background

Changeable Climate for Bates Women

A Changeable Climate for Bates WomenCoeducation has defined the Bates milieu since the College’s founding in 1855. Yet even with a firm history of supposed equal opportunity for men and women, Bates and similar colleges have often struggled to create a campus environment that is as comfortable and welcoming for women as it is for men.

As late as 1976, for example, the Bates faculty was 83 percent male and 17 percent female. Today, the faculty is 63 percent male and 37 percent female, and 60 percent of the tenure-track positions are now filled by women. The numbers also show improvement in areas such as women’s athletics, where women students have far more opportunities today than two decades ago.

As Bates enters the last years of the century, some gender issues remain. The College today, for example, has policies on sexual harassment in the workplace, and faculty and administrative staff are educated about sexual harassment issues. But even these policies didn’t keep Bates out of the news recently, when a former assistant English professor at Bates was accused of sexually harassing a student of his at the University of Pennsylvania. Bates was named in the suit, because it was alleged that the professor sexually harassed students during his time at Bates, and that Bates should have informed Penn of this behavior. The suit was recently settled out of court.

While there are still a variety of gender issues on college campuses today (two other examples are the effects of student alcohol abuse on women and salary equity between men and women faculty and staff), the Commission on the Status of Women at Bates, meeting throughout the 1994-1995 academic year, did not convene in response to specific problems at the College; on the contrary, President Harward asked the fourteen-member panel to address a simple question: What’s it like for the female faculty, staff, and students at Bates?

The commission issued its report (executive summary also available) in October. Recently, Director of Athletics Suzanne Coffey, who chaired the commission, spoke with Phyllis Graber Jensen, staff writer for the Office of College Relations.

Jensen: What was the motivation for this report?

Coffey: The impetus didn’t come from an assumption that the campus climate was a chilly one for women, nor did it grow out of comparisons with other institutions or reports that other institutions were producing. Rather, the commission was formed to better assess the climate at Bates, what it’s really like for women on this campus.

We did examine reports from the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, and Middlebury College. The impact of anecdotal information intrigued us. The strength of those reports was based on the actual words, the voices of women and men speaking out about women’s experiences as students, faculty, and staff.

Jensen: There were a few areas where anecdotal information caused the commission concern. One was supposed inequities in staff salary between men and women.

Coffey: We conducted six focus groups that involved faculty, staff, and students. One issue, among others, that came out of those focus groups was staff and faculty concerns over pay equity.

We analyzed faculty salaries at Bates — information that is readily available. Based on this analysis, the commission did not suggest that further study occur with regard to pay equity at the faculty level, but it did suggest that perceptions of disparities are real. The College needs to do more work to dispel those perceptions where appropriate and to handle the ones that may have some inkling of truth to them.

Staff salary information isn’t available. The College has had a personnel office for only about three or four years now and has not, historically, collected salary information about non-faculty personnel. No information is available about starting salaries, pay grades, or job descriptions — anything that would give you enough data to produce a report that might say, “People in maintenance are paid at such and such a range, people in dining services are paid in this range, and secretarial staff at this level.” That information doesn’t exist at the College. One of the loudest recommendations we made to President Harward had to do with conducting a pay-equity study on this campus. Before this report was even in the hands of senior administrators of the College and before the executive report was in the hands of all faculty and staff of the College, the President had initiated a pay-equity committee. So that has begun.

Jensen: Another issue was how students perceive the teaching style of some female professors. Some were perceived, to quote a focus-group anecdote, as “weaker, or less articulate, even slower” than their male colleagues. Why is this?

Coffey: A student in one of the focus groups said, “It’s bad, but I do have different expectations of male and female faculty. Maybe it’s from high school, or maybe it’s from having textbooks written by men, but the women professors I’ve had have seemed kind of slow, not very strong. It frustrates me. I want to be glad to have women professors, but I much prefer to be taught by men…. [T]he women professors seem slow and they seem not to be as eloquent as the men….”

The commission tried to set this comment, and others like it, in a proper context. What these women were responding to, in our opinion, was different pedagogical styles, though the students hadn’t named it that. The commission used their quotes to emphasize the fact that we probably don’t do enough on this campus to discuss different ways people learn and are taught. We ignore the fact that students are having different experiences in the classroom, that they’re gravitating toward certain professors even though they struggle to articulate why.

Those students were attempting to illustrate for us their own struggle over different learning styles and different teaching styles. At least that was our assumption. And I think that’s backed up by some other things said. For example, another student told us that she tends to put more pressure on women faculty members, that she wants them to do well so more women faculty will come to Bates.

She also said that she enters class on the first day and thinks, “Please be a good strong professor.” The student worries that if the professor isn’t good, it will be twice as hard for more women to come to Bates. It’s a double-edged sword for some of these students: They expect so much from women professors because they so desperately want more women professors on campus.

Jensen: Are you hoping to create an awareness and promote discussion about different styles of pedagogy through this report?

Coffey: That’s exactly it. In terms of pedagogy, we’re in a time of transition in higher education. It may be outside my realm of expertise, but let me speculate.

Students, depending on their high-school experience, may never have been in a classroom where they’re not simply lectured to. They may have never engaged in a real, interactive learning format, where, as [Bates mathematics professor] Bonnie Shulman has said, “I don’t do this to you, I do this with you,” where we’re working on this material together and I expect you to take responsibility for the learning and some of the teaching in the group. If students come to college without any experience in a classroom like that, my suspicion is that they might label those professors differently, because their expectation is so different from their experience. At Bates, newer professors — women and men — are teaching in this style. They’re teaching in a collaborative way. They’re the ones students seem to gravitate toward as advisors.

This places demands on some professors’ time, perhaps disproportionate demands for a service — advising — that the College perhaps doesn’t value as much as publishing, for example. As one faculty member we interviewed said:

Why is it that they’re always knocking at my door? My male colleagues say they don’t have that. I see advising as part of what we do, so I’m not complaining– but I do see inequities. What kind of advising? Academic advising, personal advising, “my life is falling apart” advising, “I might have been exposed to AIDS” advising. I’m on a [faculty graduate studies committee] that has [more men than women members]. The other woman and I have talked to at least twenty students per month, but the men only one or two. They’re nice guys and reasonably accessible people — but the students knock on our doors.

Jensen: Going back to the focus groups and the anecdotes, an issue of great concern was the use of alcohol on campus and the kind of climate it creates. It became a timely issue this fall after President Harward wrote an open letter to the campus community, expressing concern about alcohol-related incidents, such as dorm damage.

Coffey: When social activities are so linked to excessive alcohol — as they are at Bates and many other schools — it does dramatically affect the overall climate for women. It’s not just men’s drinking affecting women. It’s not just women’s drinking affecting women. It’s overall, excessive drinking that’s affecting women’s lives in many ways. I hope our report motivates this institution to take some steps.

Do I think alcohol abuse is worse here than at other schools? No, I don’t. Do I think it’s worse than it was ten years ago? Not necessarily. But I do think there’s more violence, and I think the majority of violence is linked to excessive alcohol consumption. So I don’t think students are necessarily drinking more, but once they’ve consumed excessive amounts of alcohol, I think there’s more violence toward women than there might have been ten years ago. So, yes, it is different in those ways.

It’s interesting that the junior and senior women were very concerned about it. The “exit” interview conducted last year told us that seniors were in general satisfied with the social climate on campus, but that they did label alcohol as a problem.

Jensen: There were some criticisms the commission heard that during first-year orientation, female students felt they were being preached to, bombarded with warnings about men.

Coffey: First- and second-year female students did say to us that first-year orientation troubled them. They felt orientation was overwhelmingly geared toward telling women how to protect themselves from the bad behaviors of men, rather than being geared toward appropriate social interaction. It’s a fine line, and you could argue that this is what first-year orientation does: it talks about social interaction in a way that’s geared toward making sure women are prepared to handle what the Dean of Students Office assumes does happen in that first year.

I think we can look at first-year orientation. I think the Dean of Students Office certainly can examine and will examine more closely the perception of women during that orientation period, with regard to how their male peers hear the information. That was the greatest concern of the women: They were in these groups with men they’ve just met, listening to how bad these men might be. The women were concerned that their male peers weren’t being treated fairly.

Jensen: There’s a 49-51 percent split at Bates between males and females. Do female athletes have intercollegiate sports opportunities comparable to male athletes? In other words, is Bates in compliance with Title IX?

Coffey: Absolutely. I say that with great confidence.

Title IX compliance is defined by an institution’s ability to meet any part of a three-part test. One, by providing athletic participation opportunities in numbers that are substantially proportionate to the enrollment by gender, which is what you just referred to. Two, by establishing a history and continuing practice of program expansion for members of the under-represented sex. Three, fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the under-represented sex, meaning meeting requests for programming.

Bates does not meet the proportionality test. We have more men participating in varsity athletics than women.

Including club sports, we do meet parts two and three of the test, and remember you only need to meet one of the three. We meet two-thirds of the test effectively: establishing a history and practice of program expansion, and fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the under-represented sex, that is, women.

Including club sports, we run forty sports programs right now. We have thirteen varsity intercollegiate programs for men and women. The vast numbers of our students are participating in either club or varsity sport teams. That’s remarkable on any campus, to begin with. But it isn’t 50-50 in terms of gender participation. We’d like it to be. But it isn’t. We’ve taken steps in the last two or three years to encourage increased roster sizes in women’s athletics while we’ve held down roster expansion on the men’s side. This hasn’t been done arbitrarily, certainly. We’ve added JV programming in women’s athletics that we’ve not added in men’s athletics in the past couple of years, encouraging coaches to offer more opportunities.

Jensen: What discovery during the commission’s work surprised you the most? Why?

Coffey: The process. The way we brought specific topics to maturity, from noting that an issue was an important topic for women on our campus, through to a point where we could actually write and agree upon several paragraphs or pages or chapters about the topic. In a sense, all the time in between could be characterized by surprise. The extensive research and the subsequent discussions were both exhausting and enlightening. We debated a lot: about what place each piece of information would have within the report, about how to put this all together, how to present the information in a way that would give equal time and space to all of the very important issues that came across the table. Those discussions, around a large conference table with fourteen of us, were intense.

The debates were lively because each one of us felt we were representing people, not just ourselves and our backgrounds, but other people who were counting on us to put in this report their most important issues. So when it came down to deciding whether a certain issue was in chapter one or chapter eight, people came to the table saying, “This is important, we need this to have the front page.” That surprised — and impressed — me: that people could do their jobs on campus — which did not include this work –and still come to the table with such a reserve of emotion, such a reserve of dedication to task.

Jensen: Where does the College go from here? What steps has the College taken?

Coffey: Investigating the climate for women at Bates is an ongoing, many-step process. The first part is naming the issues, recommending that they get attention. The second part is creating steps for addressing the issues. We suggest some steps in this report, but they’re certainly not comprehensive. The work of the next commission is to define those steps.

A future commission might develop a survey of attitudes on campus across gender lines; it might sponsor focus groups and open forums on women’s issues and coordinate formal and informal gatherings for women; it might continue to explore resources and programming ideas from other institutions and act as an internal resource for presentation of these ideas at Bates.

We also felt that the College doesn’t do a good job tapping the resources of alumnae, the very strong women who’ve come through Bates and are out there in the community, here and elsewhere. We could do a better job providing more resources for our women students by tapping our own alumnae.

Jensen: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that we haven’t already?

Coffey: Women staff in some places on campus perceive themselves to be treated unfairly. That’s troubling, but what seemed particularly disappointing to me was that many of their issues festered for a long time with no outlet, no voice. It seemed both disappointing and unnecessary, because Bates is a place where, when inequity is recognized and brought to someone’s attention, it is addressed. For example, when the pay-equity work is done and a report has gathered data and looked at all the newly established job descriptions, pay grades, banding, and so forth, if there are obvious inequities, there will be changes made to accommodate those unfair differences. Those differences are not deliberate, which is the very reason they will be adjusted.

My private hope is that the establishment of the next commission will lend some of these women more voice than they’ve had in the past. I hope the next commission will provide a public forum (we did much of our work privately) and say, “You can come and talk and help us do this work.” Women can come to these open meetings and help change the culture and climate for women.

That’s what I hope grows from this, not just that there will be another report with more recommendations, but that lots of people will feel there’s more opportunity to say, “I think this. Can someone tell me if it’s true? And if it’s true, what do I need to do to make it different from the way it is?” There seem to be certain departments on campus where women can do this, and some departments where they can’t.

Privately, I hope that changes.


Comments are closed.