Attitudes Toward Equity Issues: A Graduate Student Sample

April 2002

Over the course of SAFS’ ten years, many equity-related issues in the academic workplace have been prominent at one time or other, several of these having been identified by Professor Sandra Acker and other writers in the spring, 2001 issue of the OCUFA Forum. Many such issues, of course, have been identified by previous writers in this Newsletter.

One perspective, often overlooked, concerns the general orientations held by students toward equity-related matters, including the issue of gender-based or gender-restricted hiring. Student orientations are relevant, since these must coexist amid other, sometimes conflicting, perspectives about these matters, as advocated by professors and other authorities. We have been interested in the question of to what extent the student constituency supports various equity perspectives and endorses attitudes supporting them.

In late 2001, with support from a President’s Fund SSHRC grant, we thus administered a survey (complete version and data available upon request), composed of 34 statements about equity issues, to 48 female and 9 male graduate students in psychology, average age = 26.84 yrs. (range = 22 to 47), at the University of Windsor. Each item was answered using a 7-point Likert scale assessing strength of endorsement (where 1= most agreement and 7 = least agreement). Each student was instructed not to respond in terms of experience with a particular university, but only according to his or her view toward universities in general. Most had attended at least two different universities.

Results showed generally modest and rather inconsistent support for many positions popular with equity programs, for example, that women would be better taught by or more comfortable with female faculty, or are not treated with civility by male professors, and so on. Female respondents only mildly supported, and males were relatively indifferent to the general proposition that a university position could justifiably be advertised for female applicants only. Table 1 presents mean item scores, in ascending order for females, with item content shown in abbreviated form.

The women students generally agreed with "equity" positions - that is, those perceived as favouring and advancing the academic situation of women particularly - somewhat more than did the men or disagreed with them somewhat less. T-tests showed significant sex differences (p <.05) in responses to 8 items (24%) (Table 1). Women were thus much more likely to believe: that universities would benefit from having more female faculty with the goal of a 50-50 ratio, that there should be at least one female and as many as possible on every departmental and university committee, that there should be different standards for evaluating the academic performance of female faculty (t significant on one of four items assessing this issue), and that there should be more scholarships and grant opportunities available only to female applicants; also that hiring in universities should not be gender-blind as in hiring musicians for a symphony orchestra, that it is good for universities to advertise positions specifically for female faculty since there are already enough men, and that it is critical for universities to have strong equity-based organizations to oversee all aspects of hiring procedures. The basic notion that universities would benefit from having more female faculty was found to be the strongest discriminating variable between male and female participants, again with women being more likely to support this position.

For both the total and female-only subsamples, the significant (p < .05) Pearson correlations concerning participants’ age showed that older students, perhaps surprisingly, were generally less likely to support "non-equity" positions, for example, the "symphony orchestra" approach to hiring, as well as the position that if females were to be deliberately given preference over male professors in hiring, this would be an insult to many female applicants and might cause them to lose respect from colleagues as a result. They were also less likely to agree that females are under-represented in sciences and engineering not through discrimination but due to factors such as having other talents or interests. It may be that older students have become more familiar with the nature and advancement of equity causes, are more familiar with past inequities and issues within the women’s movement, and/or that they better realize or perceive that female students still face areas of actual or possible discrimination within academic environments. For the total sample, the above correlations were .334 (p<.014), .275 (p<.042), and .284 (p<.036) respectively.

Table 1

Means of Responses to Equity Survey Items; (N = 57 graduate students; n = 48 female; 9 male)

(ne = "non-equity" item; n = "neutral" item, excluded from present analysis)

Lower values (range = 1 to 7) indicate stronger endorsement of position

* Indicates a statistically significant difference

Survey Item Women Men
If hiring only women, should say so in job advertisement (n) 1.79 1.11
Should have more female faculty, already enough men; goal is 50/50 ratio 2.10 3.44*
Should have females on every committee in university 2.42 4.00*
Must have strong equity committees re language, terms, documents 2.60 3.25
Good to have academic credit for feminist activities in community 2.96 3.78
Equity offices should be heavily involved, oversee all aspects of hiring 2.96 4.11*

There is gender-based discrimination now in hard sciences 3.04 4.11
Right for OHRC to advertise female-only university position 3.17 4.00
Preference for female faculty an insult to them; might lose respect from colleagues (ne) 3.26 2.78
Hire only on basis of merit; sex of applicant irrelevant (ne) 3.27 2.33
Ok to advertise for females with feminist orientation in their work 3.28 4.22

Hiring should be gender-blind, as in a symphony orchestra (ne) 3.58 2.22*
Use different or more lenient methods for evaluating female faculty 3.75 4.78
Discrimination in sciences due to factors other than gender (ne) 3.79 3.56
Female faculty are a minority group, victims of discrimination 4.02 4.56
More scholarships available to women only 4.12 5.89*
Female students more comfortable with female faculty 4.17 3.78

AA programs are discrimination against men (ne) 4.25 3.22
Female professors expected to care more/be more empathic than men 4.32 5.44
Good to advertise for females only; already enough men 4.38 5.89*
Females in science/engineering suffer intentional discrimination 4.38 4.89
Should be more grants open to women applicants only 4.42 5.78*
University presidents should be women 4.60 5.00

More demands made on female professors 4.73 5.22
Female students prefer to work with female professors 4.83 4.11
Females on all committees an unfair burden to female professors 5.06 4.56
Can advertise higher academic rank as possible for female applicants 5.30 5.56
Evaluate academic records of females differently, due to hardships 5.33 6.00
Evaluate records differently due to child/family pressures 5.38 6.33

Publications should refuse advertisements for females only (ne) 5.44 5.25
Evaluate CV/publication/grant record differently for female faculty 5.44 6.56*
Females better taught by female faculty 5.52 5.67
Female students not treated with civility/understanding by male faculty 5.69 5.89
Should be different standards for overall evaluation of female faculty 5.73 6.44

Women thus supported some equity positions at higher levels relative to men, although on most items (76%) there were no significant gender differences. Also, on most items there were no differences in terms of one gender strongly accepting and the other strongly rejecting a position. Inspection of the means with strict reference to the scales’ mid-point (4) shows that on only 11 items did the women endorse equity positions, as these were defined previously, or disagree (4 instances) with non-equity positions, and most of the former showed relatively mild endorsement and/or relative indifference. Moreover, many of the mean differences with respect to gender (Table 1), even some for which significant gender differences emerged, reflected differing levels of non-support and/or indifference more than support for equity positions. On 4 items, concerning hiring issues, women mildly supported "non-equity" positions, such as the symphony orchestra approach, though males supported them more. On 22 items (66%), inspection of the means, as above, showed that women participants were actually indifferent or negative toward pro-equity or positive toward non-equity positions.

Of course, the present exercise cannot adequately reflect the complexities and issues of which the present items were sound-bites. While the present sample will not totally reflect all student populations, we believe it was nevertheless a relevant, if not totally representative, sample. Indeed the proportion of men was small, though again this difference reflects a general demographic trend in university populations and apparently many graduate programs. In each individual program therefore, a similar situation will obtain in terms of gender representation and "dynamics."

In many ways, the data show that both men and women within student populations may be assumed to hold personal orientations toward equity matters which, in fact, they do not hold, or do not strongly or consistently hold. Pitfalls therefore exist in generalizing about "typically" male or female points of view, and certainly further data are needed from additional studies of student orientations. In any event, one may wonder whether official equity offices and organizations in universities hold and advocate their positions much more intensely than do those who provide the matrix and forum for this advocacy and for whom universities exist, that is, the student population.