See anything wrong with the above statements? Apparently, the Course and Teacher Evaluation Council, the body that collects student feedback on Northwestern faculty and courses and disseminates it university-wide, did not.
The CTEC office receives around 3,000 comments per quarter and it is impossible to read them all, says University Registrar Jaci Casazza – so no one does. Instead, they are distributed to academic departments two weeks before publishing for review. If there are no complaints, the procedure is complete.
Although CTEC guidelines direct students to avoid comments on gender, physical appearance and age, microaggressions – subtle everyday actions that reinforce negative stereotypes – somehow slip through the cracks, unreported. While these evaluations may only be words, sexist remarks regarding a female professor’s voice, appearance or intelligence reflect the reality of an academic environment defined by masculinity – something professional women never quite escape.
Rachel Davis Mersey, an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism, related a specific experience of subtle sexism during her years at Northwestern.
“Many students, when they email me for the first time, call me Ms. Mersey,” she says. “I’ve asked some of my male colleagues if they’re often referred to as ‘Mr.’ and they say, ‘No, it’s always professor or doctor.’”
According to a former Northwestern graduate student and current visiting assistant professor, who requested to remain anonymous, these kinds of sexist patterns begin early in a woman’s academic career. When she started graduate school at the university, her incoming cohort was mostly men, and the gender gap created an odd dynamic in the classroom.
“I was talking to some of my male friends, and they were like, ‘We were terrified. We were super scared and had no idea what we were doing, and so we just would talk louder and faster and talk over people if we didn’t know the answer,’” she says. “Most of my female friends and I were like, ‘If we don’t know for sure, we’re not going to say anything.’”
This difference in communication styles becomes problematic, she says.
“Even from the start of your graduate career, you’re sort of staking out these positions for yourself where you are folding in on yourself when you are feeling less comfortable, whereas male students are promoting themselves,” she says. “That sort of thing has long term effects in terms of doing conferences and interacting with certain faculty here which really affects the trajectory of your career.”
In order to progress in a co-ed environment, women must walk the line between the masculine traits associated with strong work performance and the feminine traits society expects them to portray, says Northwestern psychology professor Alice Eagly.
“Women are expected to be nice and kind and sweet and be friendly to other people and we might accept that,” Eagly says. However, if a woman does present herself as quite feminine, she says, “people think, ‘I don’t really know if she can do that job; she’s awfully nice and sweet, but that doesn’t mean she’ll have enough authority in that job to do it well.”’
The former graduate student says she has seen this problem reflected in educational settings.
“I know lots of my friends have had issues trying to project authority in classes that have a largely male student body,” she says.
Robin Lakoff, a sociolinguist at the University of California, Berkeley credited with bringing gender to the forefront of the linguistics community, suggests that to find this professional neutral, a woman must be able to function in two worlds – one masculine and one feminine.
“She becomes in effect a bilingual,” Lakoff writes in her 1975 book, Language and Woman’s Place. “Like many bilinguals, she may never really be a master of either language, though her command of both is adequate enough for most purposes, she may never feel really comfortable using either, and never be certain she is using the right one in the right place to the right person.”
Finding a middle ground isn’t always easy, says the former Northwestern graduate student.
“At least in [my] department, I think that most of the women ended up taking a little longer to find their professional footing just because they weren’t presenting the correct image that was this sort of a forward, masculine one,” she says.
And the CTEC office can only do so much.
“We do allow individual faculty and department chairs to ask for comments to be removed and there’s a whole evaluation process,” Casazza explains. “So if something is clearly sexist, it’s profane, it’s racist – any of those kind of easily identified, unacceptable behaviors, we remove those.”
Faculty, she says, have the responsibility of drawing those lines.
“I was much more sensitive to innuendo and commentary in my very early CTECs than I am now, as I see the swath of the years behind me,” Mersey says.
Nearly a decade later, an aversion to the feminine can still be found in the widespread critique of female professors’ speech patterns in CTECs from Northwestern students.
“Pretty much for all of time, people have found things about what they perceive to be young women’s speech and kind of critiqued them and said that it sounds unconfident or insecure or immature, not smart,” says Annette D’Onofrio, a Weinberg college fellow and soon-to-be assistant professor who specializes in sociolinguistics. “Women are being asked to make this extra effort to change their speech,” she says – something to which even industry leaders are not immune.
In May 2016, Amanda Terkel, a senior reporter and managing editor for the Huffington Post, tweeted that a Medill professor had thought she sounded young when she called to check a student’s references and suggested she was a poor writer because of it. Medill Professor Alec Klein later acknowledged he was the faculty member she had spoken with, but he did not admit to any sexist conduct.
Although women like Terkel are often criticized for these vocal qualities, vocal fry (low vibrating sounds that cause creaking or cracking in the voice), uptalk (raising one’s voice at the end of a sentence) and filler phrases (words such as “like” or “um”)are actually not gender-specific, D’Onofrio explains, as people of all genders use them; men like NPR’s Ira Glass, actor Johnny Depp and even President Barack Obama, with his many pauses, display them, too.
In Mersey’s opinion, vocal habits do not prevent her from being an effective presenter.
“There are things about my speaking of which I am very proud. I am a projector and I feel confident in my voice and I have no intention of changing that,” she says. “I don’t know how much my tone is affected by my excitement. I think that I’m a very animated, excited lecturer because I love the topic; I love being in the classroom.”
Still, the criticism remains. “People kept tabs on how often she said ‘in essence,’ ‘ultimately’ and ‘what I want you to know,’” reads one of Mersey’s CTECs from Fall Quarter 2015. “...verbal crutch much?”
“What’s underlying that is this tendency to critique women’s language in general,” D’Onofrio says. “There’s this kind of assumption that however men speak is the default and it doesn’t need to be corrected, and that women somehow need to change their language to that standard.”
Even in something as universal as language, men still have the upper hand.
“Whose language gets policed completely reflects the power dynamics in society,” D’Onofrio says. “It’s basically a form of discrimination that we’re more comfortable with.”
And discrimination is not without consequences when it is reflected in CTECs, suggests Casazza.
“There’s a fair amount of research in this area now that’s saying the numeric responses for people of color and women are generally lower than white men,” she says – and this can affect an educator’s chance for promotion.
“These things go into your files. When you’re applying for jobs, you send them to various universities,” says the former visiting assistant professor. “When you’re applying for tenure, you send them through the tenure process so they’re being looked at all the time in the same way that any sort of professional, yearly evaluation would be in a business.”
If women continually receive lower scores than the men they are competing against, it will be particularly difficult for them to advance to upper-level positions at Northwestern.
Casazza says this should not be the only way teaching is evaluated.
“People think that they can say anything when they’re anonymous,” she says. “We have these inherent biases that perpetuate problems in higher education that we are trying to solve, so it’s an imperfect system, for sure.”
The university is currently transitioning to a new CTEC platform that will have the capacity to better filter out offensive comments.
“With the new tool, we do have the ability to do text analysis, so we will be doing that at a some point in the future, especially to check easy things like inappropriate language,” Casazza explains. “It’ll be the more subtle things that’ll be difficult to evaluate.”
But despite gendered criticism, women like Professor Mersey have surmounted the barriers – feminine qualities and all.
“I’m a big believer in ‘You are your package of assets and liabilities, and you’ve got to deal with it,’” Mersey says. “Whether you see [my voice] as an asset or a liability, I’m still the faculty member at the front of the room.”