Women are as ambitious as men in pursuing success in graduate school. Women and men demonstrate their ambition in their day-to-day persistence, interest, and intellectual contributions, which are changing the face of graduate education. Even though the graduate community is more enlightened than ever about the benefits of having both sexes well represented in teaching and research, it is still working to transform the traditionally male-centered structure of advanced study.
When sexism and other unconscious biases surface, women graduate students may experience the negative effects more pointedly, although men also report negative effects. For this reason, while students share many concerns about academic interactions, women express some concerns that differ from those of men.
The unspoken code in graduate education is that, aside from being intelligent, students who are assertive in classroom discussions or conference presentations attain success. However, students from marginalized groups often demonstrate a different approach to academic interactions. Many women and racial minorities, and even international students, express concern about difficulties they experience making their contributions heard. For example, in classroom discussions, women have noted that to contribute an idea, often they have to interrupt another student. They tend to interpret interruptions as rude and disrespectful, yet fear that professors and peers will wrongly attribute lack of participation to having no ideas at all. Many women report that when they do assert their ideas strongly, they feel subjected to criticism in ways their male counterparts are not — even though the assertive behavior is the same.
Research has shown that an overly competitive and critical atmosphere in graduate programs can alienate minority students, and that women, in particular, feel such alienation more intensely. There is no doubt that women are capable of providing insightful criticisms of others' work when warranted. But some interpret critical behavior as an attempt to appear intellectually superior, and thus as a form of insecurity. Women, and indeed a growing number of students in general, lament that the system does not reward one for praising the contributions of other scholars. More opportunities for collaborative work would help balance the competitive culture of graduate school.
Importance of positive feedback
Many students desire to receive frequent constructive feedback on their work. Although lack of feedback is problematic in its own right, the lack of constructive feedback can lead students to doubt their capabilities. Women tend to attribute negative experiences in graduate school to personal deficiencies, whereas men tend to attribute them to insufficient guidance or problems within the department. Regarding their mentor's personal style, men are more content than women with mentors who may be impersonal but offer solid instrumental advice. Women may interpret a professor's distance as an indication that he or she has a negative opinion of them. Studies suggest that these nuances hold true for racial minorities as well.
ResourcesFor special programs and workshops focusing on women:
Suggestions for Students
- Discuss with your mentor or professor what kinds of interactions make your participation in seminars or collaborative projects difficult. Suggest concrete ways he or she can help you participate more, such as by directing questions to you more explicitly.
- Experiment with ways of influencing class discussion so a few students don't monopolize the conversation. Encourage those who have participated once in a discussion to wait until others have had a chance to talk before contributing again.
- Point out, if a professor or peer interrupts you, that you would like to complete your thought or contribution.
- Avoid addressing your peers or professors as spokespersons for their gender. Invite your peers to offer their perspective, and, if appropriate, ask how gender may or may not influence them.
- Try to influence the tenor of group discussions that become excessively critical by asking, "What contributions does this particular article/person/report make?"
- Participate in discussions and projects in multiple ways if you find you contribute better outside of large groups (e.g., small group or pair work, e-mail discussions or discussion boards, journal comments, informal discussions, and office hours).
- Be aware of how peer or discussion groups form and try to include all who want to participate.
- Ask your mentors and/or professors to provide clearer feedback on your work, if you find their comments vague.
- Convey feedback on your peers' projects in concrete terms. Saying "this paragraph exposes the research problem succinctly, but leaves out one important point" is clearer than saying "not bad" or "I don't have any major problems with it." Ambiguous feedback can hinder others' performance.
- Remember that you have recourse to departmental resources and representatives from the Graduate Studies Office if you feel you are being treated in ways that negatively impact your graduate work.
Suggestions for Faculty
- Set ground rules with your students for group discussions in your courses or labs, and explain how your expectations for participation will advance students' learning goals.
- Experiment with ways of preventing a few students from dominating your seminars. For example, encourage students who have participated once in discussion to wait until others have had a chance to talk before contributing again.
- Avoid calling on male or female graduate students to be spokespersons for their gender. Invite students to offer their perspectives, and, if appropriate, ask them to share how they think gender may or may not influence them.
- Adjust the tenor of discussions that become overly critical. Remind students that it is always easier to criticize a work than to produce one, and follow up with: "What contributions does this particular piece make?"
- Acknowledge multiple forms of participation, e.g., group or pair work, e-mail discussions or discussion boards, journal comments, informal discussions, and office hours. Some students contribute better in small groups.
- Be aware of how discussion groups form in your seminars and determine ways to intervene if students become excluded or marginalized.
- Make sure graduate students know how to contact a departmental or Graduate Studies representative if they feel they are being treated in ways that negatively impact their work.
- Use concrete language to convey feedback on students' work. Saying "this paragraph exposes the research problem succinctly, but leaves out one important point" is clearer than "this is not bad" or "I don't have any major problems with it." Ambiguous feedback hinders students' performance.