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February 5, 2004

Survey finds few complaints about sexism

studentDespite anecdotal reports of sexism and sexual harassment in Pitt classrooms, few such complaints were expressed by undergraduates surveyed by the University’s women’s studies program.

Women’s studies surveyed nearly 900 Pitt undergraduates two years ago to get their opinions on sexism, racism and other “campus climate” issues.

To the surprise of program faculty, women students — more than any other undergraduate group — expressed satisfaction with their Pitt classroom experiences.

But while not many students, male or female, complained of sexism on campus, 35 percent of the nearly 900 undergraduates surveyed reported hearing at least one Pitt instructor tell a sexually explicit joke in class; 30 percent reported hearing an instructor make jokes or comments that put down women, and even more — 37 percent — said they’d heard jokes or comments putting down men. (Survey results did not identify the gender of students who reported hearing such jokes/comments.)

Some 38 percent of students said that an instructor treated male and female students differently, although “differently” did not necessarily mean more or less fairly.

Women’s studies researchers, with the help of a part-time graduate student research assistant paid by the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, surveyed a broad (but, admittedly, not a statistically representative) sample of undergraduates from arts and sciences, College of General Studies, business and nursing classes during the 2001-02 academic year.

Women’s studies shared results of its survey with Arts and Sciences Dean N. John Cooper and with Jack L. Daniel, vice provost and dean of students, but no action has resulted from the report. Nor did women’s studies request any specific actions, said Irene Frieze, a professor of psychology and women’s studies.

Frieze, currently vice president of the University Senate, reported on the women’s studies survey at a recent meeting of the Senate’s educational policies committee (SEPC).

“Even though we’d heard lots of complaints and lots of informal conversations about [sexism] problems that women students were having, we didn’t find evidence of that in our survey,” Frieze told SEPC.

“Women’s studies kind of dropped this because we didn’t see evidence of a lot of sexism problems,” she said. “We certainly saw some problems of sexual harassment but we really didn’t know where to go with this, so nothing has been done with this [report] up to this point.”

Survey researchers viewed the telling of sexually explicit jokes as a form of sexual harassment, said Frieze, although SEPC member Thomas Metzger noted that what sounds like a sexually explicit joke to one person may not strike someone else that way.

The survey also found that:

• 11 percent of students said an instructor had made jokes or comments insulting blacks or other ethnic groups.

• 17 percent said an instructor had treated blacks or other minority groups differently from other groups.

• 15 percent believed an instructor was insensitive about some students’ deeply held religious convictions.

On the positive side, 53 percent of students said that an instructor had expanded their awareness of gender issues, 62 percent for issues relating to ethnic or racial minorities, and 24 percent for issues relating to gays, lesbians or bisexuals.

In a more detailed survey of a subset of 237 students enrolled in Introduction to Psychology classes, 17 percent said they saw evidence of racism on campus; 46 percent of women and 20 percent of men students said racial groups here tend to self-segregate.

Both among the subset group of students and the larger survey group, “the students who were the most distressed about their undergraduate experiences here were our African American male students,” said Frieze. “I’m sure that doesn’t surprise people but it wasn’t something that we felt capable, as a women’s studies program, of following up on.”

Johnathan White, a doctoral student in history who represents the Graduate and Professional Students Association on SEPC, pointed out that many white undergraduates come to Pitt from small towns where they meet few African-Americans or other minorities socially or in school. “I see a real lack of exposure among these students to different points of view that aren’t white and Eurocentric, especially in history, which is [the department] I’m in,” said White, who is African American.

The racial problems cited in the women’s studies survey “might be problems at universities generally, not just at Pitt,” White suggested. “If you’re a minority…unless you go to a black school, your voice is always going to be small in comparison to the mainstream’s. I don’t know how much Pitt can do” to change that.

The complete report is available online at:
Go to “Featured Documents” and click on “Campus Climate Survey.”

— Bruce Steele

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