My dissertation defense is just a few short weeks away, and as I take time to look back on the past five years, I have had the opportunity to reflect not only on the process of the research but also on the learning. When I first began my research, I knew I wanted to make an impact on the work I do in my professional world specifically around sexual violence prevention. While much of this work has been centered on compliance with the law, I can’t help but ignore the issues of climate and the very real stories I have had students tell me. These include stories of being cat-called while walking across campus; of being grabbed while attending campus parties but assuming that would happen, stories of men’s jokes and exclusion from certain male-dominated groups. Stories of why they would never come forward with their story of sexual assault because everyone, including their parents, would blame them. The stories around the anxiety and trauma a student may be experiencing as they work to fight through to complete their education despite this assault.
Despite the good work I knew we were doing on campus through bystander education, developing resources, and more, I could not ignore these very real stories that might never be addressed through policies or protocols. At the same time, I was completing my course work and seeing connections between the literature and these stories. I was reading about the empirical evidence that those who believe in traditional gender roles were more likely to blame women for their assault. I was reading about how many of the policies and programs we had in place were likely doing more harm than good for many communities including students of color and those within the LGBTQ communities. When looking through studies on gender roles and norms, I saw that most qualitative studies focused on the experiences of faculty and administration rather than the experiences of students.
When we think of research, we think of the many studies that have been done to provide data on campus climate issues. We’ve heard the data as well as the pushback on the data. While this data and quantitative form of research is critical when assessing outcomes, more important, and often sometimes less measurable, are the stories we hear. Finding a way to share these stories through research is critical to addressing the long-term systemic change for which we are ultimately striving to achieve.
Specifically, my dissertation study asked undergraduate women to share their experiences of gender within academic, extracurricular, and social settings. What they shared were experiences that could not be measured through climate surveys or analytics. They shared experiences that we as women professionals are most certainly aware of from our own experiences but most likely have never shared. For example, within academics, the participants shared the feeling of being less intelligent, qualified, or ready than their male counterparties. This included their hesitancy to enter more “competitive” fields that they associated with intelligence and wealth such as finance or engineering.
I next asked students about their experiences within the extracurricular setting. The data across institutions showed that women were well aware of the prestige we – the administration - placed upon more male-centered groups such as athletics. They were quick to point to the banners around campus of male athletes that place prestige upon these groups and individuals. Women are also aware that we must work to navigate our leadership style and not come off as “too bitchy” or god-forbid, “bossy.” These are issues that as professional women we are aware of but seldom discuss; yet our students are thinking about them as well but are discussing them even more rarely. We need to highlight and bring these experiences forward so we can better adapt our trainings, programs, and practices to meet the needs of all students.
Finally, women in the study had a great deal to say about their experiences in party settings. They shared how they felt the need to be dressed in revealing clothing to even be let into the parties. How wearing a jacket- even during a blizzard – was frowned upon. They shared the common occurrence of being touched, grabbed, or ridiculed while in these parties. Every single participant shared at least one incident in which they themselves, or a close friend, had been the victim of some sort of male aggression or men’s advances for sexual activity. Only one of them had ever gone forward with a report to campus police and student affairs.
As women and as student affairs practitioners, we need to be honest with ourselves. We know these things are happening because they are not only happening to us now but happened when we were students. These incidents should not come as any shock to us, however; we also cannot hide or excuse them. Therefore, it is our responsibility as practitioners, researchers, and advocates to bring these stories to life and allow them to be a part of the discussion about sexual violence prevention.
When asked for data, the quantitative and the statistics are important, but these stories are also important because they bring context and meaning to the numbers. Hearing these stories and perspectives allow us to adjust our programs and policies to address issues of climate in a meaningful way rather than constantly reacting to reports of sexual violence. On my own campus, I have adjusted many of my programs with my students to focus more on the issues of gender than on sexual assault. I believe that by doing so we open up a great conversation about the role of gender in shaping perceptions that often lead to control and violence. Rather than definitions of consent, we talk about respect, responsibility, and authenticity. As a result, I have seen my students – both men and women – more engaged and more responsive to being involved in the conversation.
This research is also needed, not only to give voice to women, but also to educate others, particularly men. Throughout my research process, and still today, I have shared the findings with those around me. Many times I am reminded by how many men – most who are very well-intentioned and those who I would even call “feminists” – were not aware of many of the challenges women face in their day-to-day lives. They were not aware of the standards women felt they were held to or the compromising positions women felt subject to. They were also not aware of the internalized victimizing that happens consciously or unconsciously through messages received from loved ones. Sharing this research informally has already created a difference in the perspectives of those around me. As I continue to formally share my research, I hope to continue to have a greater impact on the climate of college campuses, starting with those students I work with each day. Higher education is an academically-driven system where empirical research studies are given more credence, so more research must be done to bring light to women’s experiences. This research can turn into conference presentations and articles that can be cited as a way for your institution to move forward on addressing issues of climate and creating change. Such research is time consuming and can cost money, but are also more valuable in creating long-term change. In addition, grants through the NASPA foundation and your institution are likely available to make this possible.
Research on all women’s experiences are important, but let us not forget the experiences of students, specifically. They are who we serve and who we can create change for. They are also the group that we have the greatest potential to empower for creating change themselves and their futures. We know from experience that when we bring ideas to the table, they are not nearly as strong as the ideas and voices of students. Let us raise those student voices not only through practice but also through research that supports our practice.
Kelly is the Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Regis in Weston, MA. Within NASPA, she serves as the state director for Massachusetts-Region I. She recently completed her Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, with her dissertation topic being: Through Their Voices: A Study of Undergraduate Women’s Experiences with Patriarchy in Higher Education.