how she was going to get her 6-year-old to his piano lesson that afternoon.
Bergman, associate professor and chair in the Department of Gerontology, said that although she enjoys giving support to her students, it can be difficult to manage all of her responsibilities in her personal and professional life, including child care, research, teaching and requests for service to the college.
“I’m at a stage of my life where I have young kids, and it’s a time where I have a very heavy commitment to what happens in the context of my family life,” Bergman said. “And so to juggle both of those things, even with a very supportive partner, which not everyone has, is really hard to do. So how do we do that? How do we support women?”
Female faculty at Ithaca College have stories similar to Bergman’s: stories of students opening up about their personal lives, coming to them for special favors and pushing boundaries on assignments. These experiences can contribute to an unacknowledged workload that becomes an issue of gender equity, which affects student evaluations and the potential for promotion. Trends in female faculty service load and gender bias in student evaluations are also reflected in national research.
Surrounding research and female faculty experiences
Amani El-Alayli, an associate professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University, along with two other researchers, conducted two studies that found female faculty members are more likely to be the recipients of special favor requests and friendship behaviors. These demands lead to a higher amount of self-reported emotional labor.
Special favor requests included requests that extended beyond a faculty member’s normal workload. Examples include students’ dropping by their office without an appointment and expecting to speak right away. Friendship behaviors include students discussing their personal lives with faculty, according to the first study.
El-Alayli said she first became interested in conducting research on gender equity in terms of service load when she began to notice that she was receiving repeated requests from students that extended beyond her standard work duties.
“I just wondered if maybe my gender had something to do with it, that they didn’t do that with my male colleagues, and I think that all faculty have stories about getting a lot of special favor requests,” El-Alayli said. “But it really seems like it’s my female colleagues that have the ones that are the most egregious, and they seemed to get them more frequently.”
El-Alayli said that she experienced students pushing her boundaries. She said students would repeatedly ask her for the PowerPoints used in class, course materials that her syllabus explicitly stated were not available outside of her lectures. She said students reacted negatively to her declining their requests.
The study found that when female faculty members declined special favor requests, students were more likely to perceive them negatively than when male faculty declined their requests and were more inclined to believe the female faculty member disliked them than their male counterparts.
Paula Turkon, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Science, said she also receives many special favor requests, such as students’ asking for extensions on papers, and notices that students will frequently push boundaries with her. Turkon also said students often open up to her about issues in their personal lives.
“I do sometimes feel like giving people that little bit of leeway once,” she said. “And then they ask again and again, and they kind of sometimes think, ‘Well, if you’re soft one time, you’ll be soft again.’”
Turkon said she thinks these student behaviors could be a part of a cultural expectation that women should play a more nurturing role. She also said she finds herself making connections between her students and her children.
“There’s this cultural sort of expectation of being maternal — especially women — and we live that expectation, and so, I do feel that maternal thing towards my students,” Turkon said. “I guide them in similar ways that I guide my own kids.”
Kati Lustyik, associate professor in the Department of Media Arts, Sciences and Studies, said she frequently gets special favor requests and began to understand them as being a gendered phenomenon when she read the study.
Julie Dorsey, associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, said she experiences students’ opening up to her about issues in their personal lives.
“I have had students crying and students sharing really personal things that have happened to them and asking for my support,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey also said that in her department, which is composed almost entirely of female faculty, experiences like these are common. She said she believes the load she takes on outside of the classroom is important.
“I take on a lot outside the classroom because I see my role as someone who is being a support to students, and I’m going to make time for that,” Dorsey said.
Bergman said the issues students come to her with include problems they are having in and outside of the classroom.
“Just today, I’ve had three students in my office, and the conversations have ranged from ‘Am I doing this assignment right?’ to ‘I’m coping with these mental health issues, and can we talk about that?’” she said. “Those are sort of two extremes, but there’s a lot of stuff in the middle that happens.”
Amy Quan, instructor in the Department of Writing, said she often has students open up to her about their personal lives and ask for help outside of class, and she attributes these behaviors to the emotional nature and demands of her discipline rather than as a gendered phenomenon.
“The faculty who teach writing, male and female alike, are so invested in their students because writing, even academic writing, you’re so emotionally invested in the work you do, as students and as faculty, and so I think we all get a lot,” Quan said.
Gender and student evaluations
Quan said she has experienced students’ verbally commenting on her clothing and appearance to a larger extent than male faculty members, who she said have never spoken to her about receiving such comments. She said she also sees this pattern surface in student evaluations.
“Even in evaluations that I have read, when I’ve been on personnel committees, I’ve read evaluations of female faculty where the students actively comment on the faculty members’ clothes, and I’ve never seen that for male faculty,” Quan said.
Research also suggests that students tend to rate female faculty members lower than male faculty members during evaluations. In a study which utilized data from nearly 20,000 student evaluations, female faculty members were ranked an average of 37 slots below male faculty members when ranked out of 100. Students also gave lower rankings to universally used course materials when the course was taught by a woman.
El-Alayli said her research found that female faculty declining special favor requests can affect student evaluations, as they are perceived more negatively.
According to the college’s policy manual, a faculty member’s fourth-year evaluation for tenure eligibility is based on service to the college and the profession, scholarship and/or appropriate professional activity and “significant progress toward the attainment of teaching excellence.”
This progress is documented through peer and student evaluations and evidence gathered by “other approved procedures,” according to the manual.
As of 2013, women held 49.2 percent of total faculty positions but 37.6 percent of tenured faculty positions nationally, according to a study conducted by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America.
“If students are more likely to get upset by female professors because they’re not bending over backwards to do extra favors for them, then they might consequently rate them more poorly in course evaluations, and we do use course evaluations to review someone for promotion,” El-Alayli said.
Stewart Auyash, associate professor and chair in the Department of Health Promotion and Physical Education, said this is his seventh year reviewing syllabi, student comments and qualitative evaluations. He said he has observed gendered trends in the student evaluations he has read.
“There are three males and 11 females full-time in our department, and it seems that the students are harsher both in terms of their quantitative scores and demonstratively harsher with comments that actually appear more rude than in the comments they provide males,” Auyash said.
Auyash also said he noticed that female professors known to teach rigorous courses are perceived more negatively in student evaluations than men. He said he has also seen gendered language, such as the word “bitch,” used to describe female faculty in student evaluations.
Jennifer Jolly, associate professor and chair of the Department of Art History, is also a member of the Faculty Senate in the School of Humanities and Sciences, which she says has been examining how biases affect student evaluations. She said they passed a resolution that stipulated that all personnel in the school should be educated on bias before reading student statements.
“It’s basically anyone that’s not a white male professor, which is still how people tend to think of professors despite the fact that there’s so many of us who don’t fit that model,” Jolly said. “But anyone who deviates from that very narrow set of expectations has a longer way to go to gain respect and appreciation the classroom.”
Jolly said cultural expectations of women may have an impact on how female faculty is perceived.
“People have certain expectations of how women are supposed to behave, and when you deviate from those norms — and deviating from those norms can mean not being able to help at a particular moment in time, not being motherly,” Jolly said. “So if you’re not going to be the sort of warm, motherly version of a professor, that might not be read well.”
She also said she has also observed trends in how students in her department evaluate female faculty in terms of their appearance and personality.
Jolly also said it is important to note the intersectionality of service load. White women, she said, do not experience the same service load or demand for emotional labor as female faculty of color, for example. She also said female faculty of color are even more subjected to the confines of student expectation.
Providing a network of support at the college
Dorsey is also the leader of Advancing Mid-Career Women’s Leadership, a project that won just over $7,000 in funding from one of President Shirley M. Collado’s seed grants.
Dorsey said she has been a faculty member at the college for over 11 years and was promoted to associate professor four years ago. She said that after being promoted to associate professor, a long-time career goal, she became unsure of what her career path was supposed to look like. There is a large support network for early career faculty, but no established network for midcareer faculty, she said.
“It kind of got to be a difficult time in my career about thinking of all that,” Dorsey said. “And I found that I was trying to reach out on campus to other women, other people, and I found that there wasn’t really a network. There was no way to really find other people and connect.”
Lustyik, Jolly and Bergman are also a part of the project, and Lustyik said she experienced midcareer challenges similar to Dorsey’s.
“If you’re on a tenure line, you work really hard for six years — really hard — and at the same time, you might have young children,” Lustyik said. “So it can be a really complicated time. … And when you finally get tenure, you should feel happy, but you might face what’s called post-tenure depression or midcareer crisis. So you just kind of wonder, ‘What’s next?’”
Dorsey also said that last summer, she went to a two-week women’s leadership institute for mid- and advanced-career female faculty and staff, where she had to identify a leadership project to develop.
She said she met with Wade Pickren, director of the Center for Faculty Excellence, in May 2017, prior to attending the program. She said that they worked together to hold a focus group to discuss midcareer issues and that primarily women showed up.
Dorsey said midcareer issues for female faculty involve being asked to chair departments or large committees with no formal leadership training or mentoring network. She said it is more difficult for female faculty to say no to requests to do service to the college they do not have time for, which can lead to burnout.
“If women are showing up, we have needs,” Dorsey said. “We have concerns, and we have a need for forming this community, and it was so fascinating to hear my story kind of told over and over again from all of these women.”
Dorsey said she met with Pickren again at the beginning of Fall 2017 and made the goal to bring women together to start the project and put together a proposal for something more sustainable.
She began to meet monthly with a group of female faculty. The funding they received will be used to host a workshop and bring two female speakers to campus, she said.
“We were trying to build some local expertise to give support to women on campus and help us to then inform our ability to create a program, something sustainable,” she said.