Standing Up and Speaking Out

Facing sexual discrimination at CC

by Liz Ludwig, guest writer; illustration by Becca Levi, guest artist, and Chris Kolodey, staff artist

In an organic chemistry class at Colorado College, four students prepared to perform a spectroscopy experiment. The professor assigned each of the three male students a task, and then turned to the female student, a senior with substantial lab experience, and said, “And how would you like to be the secretary?”

“The girl was stunned,” said a senior male biology student who wished to remain anonymous. “All of us were. We all thought, ‘Wow! This is blatant sexism.’ This was a slap in the face.” 

While it may come as a shock to many that such discrimination still occurs at a progressive institution like Colorado College, this story is less unusual than one might imagine. The college recently passed a sexual harrassment policy in order to protect all members of the community against more egregious forms of sexism. Before October, no specific policy existed to protect community members from harassment, and reported instances were reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The new policy distinguishes unacceptable behavior as that which includes “the element of coercion, threat, intimidation, degradation, or unwanted attention,” and warns community members that harassment can occur within consensual relationships. 

Most importantly, the sexual harassment policy outlines how faculty, staff and students can report instances of sexual harassment and ensures confidentiality in such reports. It is yet to be seen how effective this new policy will be in preventing more subtle instances of sexual discrimination.

Unfortunately, students are still hesitant to report sexist attitudes, and social discrimination subtly defines many of our everyday relationships. David Mason, a professor in the Colorado College English Department, claims that some very intelligent women in academia are sometimes hesitant to reveal their talents for fear of social alienation. “This is an international phenomenon that is puzzling as hell,” he says. 

Physics professor Barbara Whitten, who has extensively studied the role of women in undergraduate physics departments, also reports that “men have a well-documented tendency to take over in the lab, to use the equipment while women observe and take notes.” 

Male dominance in classrooms is a common occurrence that some students recognize. Jordan Brooks, a Dance and Mathematical Economics major, explains, “Guys in discussion-based classes can become very aggressive in their arguing—they attack arguments in a way that inspires other guys in the class to dominate. This seems to quiet female students and set a standard for different gender roles in the class.”

The sources of sexist sentiments are varied and come from both peers and professors. Daniela Lopez-Morales, a senior biochemistry major, has experienced the damaging effects of sexism firsthand. After being unfairly criticized in a harsh and condescending tone for disrupting the time schedule of a chemistry experiment by her professor (the same who assigned the aforementioned secretary role), she stopped coming to class. 

“I think I missed five days of class,” she explains, “just because I did not want to see him…I cannot see him. I see him and I remember and I get angry. This kind of treatment is very clearly only toward women.”

Lopez-Morales confirms that she has heard the same professor offhandedly refer to female students as “lab assistants,” but explains that as a female in the natural sciences, she’s almost accustomed to facing a gender bias. 

“I expect to deal with sexism in the future as a grad student in biology,” she explains, but is assured that, “In the future, I will have more authority than I do now as an undergraduate working under PhD-holding professors. I will be an equal, and I will be able to call them out.” 

Such optimism is encouraging, but Lopez-Morales’s words also hint at the potentially destructive hierarchy imposed by professional degrees and qualifications. Calling a professor out is not something that Lopez-Morales feels she has the power do to as an undergraduate at CC. “Students feel powerless,” she says. “There is always a barrier between faculty and students because they are the authority.” 

Although some students have identified these actions as sexist and, according to the students, some professors are known for repeated sexist behavior, some still feel that such professors contribute positively to our community. 

“Sexism is definitely wrong,” explains the anonymous senior biology student, “and it makes it harder for women to be in the sciences. But I don’t think it is malicious or dangerous enough to file a formal complaint . . . It is not destructive enough. He is a good teacher and an older guy who grew up in a different time.” The student does say, however, that he thinks the administration should not turn a blind eye to sexual discrimination. 

Sexism on our campus affects not only students, who experience both academic and social difficulties, but also faculty and staff, who face challenges in career development. Mason explains that although there is a strong effort on the part of the college to treat everyone equally, there are concerns among members of the faculty that equality is not achieved on issues like tenure. 

“Women faculty members understandably feel a lot of pressure and anger about having to seek tenure while taking on major domestic responsibilities and I think men very often feel complacent about it,” he says. 

When asked if the administration meets the need for parental and maternity leave for faculty and staff, Whitten gives a strong “No!” and proceeds to explain that in her experience, the administration often pressures faculty (usually untenured women who are not in a position to argue) to take less than the mandated leave, or to substitute blocks off or sabbatical leave for maternity leave. 

Neena Grover, Chair of the CC Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, claims that in general, women must work harder to prove themselves. “Inherently as a society,” she explains, “we have a bias towards what is perceived as qualified men versus qualified women that is part of the cultural framework. Unless we are constantly thinking about our biases, we will not catch ourselves. If we have clear guidelines in how we evaluate work, it is less likely to be a problem.” 

The administration does aim to maintain a level of equitable treatment among the school’s employees. Dean of the College and Faculty Susan Ashley feels that for the most part, this endeavor is met with success. “Ensuring equity for women faculty is not a difficulty because women are very good and, on their own merits, succeed here,” she says. 

Ashley also explains that socialization plays a large part in the issue. Specifically, she argues that women tend to put themselves in positions where they will be treated differently than their male counterparts: “I think women are socialized in a way that makes it difficult for them to defend themselves. They have certain tendencies, such as a reluctance to negotiate salary or to seek rewards for good teaching and research, that men don’t have, that weaken their position when they are trying to interact and trying to operate within certain power structures.”

I

n spite of their admitted shock and discomfort when faced with sexist professors, none of the students with whom I spoke ever reported sexist incidents to the head of the department or another faculty member. “I don’t know why students don’t say anything,” Lopez-Morales admits. “I know it is completely wrong . . . but in a sense, you know that it is going to happen in a lot of places and the best thing to do is to not give up your studies.” 

Yet simply continuing with your studies, while difficult when faced with discrimination, is not enough. If the administration remains unaware that these instances occur, there is little hope for any substantial change. Mason feels that students should be able to speak out within the formality of the student-professor relationship. “The truth is,” he says, “students have to not be afraid to talk to authorities. Whether that means getting together with fellow students to speak with an administrator or teacher to ask for help, it’s got to be done!”

 Mason believes that professors should welcome this kind of criticism as constructive: “I am perfectly happy to have students call me out when I say something they are bothered by or uncomfortable with, and in fact, it bothers me when students do not call me out.” 

According to several faculty and staff members of the CC community, students were not always so timid. Lopez-Morales suggests one reason: “The euphoria of the [women’s] rights movement [of the seventies] is gone. The people are quiet now. I don’t know what is going on with our generation!” 

Peggy Berg, head of the Drama and Dance Department, agrees: “The climate has definitely changed and it feels like we are backsliding.” 

Heather Horton, CC’s sexual assault response coordinator, agrees that there seems to be a backlash when traditional gender norms are challenged. “The fact that women don’t feel comfortable or safe calling themselves feminists,” she says, “the fact that people can say ‘that makes me feel uncomfortable,’ but can’t call it sexism—I think that is part of where we are right now. In the seventies through the nineties, people felt more comfortable about at least calling sexism what it is.”

Horton explains that indentifying sexism is the first step in making a real, permanent change. “The challenge is two-fold,” she explains. “First, establish that the majority is uncomfortable with sexism, and second, apply the word to it.” Students need to begin by speaking to the department chair if an incident involves a professor in their department. 

Other resources include Horton herself and the campus Chaplain, Kate Holbrook, who are both bound to confidentiality and can instruct community members on how to file an official complaint. Susan Ashley urges the members of the campus community to hold each other accountable in order to create a better environment: “Students need to animate other students” she says. “It spreads if people call each other to account.” 

Grover explains that since sexism is a social issue, the whole society must be a part of the solution. “Pretending that men are more biased against women is simplistic, because women are also biased against women. Those complex conversations are what I think we have to have often.” Nguyen Nguyen, a cellular and molecular biology student, agrees that strong dialogue is important for the future of the campus. “Students need to create some dialogue and get the staff, faculty, and administration involved to talk about their experiences. It is hard communicating inter-generationally because of barriers and stereotyping. It has to be a student-faculty-staff collaborative.” Making such issues known to the faculty and administration sets a precedent, and makes it easier for other students who have specific complaints to come forward. 

While Horton acknowledges how intimidating it can be to confront sexist behavior, she stresses the importance of formally addressing the issue with the department rather than informally warning community members: “It carries some real weight to the person and communicates to the community at large that there are consequences when you behave inappropriately, which is why I would encourage people to file formal complaints. We want people to be accountable for their behavior.” 

Students, both male and female, must believe in their own judgment regardless of a diminished position within the educational power structure. The new sexual harrassment policy does not contain explicit solutions for situations of sexual discrimination when they don’t constitute obvious “harrassment.” While this policy represents a positive step toward preventing sexual discrimination, it may allow subtler instances of sexism to slip through the cracks. Unless students speak up, we’ll never know. 

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4 Comments

Filed under Generation, Report

4 responses to “Standing Up and Speaking Out

  1. I really like this blog. Please continue the great work. Regards!!!

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  4. Pingback: Daylight Atheism > Exploring the Gender Disparity on Daylight Atheism

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