By Dr. Kitsy M. Dixon, assistant professor of sociology, Centenary College NJ
Women scholars endure a lot of obstacles, but how many share their stories?
Academically, the term “chilly climate” brings to mind sociological perspectives of how disparities in the workplace can present obstacles for female scholars.
Many frameworks have expanded the chilly climate to address women’s systematic oppression in the workplace by analyzing links between women and their oppressor, mainly men.
Recent feminist research has contributed to current discussions of how the chilly climate most affects women. Feminists use narrative methodology to measure discrimination against female faculties in academia to confirm the marginality of women there.
A chilling finding is that this climate of isolation and oppression is no longer administered solely by men, but also is fueled by women in higher academic positions who can exacerbate the problem.
Attributes of a chilly climate
Scholar Dr. Bernice Sandler coined the term “chilly climate” in 1969, in hopes that women would come together to combat the frigid climate on campus. It includes:
• Male students disproportionately challenging female faculty in their classrooms
• Harsh student evaluations, which unfairly judge female faculty based on stereotyped gender expectations
• Female faculty being more likely to face sex discrimination
• Research by female faculty being devalued compared with that of male faculty.
Volumes of feminist, political, psychological and sociological research have helped to identify components of the academy’s chilly climate. The vast majority analyzes disparities between female and male faculty.
But it’s imperative to understand how other women in academic and administrative positions can contribute to the chilly climate by limiting women under their leadership from reaching top positions on campus.
The signs of a chilly climate present themselves in microaggressions. In his book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Columbia University NY psychologist Dr. Derald Wing Sue offered a definition:
Microaggressions are everyday verbal, non-verbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults—whether intentional or unintentional—that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to targets, based solely upon their membership in a marginalized group.
Some common signs women have reported include:
• Isolation – limiting their opinions and feedback in departmental meetings
• Bullying – creating environments that limit one’s potential contributions to the department through mocking, discouraging or insulting their work
• Separatism – not involving peer responses and reactions to important institutional goals
• Unavailability – not being available to address an individual’s specific needs and experiences
• Minimizing – using language such as ‘It’s all in your head’ or ‘You’re internalizing the situation’ or “It was just a joke” when serious issues arise in the classroom.
Sharing real life experiences
Narrative methodology and self-studies have proven to be most effective in analyzing the real life experiences of the chilly climate. A qualitative research method, it is most effective to collect direct observations, stories and experiences of how the chilly climate works in today’s society. Unfortunately women are often key contributors to it.
At a conference this year, I shared my direct experiences as a victim of the chilly climate in academia, as well as insights on how to warm this climate, woman-to-woman.
For example, one of my most memorable examples of the chilly climate was as a faculty member at a state college, where my female dean refused to allow me to do the work listed in my job description as a professor.
Each day, she came to my office to demand that I take out her garbage, make copies for her classes, take attendance for her classes, pick up her morning coffee and retrieve her lunch from the lobby fridge.
My battle to prove to the HR department— composed mostly of women—that I worked in an oppressive work environment took an entire month before an intervention.
As my experiences progressed over several years and several schools, I found much comfort in reading Muhs, Niemann, Gonzalez and Harris’ book, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (University of Colorado Press 2012). I felt a personal connection to the women’s shared experiences.
Creating a warmer climate
How do we create a warmer climate, woman-to-woman?
One way is to re-create female mentors and the 1960s consciousness-raising groups, where women could come together to discuss the challenges they face in the classroom and in each of their departments. Both techniques were common in the history of feminism; they were evident in solidifying support and interventions, making them relevant to re-evaluate for future female academicians.
My research and personal experiences have led me to create strategies and recommendations to develop mentorship opportunities between women faculty at colleges and universities in the area. Based on work by Estelle Kamler and Shaireen Rasheed of Long Island University, I propose:
- Establish a formal mentoring program with faculty assistance and input.
- Raise campus awareness of the value of mentoring.
- Provide recognition to those who participate.
- Offer support through institutional resources.
Modeling programs to encourage resiliency in the midst of conflict is nothing new in academia; such programs have been used to combat academic burnout.
Creating resources where women can openly express their struggles in academia will increase:
- Trust in working relationships
- Accountability and responsibility by mentor/mentee
- Establishment of the meaning and respect of professional roles in academia
- Recruitment of new mentors and mentees.
An effective ‘how-to’ model
The most effective way to bring life to such a proposal is to begin with very simple opportunities for workplace bonding, such as weekly after-hour events.
I held the first mentor/mentee meeting against the chilly climate in academia in a rented room in a local library. There women shared their experiences and strategies that helped them to overcome the chilly climate, brainstormed ways to strengthen the relationship between mentor and mentee, and set future meeting dates.
Our meetings have transitioned to regularly scheduled teleconferences, while our continued sharing of the resources and experiences has led to recruiting more women who want to both mentor and receive mentoring, having recognized the chilly climate.
Some of our more effective steps include:
• Establish expectations, so both mentors and mentees are aware of their commitment and responsibility, and are willing to develop relationships. This includes regular weekly conversations face-to-face and by phone.
• Provide resources such as workshops, lectures, articles, recent literature and research.
• Create a campus community where women work together to improve their academic experiences, conduct research together, and establish classroom environments that challenge students but don’t threaten female faculty.
Spreading the inspiration
Experiencing a chilly climate has led me to advocate for other young professional women who are experiencing the same climate, if not worse. I found ways to warm my climate by taking the first step: admitting that I was struggling in academia and needing to speak to others in the same boat, due simply to being women.
In response, I received overwhelming support: I was immediately introduced to the woman who later became, and still is, my mentor. I found a method to navigate the academic terrain, using our general narratives and suggestions to warm this climate, potentially helping women around the world.
The only way to confront the chilly climate is to address it through professional responses: evidence, proper support and women sharing their personal narratives of how they overcame the vicious competition that can exist in academia.
Acknowledging that one is a victim in the chilly climate is not a sign of personal weakness but rather of an injustice within the fabric of higher education. We must communicate what we’ve learned to the academic women soon to enter higher education.
We cannot allow them to battle the frigid environment unprepared. We must provide a blanket of warmth.