Pedagogy must get to grips with student disrespect of women

The nature of the job differs dramatically depending on how one physically presents. Teaching support needs to catch up, says Hannah Kim

February 13, 2024
Unhappy professor having problems in class to illustrate  Why aren’t we taught how to handle students’ disrespect?
Source: Getty images montage

I’m very fortunate to have a job in academia. The intellectual freedom and flexibility are tremendous. But I also know my job is different from many other professors’, even when we have the same job description.

I would not have known it, but that’s what my previous chair told me after he observed me teaching for two years. I’ve had students show inappropriate interest, challenge me in class, endlessly contest grades and send nasty emails – but he told me he hadn’t experienced any of that in his 10 years of teaching.

A case in point: while teaching during graduate school, I had a student ask me whether he could use the whiteboard. “Of course,” I answered, and I carried on with discussion while he drew a complicated-looking chart. When I finally asked him what he was drawing, he smugly replied, “Oh, nothing. I was bored and wanted to doodle.”

Nor am I alone in experiencing such behaviour. When I complained on social media about a rude email I had received from a student, I was floored by the number of public and private messages I received from other women. But by now, I’m not surprised: I’ve taught at a large private university, a small private college and two large public universities, and I’ve detected little difference in student behaviour. Yet the routine disrespect female faculty suffer from their students still disappoints me.

Of course, I’m not saying that male faculty don’t face entitled, immature or otherwise difficult students, and I know that Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) can also suffer from similar issues. A metastudy shows that students criticise the personality, appearance, mannerisms, competence and professionalism of women and faculty of colour disproportionately frequently. But my conversations with male BIPOC colleagues suggest that the trend tracks gender more than race.

In her 2004 book Faculty Diversity: Problems and Solutions, JoAnn Moody revealed the extent of the problem. Even when the quality and effectiveness of teaching are the same, students consistently give lower teaching evaluations to women and faculty of colour. Students demand more favours – such as extra credit opportunities or exam resits – from female instructors and are more likely to be upset when they are refused.

Some female faculty report that “the hardest part of teaching” is the way students challenge their authority, and the problem is exacerbated in departments where the majority of faculty are men. Perhaps that is why it has affected me, a philosopher, so acutely; in 2019, only 28 per cent of tenured/tenure-track philosophy faculty were female.

Students’ behaviour reflects who society considers authoritative and what we expect from women. According to the metastudy, students see male instructors as “more accurate in their teaching, more educated, less sexist, more enthusiastic, competent, organized, easier to understand, prompt in providing feedback, and they are less penalized for being tough graders”. When prompted to generate profile pictures of professors in various departments, image-generating AI portrays most as white and male. When strangers (such as my dentist or my taxi driver) learn that I’m a professor, they follow up with “do you teach freshmen?” – the implication being, of course, that upperclassmen, who might need more expert guidance, couldn’t possibly be taught by someone who looks like me.

Quite apart from the unfairness to female faculty, this state of affairs is also bad for student equity. If higher education is committed to reaching a diverse student body, female faculty’s unequal social and professional burdens must be addressed because the presence of women faculty, and especially women faculty of colour, helps to recruit and retain students of colour.

So what can we do? There have already been recommendations to rethink our reliance on SETs (student evaluations of teaching) for retention, tenure and promotion. Others call for more training and education for students, faculty and staff about gender bias.

These are good policies, but more must be done to help instructors address the day-to-day difficulties. First, continuing to talk about the phenomenon would help female faculty understand that the behaviour comes from a general resistance to women in positions of authority. Knowing that it’s not about individual instructors can help to take the sting out of negative interactions.

Second, and perhaps most important, pedagogy training must begin to consider the background of the instructor. Many teaching workshops highlight the need to set up courses in a manner that affords all students, no matter their background, a chance to succeed. But in the dozens I’ve attended, not a single workshop has mentioned that the same goes for instructors.

It is time to institutionalise the specific teaching support that female and BIPOC faculty have been long needing. This might mean training faculty in how to professionally address disrespect or to de-escalate tense situations with students. And it might mean making clear from the onset how faculty should seek support. Right now, acknowledgement of the problem and sharing of know-how occurs, if at all, haphazardly between individual instructors, leaving many to their own devices.

The basic fact is that the nature of a teaching job differs dramatically depending on how one physically presents. Until our pedagogical discussions and higher education institutions address this, female faculty will continue to endure a level of disrespect that male colleagues never dream is even possible.

Hannah H. Kim is an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Arizona.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

"How one physically presents" is important in teaching at any level, and this is possibly where a background that includes being an army sergeant and teaching UK Sixth Form (US equivalent is the Junior & Senior years at High School) before becoming an academic kicks in. Some might call it 'command presence', the ability to take control of a room and make it abundantly clear, without saying a word, who is in charge... and this is before tricks of classroom management and a voice that can bounce a student off the back wall without shouting are brought into play. It's not a matter of whether you wear pants or a skirt or what colour your skin is, it's the presence that you project. Trouble is, it is hard to teach someone how to project that sort of presence and all too many people, particularly in the early years of a more conventional academic career, do not even get any training in 'how to teach'. And as for the oaf who doodled on the whiteboard... try asking him where he would like to take the discussion if he was finding the current topic of little interest.
"It's not a matter of whether you wear pants or a skirt or what colour your skin is, it's the presence that you project". Unfortunately, that's just not true. The most experienced and well-trained teachers are subject to the conscious or unconscious prejudices of students, research has shown. Male tutors are seen as having greater authority even if they say the same thing as a female tutor, etc etc.