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Women in Academia Burdened with Student's Gendered Expectations: Women are Nurturing, Men are Assert

By Jessica Lin

Women are nurturing and men are assertive – at least, that is what society teaches us. Even with more women in leadership positions, these stereotypes are hard to escape. In my time as a teaching assistant, I have worked with many professors, and it seems that female professors, in my experience, tend to take on a nurturing role. Students don’t hesitate to ask for help or favors. I’ve seen students request higher grades from their female professors when their papers failed to meet requirements. Other times, students might go to their female professor to discuss personal issues or explain why they’re late, have missed class or can’t complete assignments. Strangely or not so strangely, it seems to me that male professors don’t experience these encounters as often. I’ve seen students persist in asking for a favor from their female professors but back down once a male professor says no. Is it just my own experience, or does gender really play a role in how students interact with professors?     


Fortunately, research offers an answer to my question. In 2017, a group of scholars [1] conducted a study comparing the experiences of female and male professors. They recruited professors from 300 universities in the United States. Eighty-eight professors (41 men, 47 women) from diverse disciplines volunteered to participate in an anonymous online survey. Participants were asked to estimate the frequency of certain student behaviors during a typical school semester, from “never” to over 19 times. Behaviors included measures of standard work demands (e.g., “students come to my regular office hours to discuss issues specifically related to the course”), special favor requests (e.g., “students drop by my office without an appointment and expect to discuss an issue right away”) and friendship behaviors (e.g., “students discuss their personal problems with me”.) Professors were also asked to answer, on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree), the extent to which their job involved managing students’ emotional experiences (“I spend a lot of time helping students feel better about themselves”) and their own emotional experiences (“I am unable to express my true feelings to my students.”).

The results of this study found that gender did affect students’ behaviors in all three categories. Female professors were more often asked to perform standard work, special favors and friendship behaviors in comparison to male professors. Interestingly, there was no difference in self-directed emotional labor (managing one’s own feelings), but female professors reported having to manage students’ feelings more often than male professors did. As the researchers explained, because female professors received more special favor requests, they were often tasked with managing students’ feelings – consequently, more emotional labor. This makes sense; if students request more from certain professors, especially requests that are beyond normal duties, those professors will spend more time dealing with students and their emotions. In sum, these findings suggest that being a female professor demands more time and work compared to being a male professor. However, one could argue that female professors only perceive greater demands. Thus, the researchers conducted a second study, this time asking for students’ responses.

For the second study, the researchers wanted to know if students would be more likely to ask for favors from an imaginary female professor than an imaginary male professor. They asked 121 undergraduate students (58 identified as women, 61 identified as men and 2 did not answer) from a public university to complete an online survey titled “School and Life Experiences.” They were presented with a fake scenario in which they were asked to imagine that they were taking a class with either a male or female professor and to imagine asking the male or female professor for special favors like extra credit, make-up tests, and grade boosts –  even though the professor, as the survey stated, had a policy against such requests. Participants responded to on a scale of 1 (Not at all likely) to 6 (Extremely likely) how likely it was that they would: 1) ask for the favor, 2) expect the professor to say yes, 3) be irritated/disappointed if the professor said no, 4) ask for the favor again, and 5) think that the professor disliked them if they were denied. Researchers also considered student entitlement (measured through level of agreement with statements like: “Because I pay tuition, I deserve passing grades”).

The researchers found that if the professor is female, students who scored high in academic entitlement were more likely to: 1) request special favors, 2) expect a ‘yes’ answer to their requests, 3) be irritated/disappointed if the professor says no, and 4) keep asking even after the first denial. These students were also more inclined to believe that a denial meant that the female professor disliked them. In stark contrast, student entitlement did not affect their treatment of male professors at all! These results thus substantiate the findings from the authors’ first study – suggesting that some students have gendered expectations that can lead to starkly different treatment towards male versus female professors.

In conclusion, gender stereotypes seem to be at play here. Society teaches us that women are nurturing, and men are assertive. These stereotypes provide a possible explanation for why students are more likely to go to a female professor for additional help or requests rather than a male professor. In support of this, it is worth noting that in a different study, researchers found that students expect female professors to be lenient, give less work and higher grades than male professors [2]. What’s worse is that women are evaluated more negatively when they don’t meet those expectations [3]. As a consequence, female faculty may have more difficulty advancing their careers. Male professors, on the other hand, don’t face the same consequences.

Even though the number of female professors is approaching the number of male professors in the U.S, there is still a way to go before we achieve equality. The extra burdens of special favors, time and work demands bring light to the different experiences between male and female professors. So why does this matter? If we see this inequity in academic spaces, it’s likely that other female leaders experience similar burdens. Realizing these inequities is one step towards evening the playing field for women in the workplace.

[1] El-Alayli, A., Hansen-Brown, A. A., & Ceynar, M. (2018). Dancing backwards in high heels: Female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically entitled students. Sex Roles, 79(3-4), 136-150.

[2] Bennett, S. K. (1982). Student perceptions of and expectations for male and female instructors: Evidence relating to the question of gender bias in teaching evaluation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 170–179.

[3] Sinclair, L., & Kunda, Z. (2000). Motivated stereotyping of women: She’s fine if she praised me but incompetent if she criticized me. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 1329–1342. 

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