86

The situation occurred in the first lecture of an undergraduate course in a STEM field at an university.

The professor said that there are less than 20% female students in the class, while the usual ratio is 40% (across fields and different academic degrees). The topic was brought up to "discuss microaggressions", such as letting female students do the easier tasks in group work. It should be noted that there is no selection of students for the field of study at the university (apart from a high school diploma) and AFAIK there also is none for the course.

Then the male students were told to "not think they are smarter than their female neighbor", that "your female neighbour not asking questions does not mean that she is not following, maybe she is a lot smarter than you think" and that the professor is much better at the field than all of the male students (the last part was told with a smirk, not sure if it was a joke or a sign of satisfaction) and it was finished with a "GO GIRLS".

These main reasons why I find this offensive/disrespectful:

  1. The students were viewed and addressed primarily through the lense of group membership, and not as individuals.

  2. Replacing "male" with any other group makes the statements offensive or absurd.

  3. While the instructions to not look down on/patronize female students are correct, they are (in my view) indirect accusations of sexism.

  4. The contents of the talk, which took 5-10 minutes, were not related to the lecture and thus were a waste of time for students. The issue might be important, but I was there to learn different contents.

Is my view justified? Is such behavior acceptable for a professor? Should I let the professor know the way I feel?

  • 5
    There is a mirror image of this question on academia.se. Alas, not much in the way of consensus :) – darij grinberg Apr 4 at 4:08
  • Answers in comments and extended discussions have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Apr 4 at 8:21
  • 1
    He mentioned one time, that female students may be seen as less smart because of different ways to deal with their knowledge. Of course he has some prejudices about which people show which behavior, but for like 90% he's probably right. And it does not sound like he wants you to learn this by heart for any future interaction, but just to have it in mind, so you consider this before judging someone. There is nothing wrong in being told to stop for a moment and think about different types of behavior. Read about personality types (MBTI) and learning types for more general information. – allo Apr 5 at 10:21
  • All over the internet, including Workplace.SE, you see questions about men being asked to do the heavy lifting, or kill spiders or whatever, or male nurses moving the heaviest patients. It strikes me no men would really be upset at their manager reminding their colleagues not to ask them to do the heaviest or grossest tasks because they're men, or be offended that they aren't being allowed to speak up for themselves. This is the inverse, yet so many people are acting like the class was just told "you are taking a woman's spot," something that has happened to women in living memory. – Azor Ahai Apr 6 at 16:08
  • 1
    I would answer, but there are already 17 and the top answer is excellent. – Azor Ahai Apr 6 at 16:08

17 Answers 17

144

(edited this answer to consider some points raised in the comments and try to address OP more constructively)

Yes, it is acceptable for a professor to work to counter the effects of gender discrimination.

Yes, it is acceptable for a professor to warn a male-predominant class to not discriminate against women by giving them the "easy" tasks.

The professor is not accusing you as an individual of sexism, they are pointing out researched ways in which women are discriminated against, especially in STEM areas where women are under-represented.

Although your initial reaction was that this was a waste of time, I think you can use this experience and the feedback you get here as an opportunity to reflect - it seems from your comments that you are open to this.

I'd suggest you try the implicit bias test from Harvard, I was surprised by how much implicit bias it showed that I have. Some research has shown that people who take this sort of test are more introspective about their own biases afterwards. Even if you show little bias on that test, it may be instructive to see how much bias is seen in the population as a whole because people tend to underestimate bias experienced by other groups.

I don't think having implicit bias is something that reflects poorly on any individual, it's more of a product of society. What reflects on individuals is whether they try to become aware of the biases experienced by others and how their own implicit biases might influence their behavior.

I think your professor was trying to point out some of these biases to make students in the class more aware of them. It seems unlikely to me that any men in the course would literally think to themselves "Let's give the women the easy/secretarial tasks in group work!" (and if they do, they are probably never going to be convinced otherwise) - instead, they might accidentally do it by simply not thinking. By simply thinking about it more, and even by asking this question here, it seems to me like your professor was successful, even if you ultimately decide that you disagree with the approach.


Carter, A. J., Croft, A., Lukas, D., & Sandstrom, G. M. (2018). Women’s visibility in academic seminars: Women ask fewer questions than men. PloS one, 13(9), e0202743.

Cheryan, S., Ziegler, S. A., Montoya, A. K., & Jiang, L. (2017). Why are some STEM fields more gender balanced than others?. Psychological Bulletin, 143(1), 1.

Kaatz, A., Gutierrez, B., & Carnes, M. (2014). Threats to objectivity in peer review: the case of gender. Trends in pharmacological sciences, 35(8), 371-373.

Lerback, J., & Hanson, B. (2017). Journals invite too few women to referee. Nature News, 541(7638), 455.

Monteith, M. J., Ashburn-Nardo, L., Voils, C. I., & Czopp, A. M. (2002). Putting the brakes on prejudice: On the development and operation of cues for control. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(5), 1029.

Swim, J. K., & Sanna, L. J. (1996). He's skilled, she's lucky: A meta-analysis of observers' attributions for women's and men's successes and failures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(5), 507-519.

  • 4
    Discussions about the implicit-bias test have moved to chat. Please use comments only to suggest improvements to the answer or point out major flaws. However, do not do this, if your post could be a different answer to the question. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Apr 4 at 8:51
44

No, it’s not acceptable. Discrimination against men is just as unacceptable as discrimination against women, and, moreover, the message that she was sending to the women in the class was essentially “Prepare to get discriminated against,” which isn’t a good message to send.

What should you do about it? Talking to her is unlikely to have an effect, because it is very difficult to convince people to alter their political ideologies, and she might have tenure so she might not have anything to fear from you making a complaint to the university.

Instead, just give her a poor rating in your feedback survey for the course, and leave a comment in the general feedback comment section explaining why. Universities use these surveys as a way of evaluating the performance of their instructors, so a poor review may well hit her where it hurts: in the wallet.

  • 12
    I downvoted because I think that a strong claim such as "this is discrimination, therefore it's not acceptable" should be backed up by an argument. I do not see the discrimination here. Discrimination to me means that the professor says something like "Male students are actually less intelligent than female ones, in my experience". That would be an unscientific claim based on alleged personal experience that says one group is better than another - and THAT is discrimination. – PoorYorick Apr 5 at 7:23
  • 7
    Saying disparaging things about a group in public is also discrimination, especially when you are in a position of relative power and have the ability to create a hostile workplace culture. – nick012000 Apr 5 at 8:36
  • 7
    I do not see the OP as having quoted any disparaging remarks from the professor. Can you point them out? – Azor Ahai Apr 5 at 20:00
  • 6
    Many universities are shifting away from student feedback as a way of evaluating performance... because it's been shown to be heavily biased against female instructors. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 5 at 21:31
  • 3
    @nick No, no one said that, and even if she had, asking people not to discriminate isn't disparaging. – Azor Ahai Apr 6 at 15:58
43

Is my view justified?

It sounds like you feel disrespected by the professor’s implicit assumption that some members of your gender engage in sexist behaviors and need to be told not to engage in them any more. And yet, you yourself acknowledge that this assumption is likely correct. Her statement was of a general nature; she didn’t personally accuse you of anything, so personally I don’t see why you would feel offended.

Edit (part 1): @ASimpleAlgorithm commented that the professor’s behavior can be seen as a form of gender-based profiling. That is a fair point, and after thinking about it some more, I can see how some people might take issue with that. Given the very minor extent of the profiling, and the fact that OP accepts the premise that the profiling (such that it is) is based on empirically real phenomena of male sexism, I still don’t think there is much to be offended about, but at least I can see where OP is coming from, and think it may be reasonable for OP to find the professor’s behavior annoying.

You are perhaps justified in thinking the discussion was not the best use of the class time, but that would be your opinion, which may differ from other people’s opinion. Not all students have to agree all the time that what a professor is talking about at any given moment is the best thing for them to talk about. Some disagreement on such things is perfectly reasonable and probably unavoidable. But just the fact you think something was a waste of time does not imply that the professor is doing something wrong by talking about it.

Is such behavior acceptable for a professor?

Yes. The professor is doing their job of trying to achieve the best educational outcome for their class. Whether or not I agree that this topic was worth bringing up in class in the way they brought it up, there is nothing about it that qualifies as “unacceptable” behavior, such as harassment or discrimination, as far as I can tell.

Edit (part 2): see the comment I added above in part 1. The professor’s behavior still seems acceptable to me, but I acknowledge that it can be seen as objectionable by reasonable people. And if the professor engaged in similar behavior on multiple occasions even after receiving feedback about the profiling aspect of her behavior, I would probably agree that that would become unacceptable.

Should I let the professor know the way I feel?

You are free to do so, but it’s not clear to me what you are hoping to achieve by doing that. I can’t advise you on whether you should or shouldn’t do it.

  • 13
    In fact, the students’ opinions about what is a good use of class time are largely irrelevant compared to the expertise of the professor regarding how to smoothly run a class. This speech is probably arising because of past experiences teaching this class and past behavior of the students. – Dawn Apr 3 at 18:27
  • 8
    +1, but I think that it might be constructive for the OP to let the professor know in a non-accusatory way his experience of emotional discomfiture although he intellectually agrees with the motivation. It's possible that with some discussion there could be a positive resolution instead of coming away with the experience that his feelings don't matter. – Elizabeth Henning Apr 3 at 18:31
  • 21
    "It sounds like you feel disrespected by the professor’s implicit assumption that some members of your gender...". Already you have a problem. He specifically complained at being categorized into a "flawed" gender that he should take responsibility for at all, rather than being treated as an individual who is just as likely or unlikely to misbehave as any other individual. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 3 at 19:08
  • 24
    @llama that sounds like a textbook example of a prejudice. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 3 at 20:00
  • 10
    @llama, I thought evidence generally points to sexism acting against women, from both men and women. – Axeman Apr 3 at 20:11
22

Is such behavior acceptable for a professor?

Yes. This the whole idea of academic freedom (as exemplified by tenure) -- professors should be able to work with uncomfortable issues without worrying about getting fired. I recognize that academic freedom would likely not protect them if they had made similar but politically-incorrect statements, but that's a separate issue.

Should I let the professor know the way I feel?

Depends on the professor. If they are a good professor, there might be an opportunity for discussion and perhaps you would both learn something. But sadly, many professors view this matter as sacrosanct, and will just write you off as a misogynist without allowing an open discussion. (In their defense, many students also broach the matter in a very hostile way..."you hate men" sounds very different than "Some of your comments made me uncomfortable.")

Is my view justified?

Doesn't matter. This is a well-studied, very controversial subject where tempers run hot and everyone thinks they are an expert. Studying such subjects has its place, but I'm assuming you are not currently an expert in gender relations. You're certainly entitled to tell the professor how their comments made you feel, but rather than getting into a debate with your professor, I would suggest you focus on learning STEM.

  • 1
    Great answer, especially the second part. You should definitely talk to the professor if you were really made uncomfortable, but don't be accusatory and instead open a dialogue. Also, as far as whether the view is justified, I agree with your answer, but I would also say that OP's feelings are in fact justified, and it may be worth exploring why they have them. – AlexanderJ93 Apr 3 at 22:01
  • 5
    "the whole idea of academic freedom " will completely break down if the professor said the opposite, for example, that the low percentage of females in that field doesn't necessarily mean discrimination, there are enough biological differences to cause that women mostly prefer some areas, while men mostly prefer other areas... if the professor said that, in many countries the freedom of speech will no longer apply, and the professor will be fired or harassed or sued. – vsz Apr 4 at 4:25
  • @vsz - I think I made exactly that point in the last sentence of the first part. – cag51 Apr 4 at 5:44
10

Girls were always highly appreciated in my university (I studied Applied Physics), and nobody needed to make that explicit. I consider this professor excessively patronizing, and probably sexist if she thinks girls need her help.

Instead, I noticed a minor bias in favor of girls/woman, both in university and later looking for jobs:

  • Most Employers prefer a balance of the genders (those who shared their reasoning with me said that a mix prevents hostile subcultures - men tend to behave more civilized and work harder around women, women tend to pay more attention to detail around men), and because there are many more males who work in the field and apply to jobs, the females are accepted much sooner.
  • While not as enlightened as the previous bullet, boys generally still like girls, which put them in higher demand when forming groups. Some used similar reasoning to the above.
  • To write a good report/document/whatever, you need a variety of viewpoints. Since men and women are different, this is useful. Since women are more scarce.... you get the picture.

I also noticed that girls, in the admittedly to-small-to-be-statistically-relevant case of just my year in my study, tended to get higher marks and drop out less then boys. My personal hypothesis is that it's because they chose the course because they were interested, while some of the guys chose the course because they weren't interested in anything and had to choose something (and therefore were more likely to drop out due to lack of motivation / figuring out there was a more fitting study for them). Therefore, it's ridiculous to assume girls need the protection/encouragement your professor talked about.

Of course, it may depend on the country you're in. Local culture matters a lot. If you'd live in, say, Egypt, I'd consider it perfectly normal to have a speech like that, since the local culture tends to assume that women are somehow inferior (and for the record, I couldn't disagree more).

  • 1
    Egypt has a much higher proportion of female physics students than The Netherlands so I don't understand your finaly paragraph. – gerrit Apr 4 at 9:49
  • It was more about general culture in the country then the university in specific. – Gloweye Apr 5 at 7:01
7

It sounds to me that your professor was telling you to let go of any preconceived notions you had before entering this course. You may feel this is sexist or disrespectful, but what it really boils down to is adhering to the scientific principals. You can't determine a reliable and just conclusion simply on what you have come to believe is true during your own experiences; you must PROVE those experiences are true or false. It is a common misconception that girls just don't 'get' sciencey stuff -- and I'm sure I'm not the only female to have simple concepts 'mansplained' to me.

To me, it sounds as if the professor was trying to prevent wasted time as the course progresses -- if 5-10 minutes can be spent now telling students to base all conclusions on proven facts rather than suppositions, many wasted minutes will probably be prevented during the semester, not to mention spared frustrations among any/all group project members.

  • 9
    Why do male students specifically need to be reminded to adhere to scientific principles? THIS is my problem. As said in my post, I agree with the instructions, but giving it to any specific group constitutes indirect accusations of NOT adhering to it. – idle mathematician Apr 4 at 7:37
  • 3
    @RutherRendommeleigh And if you target communities of minorities, especially dark-skinned ones, with statements of "Please don't rob or murder your neighbor" or give closer scrutiny of them there would be a major public outcry despite the issue being especially prevalent in that segment of the population. We see this public outcry constantly in the US, especially when police scrutinize dark-skinned people more even if no arrest is made. – Aaron Apr 4 at 15:06
  • 4
    @B.Swan have you considered the possibility that you may be right in a very narrow, technical sense, but that you are simply blowing this incident way out of proportion? A lot of the people on the “not unacceptable” side, myself included, feel that the professor’s behavior was at least a bit distasteful. But your repeated insistence that YOU feel accused of wrong behavior, that you feel disrespected and offended, and your unwillingness to consider the context of a systemic, long-standing issue that has highly negative, life-changing consequences for a large number of women, strikes me as odd. – Dan Romik Apr 4 at 16:08
  • 5
    @B.Swan ... So basically I would suggest that you try to look at things with a bit of perspective. Your “problem” is the archetypical “first-world problem”. It doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to get annoyed, but just remember other people have it MUCH worse. You were “disrespected” (in a pretty microscopic way that other people are even having a hard time grasping) for 5 minutes, whereas a large class of people your professor was trying to help are disrespected almost every day of their lives. – Dan Romik Apr 4 at 16:13
  • 4
    @B.Swan as I said, in a narrow sense you are right. Your logic is solid. But your expectation that the world is a completely logical place is not. I think what it comes down to is the idea that if a million microaggressions can be prevented by inflicting one microaggression, then that can be an acceptable trade off, maybe even a good one. In any case, as I said I too find the professor’s behavior distasteful and think there are better ways of achieving the goal she had in mind. – Dan Romik Apr 4 at 16:56
6

Unless your university is very far from the standard in the field, the offense you had to endure by feeling blanketly targetted because of your gender will be minuscule to the offense a female in a STEM career will have to endure not once but on a recurring basis.

I've been in engineering with about 3% of female students. Of those, the majority had a father in a STEM field and no male siblings providing an outlet for the father's role modeling that would have talked down their ambitions.

That's probably the situation from one generation before yours and society's clichés and images (the stuff feeding TV tropes) don't change all that fast and prejudices tend to double down before they move. I've seen my fair share of mansplaining in a number of disciplines including less male-dominated ones, and I've delivered my fair share of it as well: falling into the respective patterns is really easy.

You feel belittled by this advice. Would you also feel belittled by the suggestion to electricians to always keep one hand in the pocket when poking around live circuitry with a screw driver or probe? It is also an advice to behave in a manner minimising the results of stupidity that intelligent people should not be prone to in the first place.

I've brushed stuff in a TV set while pointing a grounded lamp with the other hand. I've seen a physics professor demonstrate the effectivity of a large Faraday cage from the inside while holding a wired microphone.

If you think yourself proof against stupid shit, it's probably because you haven't had enough opportunity to see yourself in the mirror.

Telling your offense to your professor will prime her to put your gender-related behavior under her scrutiny. You have nothing to gain from that.

Maybe wait out a year and keep your eyes and mind open. If you then still think that all-in-all her advice was unwarranted, reconsider telling her.

  • 12
    Yes, I think that certain suggestions are disrespectful. Would you feel offended if someone invited you to their home and instructed you to not steal anything? This is how I see it. I have been at the university for years and have worked with female group partners and there were no issues. I also had female tutors and 4 female professors, also no issues. – idle mathematician Apr 3 at 22:43
  • 8
    @B.Swan You yourself experienced no issues. You don't know whether others also experienced no issues. Women may be cautious about calling out biases they experience because they are wary of being labeled a "complainer" or someone who is hard to work with. – Bryan Krause Apr 4 at 0:07
  • 8
    So very much yes. In school they said "girls can't do STEM subjects". Full stop. Basta. Because ovaries. It continued into university and career. Words cannot express how much this makes me mad, even now. My last 40 years have proven them wrong. – RedSonja Apr 4 at 8:53
  • 3
    @RedSonja Who is "they"? Was it your peers at a young age? Ignoring foolish words by very young people (which are generally corrected if overheard by an adult), I have never heard anyone say anything remotely similar to "girls can't do STEM subjects", ever. I am also part of western society where such bigotry is highly taboo, and I understand there are still some places in the world where females are treated very poorly; I am assuming (possibly wrongly) that you are not from such a place, as if you were then you have a bigger problem than someone saying "girls can't do STEM subjects." – Aaron Apr 4 at 15:00
  • 4
    @Aaron "They" were teachers and careers advisors, at a girls' grammar school, in England, in the 1970s. My teenage peers all rejected the ante-deluvian message and acted accordingly. One presumes boys heard that they couldn't become e.g. midwives. I never asked. – RedSonja Apr 5 at 10:45
6

I don't really see this as some version of reverse discrimination or sexism against the men in the class, STEM fields have been dealing with a gender diversity issue for years now and efforts to curb this are only in their early stages. As someone who is currently pursuing an advanced degree in a STEM field, I tend to be optimistic and say the issues of sexism and discrimination in the sciences are (at least now) primarily implicit and unintentional, but that arguably makes this statement from your professor even more important. It may not have been intended to presume a discriminatory worldview, but instead to assuage any unconscious bias by trying to make students aware of these issues (which again, are salient in STEM fields right now).

I would also say the professor may have thought the warning more necessary given the proportions of the class. To quickly address your reasons point-by-point:

  1. This does address group membership, but there's no way to treat it individually in this environment and it's still an important issue.
  2. This is kind of true, but only because the fields have been male dominated in the past, which is what makes the statements necessary in the first place.
  3. Could have been sexism, but I'd give the professor the benefit of the doubt and think of it more as just an attempt to encourage awareness of this potential issue.
  4. This is a STEM class, therefore the diversity of the STEM fields are a pertinent topic, it may not have been a discussion of Newton's Laws, but that doesn't make it unrelated to the field. Plus, what's 5 or 10 minutes over a semester?
  • 5
    1. The class as a whole could have been adressed, avoiding picking on any group particularly. 2. If the professor told Asian students to not think higher of themselves, it would be controversial, even though Asian people excell in STEM subjects. 3. See 1. 4. How do students of the class benefit from diversity information? – idle mathematician Apr 3 at 23:01
  • 1
    @B.Swan Sounds like the class as a whole was addressed, and the message was "men shouldn't pick on women". If men are indeed picking on women, and not vice versa, it would make no sense to add an additional "and women shouldn't pick on men" just to satisfy some rule about symmetry that you made up in your mind. 2. The thing about Asian students would absolutely make sense if this professor had seen that kind of behaviour. 4. Everyone benefits from being made aware of their biases. It can uncomfortable and I think you are feeling uncomfortable because she called out your bias. – user253751 Apr 3 at 23:46
  • 5
    No, the whole class was not adressed, it was prefacedwith "to all male students...". I feel uncomfortable because I was ACCUSED of a bias, not because it was rightfully called. – idle mathematician Apr 3 at 23:48
  • 1
    @immibis It would make perfect sense to add an additional "and women shouldn't pick on men", because that would make the statement way easier to swallow for the men adressed. – sgf Apr 4 at 10:59
  • 2
    @sgf I'd wager that by making half the class feel less unpleasant, you're also not making them reflect on the situation as much. – user253751 Apr 4 at 23:34
6

I would like to point out that, from my experience, addressing ongoing issues by communicating the problem to the entire group is a generally accepted method in professional environments. The intent usually is to avoid accusing individuals and thus minimize embarassment and resentment. Those who transgressed, knowingly or just by mistake, get an opportunity to save face and correct their behaviour. Those who are innocent have no need to feel that it concerns them beyond a basic awareness of the problem.

From a comment:

"Would you feel offended if someone invited you to their home and instructed you to not steal anything?"

They didn't single out a specific person, and the issue wasn't hypothetical. A more fitting example would be:

"We'd like to remind the personnel in building 3 that peripherals are company property and not to be taken off the premises."

after many years of office equipment going missing. Would you feel personally insulted by that? Would you feel less insulted if they sent the e-mail to the entire company and not just the branch where stuff tends to go missing?

Now, being "doubted", even as part of a group, can make one uncomfortable. That's a very human reaction, and one that I'm prone to myself. However, I would recommend that you distance yourself from that feeling. The only way to reduce implicit biases is to create awareness, and that requires everyone to look critically at their own thought processes. This is rarely a comfortable process, but don't see it as an accusation, see it as your professor pointing out a flaw that all humans have to some degree.

I agree that addressing not just "the males", but simply the entire class might have been more elegant, and worth pointing out to your professor, however, no matter how it's phrased, addressing implicit biases tends to cause a little discomfort. It's minimal compared to the damage those biases tend to do, however, so I would consider it a "necessary evil". There's room for disagreement, and discussing the issue with your professor seems like a sensible course of action, but their behaviour was certainly within acceptable bounds.

Also, please keep in mind that to someone who has been the victim of discrimination, calling addressing the issue "a waste of time" might come across as... insensitive, to put it mildly.

  • 4
    The difference between the two scenarios is that you know someone from building 3 is stealing and the only way to adress them is to adress everyone from B3. If you instructed a brand new worker batch who will work at B3 not to steal, it would be disrespectful IMO. Assuming that working at B3 might make people steal something is like assuming males are likely to be sexist because that is what has occured in the past and it is prejudice. – idle mathematician Apr 4 at 10:37
  • 7
    @B.Swan We're strecthing the metaphor here, but in this case the people from B3 have been stealing supplies for generations. It's not a single incident, it's a pattern. In that case, warning new employees not to fall into the same trap (e.g. thinking that taking keyboards home is ok because their colleagues do it without a second thought), I'd think would reflect poorly on the culture in B3 rather than the individual. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Apr 4 at 10:48
  • 3
    In my classes I've seen a clear pattern that international students from certain regions are more likely to cheat. I would consider it very offensive (and would expect them to feel demeaned and humiliated) if I single out those groups and warn them in particular not to cheat. I give everyone the same warning (they still cheat). – A Simple Algorithm Apr 4 at 16:39
4

It should be noted that there is no selection of students for the field of study at the university (apart from a high school diploma) and AFAIK there also is none for the course.

The university may not apply a formal selection process, but there are always selection effects going on. High schools encourage some students more than others, parents decide whether they're going to support their children in higher ed, couples decide whether they can afford to have one person studying full-time... all of those, and countless other factors, play a part in selecting who does and doesn't show up in your class on Day One, and who completes the course and the degree.

In places where overt discrimination is illegal or socially unacceptable, this kind of "soft pressure" is very important in understanding things like how your class ended up 80% male.

These main reasons why I find this offensive/disrespectful:

The students were viewed and addressed primarily through the lense of group membership, and not as individuals.

Forget about gender for a moment, and suppose you're a doctor studying lung cancer. You notice that within a certain population, 10% of people who smoke regularly get lung cancer, and only 1% of those who don't smoke get lung cancer, even after controlling for other factors that might affect cancer rates.

It is impossible to point at any single case of lung cancer and say for certain that it was caused by smoking, because even non-smokers get cancer occasionally and any given person is exposed to thousands of factors that might affect their cancer risk. But in a large population, when ten thousand smokers get lung cancer, we can be pretty sure that nine thousand of those cases were caused by smoking.

So it is with issues of gender bias. It is very hard to point to any one person, any one decision, and say with certainty that this one decision came down to gender bias. But looking at the group level provides quantitative evidence that many decisions are affected by such bias - even if we can never identify exactly which ones.

If you're aware of instances where the issue could be addressed at the individual level, by all means do so and/or let your professor know, as appropriate. But given that this is the start of term, it sounds as if they're trying to prevent such behaviour before it starts.

Replacing "male" with any other group makes the statements offensive or absurd.

If you change words to different words with different meaning and different history, then yes, just about any sentence can be made absurd.

Your class is over 80% male. Most areas of STEM are historically male-dominated, with quantitative evidence of subtle but important biases against women. (Sometimes not so subtle! Whether or not one agrees with your professor's approach, it is very much influenced by that context; if you change "male" for some group that hasn't dominated STEM and your specific class to such an extent, then of course the statement becomes ridiculous.

(Just because I know somebody's gonna bring it up if I don't address it: yes, there are a few professional fields like teaching or nursing which skew heavily female... and those fields do acknowledge this as a problem, and are trying to improve that balance.)

While the instructions to not look down on/patronize female students are correct, they are (in my view) indirect accusations of sexism.

Well, yeah. Chances are very high that there are some sexist people in your class, and it sounds as if your professor is trying to address that. Unless somebody is able to provide her with a list of who is and isn't sexist, I'm not sure how they could do that without the message also being heard by people who aren't sexist. If you're certain that you're not one of those people, then don't take it personally.

When I did first-year chemistry, our instructors warned us not to mouth-pipette dangerous chemicals. They were not accusing me, Geoffrey B, of being silly enough to take a mouthful of hydrochloric acid. But they didn't know who the silly ones were, so they had to warn the entire class.

The contents of the talk, which took 5-10 minutes, were not related to the lecture and thus were a waste of time for students. The issue might be important, but I was there to learn different contents.

Every class has a certain amount of admin content. Professors will talk about how your assignments are to be graded, safety rules for prac classes, what to expect from exams, etc. etc. None of that is "what you're there to learn", per se, but it's important to the learning process. Whether the professor handled this effectively, I can't really gauge without hearing the full version, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to give a few minutes to something that's important to ~ 20% of the class and may affect their ability to learn.

Is my view justified? Is such behavior acceptable for a professor? Should I let the professor know the way I feel?

As you may have gathered, my take on this is different to yours. But let's assume that I haven't persuaded you to my way of thinking, and you still think her approach is wrong...

IME, when you want to change somebody's behaviour, the most effective approach - where possible - is to understand why they're doing what they're doing (what is the problem they think they're solving?) and then to offer them an alternate way of achieving that goal.

In this case, it's pretty clear that your professor is concerned about possible discrimination against women in your class. One way or another, they are going to act on that concern. If you don't like the way they're currently handling it, then you need to offer some other way of handling it. If you don't want them addressing the whole class on this, what alternative are you suggesting?

(I would strongly recommend doing a fair bit of background reading on these issues first. There's been a lot of research done into things like selection and retention of women in STEM, and it's quite likely that they're familiar with that research. If you want to offer workable solutions, you need to be familiar with it too.)

Otherwise... I can tell you for nothing, they already know that quite a few guys feel the same way you do about what she's saying, and they've decided to say it anyway. Unless you have alternatives to offer, it's unlikely that arguing it with them will shift their position, because you won't be telling them anything new.

  • 1. Why does the female ratio need to be discussed in the lecture, if the factors that determine it are the ones you have listed? I understand that it is an important issue, but how exactly do students, or the issue, benefit from it? 2. Asian students excell in STEM. "Asian people should not think they are smarter than others" sounds very offensive to me. 3. Your instructor adressed the whole group, they did not single out a certain subgroup, which is a key difference. It is not that I in particular feel attacked, it is that I feel profiled because of my gender, as only males were adressed. – idle mathematician Apr 5 at 21:40
  • 2
    #1: I believe I said "and countless other factors" - which includes the ones that your professor was discussing. It's also relevant for fellow students in understanding that relatively low % of female students doesn't mean women are innately unsuited to this topic. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 5 at 21:42
  • 2
    #2: unless your fellow students are 80% Asian and the history of your discipline is dominated by Asian researchers and there are volumes of research showing discrimination against non-Asian students/researchers, this isn't a relevant parallel. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 5 at 21:45
  • 1
    #3: your instructor was addressing the whole group, unless they sent the female students out of the room, in which case the "GO GIRLS" doesn't make a lot of sense? – Geoffrey Brent Apr 5 at 21:48
  • 1
    By adressing the whole group? Or by warning both genders? It is possible to adress sexism by adressing both genders. See the discussion in chat under the post. – idle mathematician Apr 6 at 9:58
3

Yes this is acceptable behavior. Your issue with her speech is that you're thinking that the professor was talking directly to you and you take offense at being accused of something you didn't do. In fact in a comment you made the analogy of being invited to a house and being told not to steal. That is not what happened here. The professor was simply encouraging the greatly underrepresented female sex in a male-dominated field with a confidence boost, but rather than speak directly to the females and come off as having favoritism, she is speaking indirectly to them by speaking to the males. Many universities have programs to encourage more females in STEM so this sort of talk is not particularly exceptional.

These main reasons why I find this offensive/disrespectful: The students were viewed and adressed primarily through the lense of group membership, and not as individuals.

No actual individual was identified as a male instead of an individual. The objective of the professor's speech was to address sex discrimination so the fact that "males" and "females" come into the talk is sort of a given. The professor is speaking to the "males in the room" so there is no actual person being seen through group membership rather than an individual.

Replacing "male" with any other group makes the statements offensive or absurd.

You can take any sentence and change one word and make it seem absurd or offensive. This is why context matters.

While the instructions to not look down on/patronize female students are correct, they are (in my view) indirect accusations of sexism.

The professor did not accuse you of sexism. The male sex cannot be accused of sexism. No one was indirectly accused of sexism here. If the professor reminds the class that an assignment is due, but you already handed it in. Are you going to tell him/her that you already handed it in? Of course not because you know the professor was not talking to you, even though you are part of the class. This is the exact same situation. No one is being spoken to directly here.

The contents of the talk, which took 5-10 minutes, were not related to the lecture and thus were a waste of time for students. The issue might be important, but I was there to learn different contents.

This is honestly not your business to decide especially when you can't assess at this point if you learned the required curriculum material. Don't forget the professor doesn't "owe" you their time.

  • 5
    There's a difference between adding obscenities, and demonstrating obvious bigotry simply by changing the objects and subjects of a sentence. For instance, if the professor had replaced "men" with "Jews" and "women" with "goyim", nobody would be arguing that she wasn't making a racist remark that was derogatory towards the Jewish people. – nick012000 Apr 4 at 3:59
  • 2
    @henning Of course it can be derogatory to goyim. It can be just a coded way of saying "goyim think Jews are stupid." Since we weren't actually in the lecture room, it's hard to know the precise context of the events described by the OP thread. – alephzero Apr 4 at 9:26
  • 3
    @nick012000 A random remark regarding two different cultures in a college engineering course would surely be seen as being unwarranted offensive or rude because it's not relevant and implies some personal ideology at play, but again this is why context matters here. But by B. Swan's account, the professor prefaced the discussion by addressing the observed disparity between the female to male ratio in that course (perhaps in general). And, to reiterate, women in STEM is not a new topic, so it's not like this topic came out of nowhere as it did in your example. – Cell Apr 4 at 11:55
  • 4
    "Don't forget the professor doesn't 'owe' you their time." Since when!? I have never heard such a remark before, and have always heard just the opposite. If that were true, the students could not get their money back if they came to a silent room every lecture period and the lecturer just played games on their phone and never said or did anything. If a school advertised "Our professors do not owe you their time," I imagine that school would be out of business very fast. – Aaron Apr 4 at 15:19
  • 2
    @Aaron A professor having to cancel a class due to illness, academic commitments or for other commitments is not out of the ordinary where I live. And as long as the required material gets covered in a timely manner there is no issue. The argument that the professor wasted 5 minutes of my time with an off-topic story when they could have been teaching is ridiculous. The professor doesn't owe you their time only that they deliver the required material. It's up to the professor to decide how their time is allocated. – Cell Apr 4 at 15:57
3

This is Acceptable and a start!

As other answers have stated, those are plain facts and come a long way to make things better for less prevalent groups in Academia and providing a healthier environment with more ideas.

Could it have been delivered in a better way?

I think so! I can understand why you felt awkward about it.

Keep in mind that the core message was "let the girls handle a hard time as they are just like you" rather than "you are less", so it was calling for more workload to be distributed but it doesn't apply general logic to it, having it simply loop back into gender:

  • This may lock the mentality that if you are not pushing the girls, you are being sexist; but pushing girls because they are girls is in fact sexist.
  • Stating she is better than the students came off ambiguous because it can be interpreted that either she is better because she is a woman, or despite being a woman. It's neither: she is better because of her merit as a student.

While bringing up microaggressions, her message could have still been entirely about women, but then extended at the conclusion:

  • "Your neighboring student may be quiet but they may also know more than you think!"
  • "Don't ever think you are smarter than your colleagues."
  • "You may be tempted to hoard more difficult tasks, but everyone is entitled to some crappy time in Academia! :) Push everyone as necessary for common growth."

This holds much more coverage (at least for me). This applies to every other gender, race, disability, etc; and doesn't fall for the loopholes aforementioned.

  • Presumably she is better at the material than the students because she is the professor. Probably she has had students think they are better than her at the material in the past (a problem for some women professors, unfortunately). – Dawn Apr 6 at 16:54
  • @Dawn Someone becoming a professor begets merit of being a great student, no? If you try to argue otherwise, you indeed leave space to interpret silly things like the possibility of an undergrad student being better than them at the material. – lucasgcb Apr 7 at 14:06
  • I don’t understand. She probably has not been a student in a long time. She may have gained her expertise as a student or it may come because of her research (probably both). Regardless; she was selected to teach this course because of her expertise as a teacher and researcher, not because of past grades. – Dawn Apr 7 at 15:13
  • Well I made no reference to grades, so we may just have a semantic discrepancy as to what is a student! We have to think about what an undergrad would think when being explained this - I do not think it is a stretch to state Professors/Researchers need to have been (and still be) good students (interested, dedicated, curious) in their field in order to maintain their role in the first place - it is not like undergrads have a choice to skip studies and become professors either! – lucasgcb Apr 7 at 16:38
2

This is absolutely disrespectful. The professor is passively aggressively attempting to assert an inaccurate worldview, by implying what you are thinking, and how you are seeing the world.

Also note that while the professors statement "does not apply to everyone" it will certainly apply to anyone that disagree with it. Ie, if you try to critique it it will be assumed you think you're smarter than women even if that is not the flaw you are pointing out.

Considering this is a progressive, I would be very careful about noting this to them, as they are liable to try and shame you, slander you, possible trash your grades, or even try to get you suspended or otherwise ostrazised. If possible it might be better to drop the class, or otherwise keep your head down.

  • 1
    I do not think professors have this power at my university, perhaps I am wrong. Also professors and students have very little direct interaction, I do not see much opportunity to punish me. I might be naive though. – idle mathematician Apr 4 at 7:56
  • 6
    The professor is attempting to assert an inaccurate worldview, by implying what you are thinking, and how you are seeing the world. - By contrast, you are simply using your freedom of speech and humbly present us with some well-founded arguments to consider if we chose to. – henning -- reinstate Monica Apr 4 at 8:27
2

I think the actions were well within what is acceptable, but I still find the way it was done quite ill-advised, for the following main reason:
It brings the issue of gender balance (and the underlying reasons, such as (implicit) bias or outright discrimination) from the big picture to the little picture, both in terms of time and in terms of population size.

Let me clarify what I mean. The issue of women being less represented in STEM is a statistical phenomenon, which means that whatever underlying reasons it has may well be distributed in a way that makes them less applicable in the setting of a single class. Compounding this is the fact that the class being addressed consists of people who have already chosen a STEM field, so on average, the women present are less likely to have experienced these underlying reasons to the same extent an arbitrarily selected woman would (not to say that none of them will, but on average fewer will).

What I think makes it ill-advised is not, however, how it will be perceived by the female students (as I do not feel qualified to speak to this).
My issue is the way this sort of thing will make a certain subset of the male students feel.

Think of it this way: You are a male student in a STEM field. While you have not experienced the sort of discouragement women do in terms of going into STEM, you have instead been bullied throughout your school years for being nerdy/quiet/smart/whatever. You are now finally at university and in an environment where you can be yourself, and where people will appreciate you for your intelligence.
Only you are now told by this professor that while you may finally be in a place that appreciates smart people, it will appreciate them more if they are female. So you should expect that whenever you do better than one of your female co-students, you will be reminded that maybe you are not really as smart as you think.

This will be really discouraging to a specific subset of the male students. And this subset is precisely the subset that have the most need of encouragement.

This brings me back to the point of big picture versus little picture. It is often mentioned that males just need to such it up when this sort of thing happens because the females will have experienced whatever it is on a daily basis. But once we are at this scale, there is a good chance that many of the females will not have experiences nearly as much of it (I am no longer certain any female will have gone completely free from it though), while there is also a good chance in a setting like this that many of the males will in fact have experienced similar behavior plenty of times, just in slightly different ways.

  • 1
    Bullying by schoolmates is not even a little bit the same thing as systemic, institutionalized discrimination. – Elizabeth Henning Apr 5 at 23:07
1

This sort of an approach is becoming increasingly popular as a way to fix the gender imbalance in academia. Gender discrimination is a problem that exists almost everywhere in society, including in academia. So, this is obviously a problem that needs to be addressed. The professor cannot be criticized for addressing this issue in class, but one may question if this is going to be effective. If the professor is concerned about social dynamics among students affecting female students adversely, then that suggests that one should not organize group work where such effects can manifest itself and compromise academic results.

The bigger picture is that Western countries where efforts to curb gender discrimination have led to a lot of success when it comes to getting women in leading positions in industry, still perform quite poorly when it comes to curbing the gender imbalance in academia. As pointed out in the linked article, the more gender equal a country is, the bigger the gender gap is in academia, despite a lot more effort to promote women to choose STEM subjects:

Gender imbalance

The article puts forward some ideas to explain this that I personally don't find all that compelling. I.m.o. it's better to study the case of the Soviet Union where the participation of women in science was an order of magnitude better than in the West. The way the Soviet Union differed from the West was that as a communist country, job security was not an issue. Also, the educational system was much better than the Western educational systems.

So, the reason why today we have such a huge gender imbalance in science is because we've organized science within a capitalist framework. Society doesn't value science all that much, this leads to quite a lot of pressure pushing people away from science. One important issue is that job security is a problem for quite a long time into a scientific career. Both women and men are affected by this, but all we notice is the difference between the participation of men and women, which is just the tip of the iceberg. Long term job security tends to be more important for women than for men in determining career choices. Also gender discrimination will have a far greater effect when job security issues are also at play.

If society makes more room for science by making available more funds, then this will lead to more jobs in science. Scientists will have better job security, this will go a long way to get far more women (and also men) into science and keep them there. Women are then affected more by these issues because long term job security tends to be more important for women than for men in determining career choices. Also gender discrimination will have a far greater effect when job security issues are also at play.

  • 7
    Please support your claims with evidence. – user76284 Apr 3 at 23:44
  • 1
    This does not really answer the original question, even if true. At least not explicitly. Oh, yes Algeria, I really met some female PhD students or young academicss from there at a conference. Always following a male proffesor or other guardian and kept silent, not really an example of gender freedom. – Vladimir F Apr 4 at 6:36
  • 1. Academia concerns more than STEM. 2. In many countries, women make up the majority of those who get degrees, including the United States where women get more degrees than men at all levels. 3. The term 'STEM' rarely gets defined well. And there do exist sciences, such as psychology, and biology, where female students get the majority of the degrees. 4. The 'gender imbalance' talk tends to go one way only... who talks about how dietetics has for a very long time had more women than men? – Doug Spoonwood Jul 16 at 22:22
1

I can't disagree more with some of the answers you have on here. They are the cheery rah-rah types of things people say online without thinking of the implications of these actions in real life.

The professor should not have brought these things up without context. Period.

Here are some reasons why:

  1. Bringing up the student gender %s is ludicrous. Universities should not be deciding to neutralize areas of study they should be used to foster learning for those that want to learn those subjects and meet the criteria. Women have just as high or higher admission rates at all major universities in the US. Why would this be a topic? What are the students in the class supposed to do about this?

  2. Discussing micro-transgressions... Oh boy. So after hearing this what are the males in the class supposed to do when working with the female students? Basically the professor is saying - treat them differently than you normally would. I know this isn't their true meaning, but this is the psychological take-away. So now the male student is in a state of flux because they might have taken the message as "give the female student the hard things" or "important things" and now instead of rationally doing what is best for the group or what each group member wants to do, there is now a wrench of assignment based on gender.

This kind of group "push" influencing phenomenon often ends with resentment. You have a group of males that are accused of something they haven't done. The initial resentment will be against the professor (proof - this question on this site). The resentment will subconsciously filter to the females in the class on a meta/micro level. This cannot be good for group projects.

  1. I know that we read your question and did not hear the tone of the professor but I am not sure it matters. From a female perspective (if I were female) I find this discussion and forced support as rather patronizing. Psychologically the professor has made the women out as victims and professor as leader/savior. Audibly the students are hearing treat women better, give them more responsibilities, give them important work... in the core of our brains these are true micro-aggressions that formulate in a simple expression - males please handle these delicate females that need help with extra care. The professor is trying to express "woman power" (fine) but really is expressing their power to influence the males for the women.

  2. "Go Girls!" Clearly sexist. It isn't a rally for the women in the class it is more of a decree that the professor will treat males differently. I know I am generalizing here but that is what every answer is doing.


The professor should have handled this better if the subject needed to be broached. The advice should have helped empower the females not demonize the males and put the females in a victim role. It would have been a better tactic to address the females, not the males. Saying things like, "please don't fall into old gender roles and actively speak out on things you want to work on and overparticipate in your group's activities". General things like this would instill more confidence in both females and males and foster a group environment of collaboration, not resentment.

Before I mentioned the male resentment but there is female resentment too. First (and less) for the professor having to speak for them. Then in a micro way resenting the males for what-they-are-going-to-do-according-to-professor. What a mess!

Even if the professor were to address the males it could have been done in a more tactical matter that would have probably worked better and made the conversation less awkward. "In one of my past group STEM projects we had a male-dominated group that did not have confidence in some of the females or maybe felt that they worked better together as males. Be cognizant that intelligence is gender blind and the best teamwork always involves very smart people that have different points of view."


So what do you do? Depends on how much you will be dealing with this professor in the future. If you speak to someone that is as bold as your professor and you disagree there is a good chance you get railroaded and I hate to say it, could affect your grades/standing. Nothing good will come of it.

If you really felt it was that bad and could impact you in the future you need to go over professor's head and have a confidential talk about their actions and how you don't want their attitude affecting your work or studies. I would not go into such discussions as a witch hunt but (confidentially) expressing your concerns and getting advice from the person you are meeting. The professor has expressed hints of sexism but has done nothing sexist yet. You should let this play out before passing judgment as this could be anywhere from professor that doesn't express their concerns or opinions good in a group setting to a really sexist professor that treats females better or something in the middle.

1

There's nothing unacceptable in what the professor said, although telling the students that they didn't fit the quota is rather pointless, since the students typically don't have any say in how a course is advertised or shaped to make it equally attractive to male and female students.

A word of warning though: people who are overly enthusiastic about an idea and have some power to implement it often go over the reasonable limits when implementing it. Warning the students beforehand that discrimination against the female minority will not be tolerated is one thing. Applying quotas or "reverse discrimination" when grading for example will be a different story.

Of course, since we didn't meet your professor it's impossible to tell whether they are "overly enthusiastic" or not.

  • 1
    The course is advertised by sending an email to ALL undergrads in the field of study with a deadline to apply. The professor also seems to be primarily interested in correct answers and technique, so I have no reason to suspect grade discrimination. – idle mathematician Apr 4 at 14:40
  • @B.Swan "The course is advertised by sending an email to ALL undergrads in the field of study", so if the share of female undergrads is less than 50%, the course will inherit this skew, unless it's made attractive for them to compensate for that. – Dmitry Grigoryev Apr 5 at 6:35

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.