The University Record, March 11, 1997

CRLT workshop addresses authority issues for women By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Serivices

Faced with aggressively challenging or ostentatiously bored students, women faculty members and teaching assistants often wonder, "Is it my personality or my gender that reduces my credibility and authority in the classroom? And no matter what the cause, what can I do to overcome the problem?"

photo, Anne
White Harrington and Diana Kardia talked with women about the issues raised when women are in positions of authority.  The two offered tips on dealing with students. There are a surprising number of practical steps, according to Anne White Harrington, lecturer in communication and director of teacher development at the Business School, and Diana Kardia, instructional consultant at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). The two shared their expertise with some 25 women at a CRLT workshop titled "Gender, Authority and Credibility: A Workshop for Women."

Authority issues plague women because, unlike men who rely on military and coaching models, a woman's role model is often limited to "mother," a figure that triggers both positive and negative responses. Women also have fewer professional role models than men. For instance, in 1995 women represented only 22 percent of the tenured or tenure-track faculty at U-M.

"Women are socialized to be pleasing, caring, deferent to others, non-confrontational, and to focus on individual relationships," Harrington said. "Often their accomplishments are trivialized, they are not invited to informal meetings, they get less feedback from colleagues, they teach more large lecture courses and, because they don't network with men, have diminished access to research funding."

So should women just try to act like men? No, Harrington said, because it doesn't work. Women are uncomfortable doing so and, since male-like behavior is so unexpected in women, it can backfire.

What are the solutions? Kardia, Harrington and workshop participants came up with a list.


Reconcile caring for students with grading them. "Challenge your students---don't just encourage them."


Focus on the whole group, not just a few needy students.


Use humor but avoid put-downs.


Express your anger firmly and clearly, without losing control.


Don't apologize. Explain the facts and offer a solution. "I forgot your tests. If you want yours today, pick it up at my office after class."


Don't brag but make it clear that you are the expert in the room.


Avoid self-deprecating humor. Women don't pull it off as well as men.


Talk more slowly and from the chest; use broader, slower gestures; make eye contact; maintain good posture and don't cross your ankles.


Walk in with prepared questions for students.


Do more group work so you can play to a woman's strength---personal relationships.


Strive for cooperation rather than power. Power shuts students down.