International Women’s Day talk

Following on from our recent blog post on Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s talk on 6th March at the Student Union’s Women’s Group ‘International Women’s Day’ event, we are now pleased to share the talk given by Grace Ioppolo:

Why women and members of minority cultures still find a ‘Chilly Climate’ in school, university and the workplace


When you settle down in your seat at a lecture, seminar or meeting, is the temperature cold? Do you feel too frozen to respond or interact with the material presented?  I’m not talking about the actual Centigrade temperature measurement of the room but the atmosphere.

Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, American female academics began to study the ‘chilly classroom’ effect particularly on women, trying to assess how comfortable women felt in making contributions in group situations.

These academics began to discover that female university students were often

  • interrupted when speaking, either by male students or male or female instructors
  • sometimes belittled for their comments, including by female instructors
  • not the first people in the room chosen to speak, while men were
  • referred to in terms of their looks (she’s a ‘lovely’ or ‘plain’ student) while male students were referred to in terms of their intellectual abilities (he’s ‘really talented’)
  • not usually given the most prestigious or high-profile projects or presentations on which to work
  • told that their responses were emotional and not logical
  • told that they were not interested in ‘serious’ careers because they would eventually be married and have children and that men were interested in ‘serious’ careers, thereby needing access to grants and other opportunities to enhance their future careers.
  • given a much lower rate of high marks (particularly First-Class) on their written work and presentations.
  • usually taught by men who had a high academic rank (for example, Professor) and by women who had a lower rank (Lecturer or Senior Lecturer)
  • subjected to offensive or sexist comments, language or behaviour by male students or instructors.

The academics also began to recognize that female students were not always consciously aware of such a ‘chilly’ climate but had absorbed it for so long (perhaps from primary or secondary school) on a subconscious level. Thus female students assumed that it was not worthwhile for them to speak in seminars and meetings; in effect they felt ‘frozen out’. Most disturbingly, female students found such a chilly climate to be normal and thus accepted it when they eventually joined the workforce, resulting in their being paid less and having fewer opportunities for promotion or advancement in their professions.

I am not arguing that all classrooms at the University of Reading are chilly. I am confident that many, and probably most, are not. But it only takes one chilly classroom to convince students that they should not contribute. For many years, I taught in an affirmative action programme at the University of California, Los Angeles (where I did my PhD), and I learned that the classroom can be chilly for black, Latino and Asian and other minority students, as well as women. But I also discovered as I studied the chilly classroom effect there that all men, regardless of whether they are white or non-white, usually had better treatment than most women at university. Unfortunately, this treatment is worst for minority women at university, who often have a double dose of discrimination: racial and sexual.

I also recognize that in the UK, students are not encouraged, as American students are, to participate in class discussion. In the US, your final mark depends on class discussion; in the UK, no such requirement exists in terms of your final degree mark. So when I began to teach in this country fifteen years ago, I found it difficult to get even some students talking in seminar. But I was the most upset by comments female students would make in tutorials with me. I would ask a woman, ‘You make so many wonderful points in your essay, so why don’t you talk in seminar?’ The student would often reply, ‘I’m not very smart’, or ‘I didn’t think I had anything to say that was worth hearing’.  I would usually respond, ‘This essay suggests that you have a lot to say!’ Most distressing of all have been comments from students such as ‘No one has ever told me before that I was intelligent’ or ‘I’m not very bright’.

These kinds of answers astounded me (American students tend to say they’re too smart!), and I began to listen more closely to students in seminars. I often heard female students begin their comments with, ‘This may not be right, but I think…’ or ‘I’m sorry, but I think…’ or ‘This is probably wrong but…’ I rarely heard male students begin their comments this way (although it has happened on occasion).

Is this low self-esteem a result of the chilly classroom? I would say that frequently low self-esteem and the chilly classroom are inseparable. On occasion, male and female students have low self-esteem for other reasons. I’m constantly baffled by the behaviour of my English husband, who never seems to appreciate his own high value as a scholar, so perhaps some UK students have a poor view of their own skills and abilities because of cultural or social reasons particular to the UK (perhaps it’s your sense of reserve or ‘the stiff upper lip’?).

But if you feel that you need support, please talk to your personal tutor or another member of staff. If you feel that you’ve been frozen out of speaking in seminars or meetings or that your skills and abilities are not being recognized for reasons of discrimination, make a case with someone on staff. If your instructors don’t think that you should have the same opportunities as other students, those instructors are wrong. And please don’t ever again begin a seminar comment with ‘This may be stupid but I think…’ Simply say, ‘I think…’

For a full discussion of the conditions and effects of the chilly climate, see this excellent essay by Prof. Bernice Sandler, written in 2005 but, sadly, still relevant:

international women's day





About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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