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Suppose that you noticed a student saying a sexist remark to you, and the student is completely unaware of it. In the spirit of fighting sexism, I feel that I should maybe say something. But on the other hand, as a person on the higher end of the power spectrum, I feel that I would be bullying the student if I were calling him out on his sexist remarks (which he is probably not aware of).

If I witness a student engaging in a sexist behavior, should I call him/her out? How can I do this without making the student feel intimidated? What would be the professional way to deal with such a situation?

My question is:

If a student commits a clear sexist behavior in front of you, will you call him/her out? If so, how will you approach it so that you don't appear patronizing/bullying?

(I made a major edit, because many answers addressed my "background" story rather than my actual question. I do not see any satisfactory answer that fully addresses my question.)

15 Answers 15

118

This is similar to the person of color getting stopped by the police. Is it just a random stop, or is it racism? Very hard to tell without statistics on large sample sizes, or direct evidence of racism. Would the student have made the same accusations if you were male? Possibly, but very hard to tell without direct evidence of sexism.

The student could be complaining just because he got a bad grade. The backing off after you told him the syllabus was from another professor could be because that professor was male. But it could also be because that professor was as you said, very senior. Or because you showed him that indeed more people used that same syllabus.

My advice in general would be to fight sexism when you have clear evidence that gender played a role. In other cases: address accusations like this on their merits or lack thereof. If people find that their accusations towards women are unfounded, that also combats sexist views.

Hopefully this post helped a bit.

Regarding your edit and how to deal with explicit sexism: I would call them out on it. However exactly how to deal with it and whether appearing as a bully is a concern is difficult to say without an explicit case. Is falls in the general case of students making inappropriate/unacceptable comments or actions. Maybe a guideline could be: is it severe enough to contact other people in the university? If not, you might admonish it more lightly if concerns about being a bully are top of your mind. If it is severe enough to contact the administration or the person at your institution to contact out of line students, let it be their decision. You can never be accused of being a bully if the punishment came for an independent third party. Especially if you presented the case to that third party plain and factually, with the question being: what should we do now?

Again it is hard to talk in general about these things. That is why I focused on the more specific case, because I could be more specific about it.

  • 49
    "Address accusations like this on their merits or lack thereof. If people find that their accusations towards women are unfounded, that also combats sexist views." Yes, yes, YES. And the inverse is true as well: If their accusations are valid and you ignore them you are encouraging negative views. If "you're sexist/racist/whatever!" is your only argument, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as you become unable even to recognize valid complaints, and so will assume the increasing number of people complaining are all sexist/racist/whatever. – Wildcard Nov 29 '16 at 5:16
  • You may be interested in proposing an answer or voting on an existing answer on this meta post, which discusses what to do with answers that address the previous version of the question. – ff524 Dec 12 '16 at 0:13
47

****READ THE EDITS WHERE THE OP CLEARLY STATES ORIGINALLY THAT THERE WAS NO CLEAR SEXISM TAKING PLACE.****


Actually if what you said is true and it is the whole truth (we are not missing info), if you call the student out you are the one committing the sexist offense.

And if I were a male student that talked to you about your teaching methods, syllabus, whatever, and you told me that I was sexist or even hinted at it I would be including your boss and maybe their boss into the conversation very very soon.

I asked a similar question on here a while back - My professor gave me a bad grade and wouldn't discuss it further, I think some prejudice may be involved. How should a student proceed?

This turned out so-so for me and very bad for the professor (she was let go after that semester - not sure if I was cause or the last straw or possibly I had no bearing).

The fact is you are relegating this to an issue of male vs female and taking an antagonistic approach with a student. You tried the student in the court of your head and he was found guilty of sexism - that is why you wrote this question. 95%+ would not find this person guilty with the information that you gave. Now if you act on this you are not only a person who falsely accuses someone (defamation if you talk about this with others), but you are also a person with very low awareness, you are a person that is a high risk to your institution, and you have given this whiny student a free pass through your course (deserved).

34

To answer your actual question, yes. Those in positions of authority (such as college professors) should absolutely fight sexism.

However, a professor should not conclude that a student is making "sexist remarks" when a student complains that the syllabus did not place enough emphasis on homework, then backs off on hearing that another professor who is male does it the same way.

As dimpol noted, "fight sexism when you have clear evidence that gender played a role". Otherwise, it reinforces the stereotype that women are incapable of accepting criticism. "Crying wolf" in situations where there is no evidence of sexism, may also be validating the beliefs of those who deny that sexism exists.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. (Also see meta question.) – ff524 Nov 29 '16 at 18:13
  • You may be interested in proposing an answer or voting on an existing answer on this meta post, which discusses what to do with answers that address the previous version of the question. – ff524 Dec 12 '16 at 0:14
27

What would be the professional way to deal with such a situation

The professional way to deal with a first offence is almost always a private conversation.

In the private conversation:

1) Assume good will. Even if this isn't possible, try really hard to act like it. It goes a really long way to helping someone change personal behavior for the better.

2) Try to start and end the conversation with something positive. Aim for something relevant, but unrelated is better than nothing. This helps reduce defensiveness, shows that you can see value in the person, and makes your feedback easier to accept. If you really can't do this, it is better to skip it than to do it without sincerity. But trying is well worth your effort.

3) Teach how to have these difficult conversations. Be a good example of how to give difficult feedback. If you can teach this skill, you will be remembered as one of the best professors ever.

4) Focus on helping the student become a better person and live a more fulfilled life. This isn't about stopping a 5-year-old from eating too many cookies. This is about influencing internal motivations. Do this for the sake of the student, not because it is your pet peeve.

5) Be prepared to be wrong. You probably misinterpreted the statement in at least some small way. Have an open mind. Consider that the student may come from a background very different from your own. Be ready to learn something.

If the problem persists, and you have good reason to believe that the bad behavior is spreading to other people, then it may be time for public criticism. But at this point, you may have lost your chance to positively influence this person. Making a student stay quiet in class is a lot easier than changing hearts and minds.

Of course, you should ask advice from a person whom you trust. Find someone with whom you can share the specifics of the situation, and ask for advice.

24

"If I witness a student engaging in a sexist behavior, should I call him/her out?"

My two cents: Short answer is no. Redirect the conversation to something that is related to the course itself.

If the behavior continues, contact the students advisor/counselor, or whichever department is assigned to handle these situations involving misbehavior or violations of student conduct at your institution.

22

I think there's a way to address this sort of thing, while taking your concerns into account. The root of it is remembering that you're in the role of teacher, and they student.

First, avoid accusations, even veiled ones such as "you know, women get this a lot." Why? Because accusations will likely put them on the defensive and cause them to shut out what you're trying to teach. It also needlessly prescribes a motivation to the student, when you don't actually know why they said this. In your case, maybe they're a terribly nervous test taker and chose a bad way to bring it up with you.

Second, approach it by asking questions. Instead of defending your use of certain elements of the syllabus, ask him why he believes your syllabus needs to be like other syllabi, or why that way is better. Who knows, maybe he'll even have decent input. But if not, it provides an opportunity for him to think about what he's doing without any accusation from you. You don't need to defend your syllabus to students, but engaging with their input is an entirely different matter.

  • 1
    You may be interested in proposing an answer or voting on an existing answer on this meta post, which discusses what to do with answers that address the previous version of the question. – ff524 Dec 12 '16 at 0:14
13

Many of these answers focus on your particular context, which you've since edited out, so I'm going to take a swing at answering it in the more general sense you've asked for.

If I witness a student engaging in a sexist behavior, should I call him/her out? How can I do this without making the student feel intimidated? What would be the professional way to deal with such a situation.

Yes.

Of course, that "Yes" has nuance. There are cases that are blatant enough that they probably justify halting class to address something - especially if the sexist behavior was targeted at the women in the room. For less blatant cases, I believe it may still be useful to reach out to the student, because there's two possible scenarios:

  1. They actually are being sexist. Being told that's not appropriate and it needs to stop is important.
  2. They're not intending to be sexist, and aren't realizing they're being read that way.

For most cases, I would give the student the benefit of the doubt and assume the second, and couch things mostly in terms of professional conduct. That "Ms." or "Miss" isn't the appropriate title for a female professor. That there are more constructive ways to approach the criticism of a class, etc.

As an example, at one point in my youth, I was overly casual with a female professor - I was doing it because I knew her well at that point, but it was in a professional context and this conspicuously happens to female professors a lot. So I called out her name, "Amanda", to ask a question, and she swiftly, but not unkindly replied "Dr. Peters" to correct me. I apologized and the world kept turning.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Nov 30 '16 at 0:16
7

If you accuse someone of being sexist, under circumstances where most people don't see actual sexism, people might think you are the one being sexist. If you do so repeatedly, you will damage your reputation.

Let's simplify and say there are only 3 kinds of sexism (which is not entirely true):

  1. Unclear sexism, where degrading remarks could or could not be due to the gender of a person. Calling this out as sexism is raising an accusation without proof, which is generally considered bad form.
  2. Sexist jokes. You can certainly call them out on the inappropriate behavior, but I suggest strongly against any form of punishment unless this happens repeatedly.
  3. Blatant sexism. Call them out on it and consider social punishment (e.g. asking for an apology, or demand they leave the room).

You want to react to sexism, which is good, but keep in mind that overreacting will neither serve you nor the fight against sexism - something you can easily observe in many of the answers to your question. Keep in mind "the boy who cried wolf".

5

My suggested course of action is this. Your goal is to produce a specific dissonance in the student: that he is facing a capable woman instructor, who taught the course very well, through her own volition and ability, and he struggled in it, and this all happened and is just the way the world works sometimes.

Your goal is not to make any of these conclusions for the student. No "gotcha" moments where you expose his sexism. No schaudenfreude or vindictiveness. The anger and tension between the two of you should not be escalated, which is professional advice for any woman or any person, and especially relevant when you are the authority figure in the relationship.

Do not devalue your own capability in any way. Do not laugh off your ability, apologize for the facts of what happened, or any of that. If you mention anyone who abetted you make it clear that you are the driver, the agent, the decider, the executor, and the talent.

I would describe the student's attitude as a microaggression, which would, precisely, imply that the student's sexism was, probably, just real enough to be felt and noticed but too faint to be admonished or acted upon. It may even be a false positive but I just don't think that's the point. I felt it was perfectly possible to write a constructive answer from that premise alone and that criticizing the OP's credibility for what really happened was just not necessary.

My own opinion is that this is a teachable moment for the student and a reasonably safe avenue for the student to make a mistake like this. I gave the best method I am aware for the OP to "lean in" and push back against the presence of sexism that was exhibited to her, while acting professionally regardless of others' perception of sexism. It can be challenging to manage that expectation but here I feel it is possible.

5

It looks like this question has been through some edits, so to be clear, I am answering this version of the question, and for the purposes of the answer I will presume for the sake of argument that the perception of the OP of a sexist remark is a reasonable perception:

Suppose that you noticed a student saying a sexist remark to you, and the student is completely unaware of it. In the spirit of fighting sexism, I feel that I should maybe say something. But on the other hand, as a person on the higher end of the power spectrum, I feel that I would be bullying the student if I were calling him out on his sexist remarks (which he is probably not aware of). If I witness a student engaging in a sexist behavior, should I call him/her out? How can I do this without making the student feel intimidated? What would be the professional way to deal with such a situation? My question is: If a student commits a clear sexist behavior in front of you, will you call him/her out? If so, how will you approach it so that you don't appear patronizing/bullying? (I made a major edit, because many answers addressed my "background" story rather than my actual question. I do not see any satisfactory answer that fully addresses my question.)


This is one of the things I absolutely hate about “call-out culture”. There is a whole world of possible teaching that can occur in the massive gulf between “calling him out” and “doing nothing”. Many of the students we teach in university are barely out of adolescence, particularly if they are in the early years of their undergraduate degree. You are the mature adult in the room, so it is probably not a great idea to use that authority and power to belittle this young man, or “call him out” during class in a manner that belittles him. However, your instinct to do something is correct; we all want to teach young people to do better. It would be perfectly appropriate to pull this young man aside after class and politely give him your views on his remark, and invite him to have a think about whether that is an appropriate remark. Don't treat this as fighting sexism (fist in the air); treat it as teaching an immature young man and helping him to grow up. My experience is that young men --many only a few years out of adolescence-- are hungry for knowledge, including knowledge on appropriate professional standards of behaviour from older adults.

I have encountered a similar experience to this in my own teaching. In one of my tutorial classes on mathematics, I observed that two male students were drawing pornographic pictures and showing them to a female student they were friends with, and chuckling about it. Although the three of them were friends, she appeared to be uncomfortable with it, and was not a participant in the joke. During class I told the boys to settle down and get back to their work, in a way that stopped the behaviour but did not intimidate or belittle them. (My favourite line in these cases is: “Come on now; you’re not at the pub”.) Then after class I asked to speak to them and had a more serious chat with them in private. This was a stern but sympathetic conversation, trying to give guidance to young men that were not mature enough to see that their behaviour was making someone uncomfortable. Based on their mortified responses, and their concern for their female friend, I expect that they probably learned the lesson, and I did not see any behaviour like this form them again. To me, this gives the best outcome – raise the matter as a teaching opportunity, but save any stern remarks for a private chat.

1

If something is clearly sexist, yes, everyone has a duty to engage this particular scourge of our psyches. It isn't going to go away on its own.

Of course it need not be confrontational nor be done in front of a group of peers but also not just one on one if there is an unbalanced power situation. If so, I would include a witness or record the conversation (if legal).

I would approach it as an unconscious bias the individual is unaware of. For example, "just to let you know, your (comments or actions) could be mistaken for (sexism)." Let them know that many people have unconscious biases that can come out without their intending it that way.

If there is a question about if it is sexist, the better way to start the conversation is to ask why they acted or spoke the way they did. This can help determine intent and then the conversation can proceed appropriately.

  • 11
    I downvoted this because a single isolated incident where a person questions the teaching methods a professor who happens to be female and backs off after one of their claims is demonstrated to be false is hardly sufficient evidence to conclude the individual has any kind of bias, much less a subtle unconscious one. We don't even know if there's a similar incident with a male professor to compare to. It's possible they do, but as noted in comments and answers. we don't really have strong enough evidence to level that claim here. – jpmc26 Nov 28 '16 at 21:24
  • 1
    @jpmc26, Thanks for giving a reason for the downvote. The OP asked for a general case - not this specific one, "So I am not necessarily soliciting an answer specific to my situation, but in a more general setting." So in my mind, even an isolated incident is worthy of a comment "If something is clearly sexist..." I accept you may disagree with that. To your second comment, if someone makes a sexist remark and it can be taken a different way, I think it is appropriate to clarify the situation. I don't think that implies any sort of sexism on my part. "Did you mean to demean women..." – CramerTV Nov 28 '16 at 22:52
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    Put another way, as evidenced by this question being asked, any criticism, even one that has no clear tie to gender, can be taken as sexist. If there's a clear pattern of treating people differently based on gender, you may have a point, but I think leaping to responses like "could be mistaken for sexism" or "Did you mean to demean women" without a clear justification just sets an impossible standard. We should be cautious about accusing people of sexism or racism or anything of that ilk, especially given that our society has an extremely adverse reaction to anything even close. – jpmc26 Nov 29 '16 at 1:31
  • 4
    "if something is clearly sexist." Well, what is clearly sexist to one person, may not be clearly sexist to another. – NZKshatriya Nov 29 '16 at 15:10
  • @NZKshatriya, that's exactly the point. If you didn't realize what you were saying was demeaning wouldn't you want to know? – CramerTV Nov 30 '16 at 17:11
1

Ask for clarification

"Student X, what did you mean by saying Y?" 20 something men can be dense. In their head, they may not intend the remark to be sexist, but they have no context from which to know. Asking them to re-phrase the same thing gives you a better idea as to whether the sexism was purposeful. If the re-phrased remark is harmless, then simply telling the student "That was a much better way to phrase that," gets the point across.

Another strategy is to say, "Student X, it sounded like you said (sexist comment here) is that what you meant?" This is usually enough to get the student back pedaling fast. It's important not to be aggressive with this sentence, you don't want to verbally cue the back pedaling, you do want them to double down if the sexist remark is indeed what they meant, so you can tell them it's inappropriate for reasons X Y or Z.

Gleaning from previous answers, in your specific case you could ask the student "Student X, why did you decide to drop the issue once you saw the other syllabus?" They (probably) won't straight up tell you "because he's a man" but if that was the reasoning, the response will trigger your lie detector.

-1

I would not confront the student directly.

In the U.S., bias incidents should be reported to your university's Title IX coordinator. If you have any doubts as to whether the incident is clear enough to report, you can talk it over with the Title IX coordinator first.

Your university probably has some online documents about building a culture of respect, and a campus code of conduct. Looking these over might help you clarify the issues.

  • 5
    I don't see where the OP said she was in the US...? Title IX is purely a US thing. Even in the US, sexist behavior and sexist attitudes are not covered by Title IX. Sexual harassment is a better example of something that should be reported under Title IX. – Ben Crowell Nov 28 '16 at 2:20
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    @BenCrowell - You're absolutely right, I forgot to think about whether OP is in the U.S. I will edit my answer. Note, though, after reading your comment, I looked at the question again, and I think in this case, chances are this is in the U.S. because of the Thanksgiving break ending today and the context "mulling over it over the holiday." // For your other point -- take a look at knowyourix.org/title-ix/title-ix-the-basics – aparente001 Nov 28 '16 at 2:25
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    Good point about the holiday probably being Thanksgiving break. I missed that. However, I think my understanding of Title IX is accurate, and I don't see anything in your link that changes my understanding of it as applied to this question. The behavior described by the OP is not even clearly sexist -- it could just be whiny student behavior. Even if it was sexist, that doesn't make it a Title IX complaint. – Ben Crowell Nov 28 '16 at 2:50
  • @BenCrowell Please see the edit I made, and thanks again for catching my unfair initial country assumption. // Note, the link states that Title IX protects students and faculty from gender-based discrimination. Please note also that I recommended OP not confront the student directly, but rather address any concerns about possible gender bias with the university's Title IX coordinator. If you disagree with one or both recommendations, I would be glad to read your reasons. and an alternative answer. – aparente001 Nov 28 '16 at 7:25
  • 1
    +1 (at least in the U.S.). When in doubt, do what academics do...consult the expert. – tonysdg Nov 30 '16 at 5:02
-1

If it was the first unintentionally [sexist, racist, whateverist] comment, leave it alone.

If it happened second time, comment it as "Hmm, funny", or any other sarcastic praise.

If it happens again ask the commentator to watch their tongue immediately. You can explain it after the course.

If it happens again, ask them to leave and discuss it with your faculty oficials.

If the comment is mocking you, do not waste time waiting and ask them to think first and speak later. It is not a bully; it is self-defence.

-1

The role of a professor, as well as other professional in fact, is not to fight social wars that they deem are justified. Therefore, I disagree that it is your goal to fight "sexism", "racism", "(post-) colonialism", "orientalism" or whatever "ism" you fancy to fight for that matter.

The goal of a professor is to do research, extend human knowledge and convey knowledge to students. If you find a remark personally offensive I would indeed think how to react. Since you have claimed explicitly that it is not meant to be an offense by the student, then I conclude that you are not really offended (though sub-consciously you may be).

Therefore, I would suggest not to do anything as it is not the role of a professional to "educate" people to behave according to the desired social ideology that the state, or society, or intellectual circles hold to be "the correct one".

That said, if you find that the student has broken an explicit law, or an explicit regulations set by your university, then you should report him or her to the relevant person or police.

protected by ff524 Nov 29 '16 at 4:17

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