'Dancing Backwards in High Heels'

Study finds female professors experience more work demands and special favor requests, particularly from academically "entitled" students.

January 10, 2018
Graphic from 'Sex Roles' article on students' gendered demands on professors

Numerous studies have found that female professors shoulder a disproportionate amount of service work compared to their male peers. Research also suggests that students hold female instructors to a different standard than they do male faculty members, especially when it comes to personality. Women are expected to be more nurturing and are perceived harshly when they’re not, for example.

Both sets of findings matter because they have negative implications for women’s professional success: service is generally the least valued criterion in the tenure and promotion triad of research, teaching and service, and students who view female professors as unfriendly may rate their teaching poorly as a result.

Both lines of inquiry also intersect in a new paper, which says that students request more special favors and friendship behaviors from their female professors than they do of men -- resulting in more actual work demands and emotional labor. The paper also suggests that "academically entitled" students more strongly expect that women will grant their favor requests than will male professors, and that they react strongly when women deny those requests.

“If students set higher standards for their female professors, it is more difficult for female professors to meet student expectations, perhaps resulting in poorer course evaluations, and putting more work demands and emotional strain on female professors,” lead author Amani El-Alayli, an associate professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University, said Tuesday. “Female professors may consequently be more likely to experience burnout and low job satisfaction than their male counterparts.”

All of this could interfere with female professors' likelihood of success within academe, El-Alayli said. If women feel more emotional strain, spend more time dealing with student requests, have more disgruntled students, get lower course evaluations and have less time for research activities or class preparation because of the extra demands placed on them, she added, “then their chance of getting promoted may be reduced.”

The paper, published in Sex Roles, is called “Dancing Backwards in High Heels: Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests, Particularly From Academically Entitled Students.” (“Dancing backwards” is a reference to a comment once made about Ginger Rogers doing everything her onscreen partner Fred Astaire did, just backward, in high heels.) It is based on two studies conducted by El-Alayli and her co-authors, Ashley A. Hansen-Brown, an assistant professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, and Michelle Ceynar, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University.

Asking and Expecting More of Women

The first study examined whether female professors report greater solicitation of standard work demands, special favor requests and friendship behaviors than men. Researchers contacted one male and one female professor from 300 randomly selected U.S. institutions, and the final sample included 88 full survey responses, 41 from men and 47 from women. (Respondents represented diverse set of disciplines, but the vast majority were tenured or tenure track and white.)

Surveyed professors estimated how often students from their most frequently taught course during a typical term showed certain behaviors, from “never” to 19 or more times. Examples of standard work requests included, “Students come to my regular office hours to discuss issues specifically related to the course” and “Students send emails asking questions about class materials.” Favor requests included students dropping by the office without an appointment and expecting to discuss an issue right away, or asking to redo an assignment for a better grade. Friendship behaviors included students discussing their personal problems, bringing gifts or invitations to student activities. Study 1 participants also completed two assessments of emotional labor, to determine the degree to which their jobs entailed managing their and others’ feelings.

As expected, professor gender had a significant effect on all three categories of student behaviors, according to the paper. There was no significant effect of professor gender on self-directed emotional labor (or the work one does to manage their own feelings) but women reported significantly more “other-directed” emotional labor than did men. So women appeared to be asked to manage more feelings and expressions from others than did men.

Indeed, in a more advanced analysis, professor gender significantly predicted special favor requests, which significantly predicted other-directed emotional labor. The direct effect of professor gender on other-directed emotional labor was also statistically significant. Friendship behaviors emerged as a “potential mediator,” in that professor gender significantly predicted friendship behaviors, but friendship behaviors didn’t significantly predict other-directed emotional labor.

Study 2 looked at whether students -- 121 undergraduates, about half men and half women, who completed a survey for credit in a psychology course at an unnamed U.S. public university -- would be more likely to ask favors of a fictitious female professor than of a male counterpart. It also considered whether student characteristics, such as academic entitlement (the notion they deserve to succeed, irrespective of effort), views of authority based on gender, and modern and old-fashioned sexism, had any impact.

Students, specifically those who pinged high in terms of academic entitlement, not only expected female professors to grant their special favor requests but were more inclined to make the requests, be irritated or disappointed if the professor denied the requests, and persist in asking for favors after being denied, if the professor was female versus male. They were also more likely to conclude, if the professor was female, that a request denial meant that the professor disliked them.

The authors note that the latter study found no evidence of students’ explicit sexism, such as aversion to women in authority positions, when it came to making special favor requests. So if students are simply “behaving in an opportunistic manner,” the paper says, “then their reactions to female professors regarding special favor scenarios may be driven solely by their communal expectations of them, regardless of their opinions about the legitimacy of their status.”

“Dancing Backwards” was inspired by El-Alayli’s own experiences with what she called “outrageous requests” to break her own policies or go far out of her way for a vocal minority of students over the years. Especially surprising was when students wouldn’t take no for an answer, sometimes for weeks on end. And some had negative emotional responses to having their requests denied, she said, and expressed to El-Alayli their disappointment, irritation or suspicion she didn’t like them.

El-Alayli said she was simply following her own course rules, but she always wondered if gender was at play. Her new research suggests that it is, she said, “but not because students have negative views of female professors.” Instead, students, probably unintentionally, are “expecting their female professors to take on a motherly role.”

Joya Misra, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has published numerous studies on gender and service in academe. She suggested the new study could have been strengthened by actual measures of work demands (such as the time diaries used in this 2017 study on gender and faculty workload) instead of survey data -- a limitation “Dancing Backwards” itself acknowledges. Yet Misra said she otherwise “liked the experiment here.”

“This helps us really unpack what students are thinking, and how they respond to women versus men faculty,” she said. “It makes me feel even more confident that students' expectations are gendered.”

What’s complicated, however, she said, is that gender may also be operating on faculty members in the form of a “vicious cycle.” If female professors are rewarded for being “nice,” she said, and punished for acting “masculine” -- for example, too busy -- and their male peers aren’t, women in response may act more open, responsive or “maternal” to students. (It’s important to note once again that El-Alayli’s study did find evidence of that kind of “self-directed” emotional labor -- women acting a certain way because it’s expected of them.)

In any case, Misra argued, the root of the problem is that people view women as “helpers” and men as “doers,” which she “has a tremendously negative effect on the careers of academic women, who either engage in helping behaviors -- and spend less time on more valued work -- or do not, and are viewed as selfish or not team players, even when their men colleagues are similarly less likely to engage in helping behavior but face no consequences.”


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