When students walk into my classroom at the beginning of each semester, one of the first things they notice about me is that I’m male.

No, I don’t sprinkle testosterone on my cornflakes or use Axe body spray. Gender is just something we naturally notice about other people. And based on that observation, students immediately derive assumptions about what sort of teacher I am going to be.

These perceptions were the subject of an informative workshop put on by ADVANCE last week in the Political Science department. ADVANCE is a University program that aims to foster gender equality in science and engineering. The workshop’s facilitators, Psychology Prof. Abby Stewart and ADVANCE consultant Diana Kardia, worked with a group of male and female GSIs, lecturers and professors to address and solve gender challenges that teachers may face in the classroom. For me, the workshop was a welcome departure from some training experiences I’ve had in the past.

One frustration with my prior training was that sessions degenerated into a laundry list of possible problems that female teachers might encounter in the classroom instead of a useful discussion about gender dynamics.

This approach upset me for two reasons. First, it didn’t help me deal with issues I could personally face in the classroom. The training session seemed to implicitly indicate that as a man, I would instantly command authority and respect. It seemed that it would be my fault if I failed, but if I succeeded, it would be just because I was a man. I once had a fellow GSI dismiss a successful teaching technique I had used, saying it worked because I “was a guy.”

And that type of training didn’t seem to help my female colleagues, either. Due to trainers’ haste to hammer home the gravity of the challenges female GSIs would face, I could see several women becoming visibly nervous. Instead of focusing on ways to overcome challenges, this approach increased their self-consciousness and sapped their self-confidence — clearly not the best way to help anyone establish authority.

I remember an incident where I helped mediate a dispute between a female GSI and a male student. The student clearly needed an attitude adjustment, but I also could see how an overly defensive reaction by a GSI exacerbated the situation. The result was that everyone lost — my colleague lost more self-confidence and may have become more defensive in the classroom, and the student’s perception of female teachers probably became worse.

Fortunately, the ADVANCE workshop I attended was part of the solution – a proactive, not defensive, conversation about gender that focused on tools to use in teaching.

For example, Stewart said, and several of my colleagues have noticed, that females tend to have to work harder in the classroom to establish authority. It’s not that women can’t gain respect as teachers or that men will always retain authority, it’s just that many students are more likely to give male teachers the benefit of the doubt at the beginning of the term.

This puts females in a difficult position because even though they have to work harder to establish their authority with students, they also risk getting labeled as a “bitch”.

Other differences include how accessible students perceive their GSIs and professors to be. One of my female co-workers reported that students seemed to view female teachers as more accessible and nurturing than men.

There are trade-offs to this difference in perception. On one hand, my female colleague might face more unwarranted appeals for leniency on grades or deadlines. On the other hand, students might feel more comfortable bringing serious problems to her attention than they would to mine — something that could hinder my ability to be an effective teacher.

And there are other stereotypes men face, too — for example, the lingering suspicion fueled by the actions of a small minority of my colleagues (shame on you) that we are likely to take advantage of female students. That stereotype can sometimes make office hours a bit awkward.

But the point here isn’t to draw a moral equivalence between the challenges that men and women might face as teachers in the classroom. Instead, I want to highlight the need to properly address these issues in GSI training in a way that gives teachers tools to overcome them.

One of those tools is very simple. Professors: Support your GSIs. On the first day, introduce them and their accomplishments and say you have faith in them. Enforce the policies on your syllabus and don’t undermine your GSIs by changing grades or granting extensions behind their backs. GSIs: back each other and your professors up. And male GSIs, especially, speak well of the competence of your female colleagues and make it a point to emphasize the authority of any professor who you work with.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.

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