Contrapower Harassment and the Professorial
Archetype: Gender, Race, and Authority in the Classroom
By NiCole T. Buchanan and Tamara A. Bruce, Department of Psychology,
Michigan State University
NiCole Buchanan's Personal Reflections
I began teaching as a second-year graduate student. Twenty-two years
old and naïve about the difficulties I would face, I expected
challenges to my authority due to my age. I even suspected students
might sense my insecurity as a new instructor. Although I knew I would
make errors while learning the process of teaching, I expected students
would be generous in allowing me to work through the process and perhaps
even embrace my naïveté. For the most part, this was true.
Students were kind, willing to learn what I had to offer, and forgiving
of my mistakes. What I did not anticipate were the reactions of a
small but significant group of students who found my presence offensive,
my authority comical, and my capacity to disperse knowledge non-existent.
For this group of students, I will never be seen as knowledgeable
or worthy of their respect because I do not embody the two factors
they believe are key to being a professor: being white and being male.
Now that I am a professor, this segment of the student population
continues to exist. When I enter the classroom, I can usually spot
such a student immediately: as he realizes I am the professor, he
leans back in his chair, crosses his arms, and puts his feet on the
chair in front of him. This student will often give me "the look,"
the smirk or contemptuous stare that says, "This woman, this black
woman, cannot possibly know anything. What gives her the right to
Whenever such a student appears in my class, I know that I can count
on a difficult semester. I will likely face continual challenges to
my authority. Even the simplest of assertions will be met with demands
that I produce proof that what I say is not my mere opinion but is
substantiated by legitimate sources of knowledge. His demeanor in
class will often reflect defiance and condescension, which has the
potential to infect the entire class. Such behaviors are designed
to "put me in my place," remind me that I am merely a woman--and a
black woman at that. His goal is to reinforce the long-held social
hierarchy that places men, particularly white men, above all women,
regardless of age, experience, or education.
Harassment and the Law
Such incidents occur despite the fact that policies designed to protect
against discrimination and harassment have existed for over three
decades. The first such law was Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
of 1964, which was a general provision prohibiting discrimination
based on sex, race, color, religion, or national origin in the workplace.
This was followed by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,
the first statute specific to educational programs. It enjoined educational
institutions against discrimination or exclusion from any educational
program on the basis of sex. With this statute, educational institutions
were now accountable to the same non-discrimination standards established
by Title VII for employment settings. However, it was not until 1980
that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) established
a legal definition of sexual harassment that outlined specific behaviors
that constitute sexual harassment.
Sexual Harassment: An Occupational Hazard
Even with these laws in place, sexual harassment is the most common
occupational hazard for working women, with half of all women being
sexually harassed over the course of their working lives. Sexually
harassing behaviors are broadly defined and can include examples as
wide-ranging as sex discrimination, unwanted sexual attention, sexual
coercion, and even sexual assault. Furthermore, although sexual harassment
is often only recognized if a boss harasses an employee, such behaviors
can and do occur across all levels, including peer-to-peer harassment
among co-workers and employee-to-boss harassment.
Theories examining why sexual harassment occurs have focused on power
differentials between individuals both within organizations and in
society. Many theorists have pointed to the influence of patriarchy
and the role of male dominance in society as contributing factors.
This is supported by findings that sexual harassment occurs most frequently
when men have positions of social and/or structural power over women,
when women enter occupations traditionally dominated by men, or when
women challenge definitions of masculinity and femininity.
Unlike the typical assumptions about workplace harassment--that it
is often sexual and that it is perpetrated by those in power and directed
toward subordinates--women with formal organizational power often
face harassment by those they instruct, guide, and evaluate. Katherine
Benson (1984) defined this form of harassment as contrapower harassment,
which refers to the harassment of those with more organizational power
by those with less. This definition has often been furthered by discussions
of "formal" versus "informal" power in a particular context, which
is influenced by societal norms. For example, while a female professor
may have more formal power than a male student, because society still
conveys more power and authority to men, the male student has more
informal power due to his gender. Parallel situations can occur when
discussing differences in race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation,
and social class.
Contrapower Harassment in the Academy
Eros DeSouza and A. Gigi Fansler have estimated that 10-53% of all
female university faculty have experienced an assortment of behaviors
defined as contrapower harassment. Although contrapower harassment
can also happen to male workers, the targets of contrapower, as with
all forms of sexual harassment, are disproportionately female. Moreover,
Buchanan's research has found that women who are members of racial
or ethnic minority groups are often doubly discriminated against,
which has been substantiated by Caroline Turner's research with women
faculty of color. This reality is problematic given that today's universities
are becoming increasingly diverse among both the student body and
faculty. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics,
as of 1999 women comprised 37.2% of all full-time professors in degree
granting and 14.4% of all faculty are now people of color. Nevertheless,
the professorial archetype is still that of a white heterosexual man.
As people of color and women enter academia, they challenge student
perceptions of what a professor should be. As a result, professors
may find themselves the target of harassment from both peers and subordinates.
The most obvious examples of contrapower harassment are suggestive
looks, body language, physical harassment, or verbal remarks directed
towards a professor by a student. Covert behaviors can include a wide
range of actions including anonymous, inappropriate phone calls or
letters and negative verbal or written comments about a professor
expressed to others, including her peers, superiors, staff, or other
students. While the overt behaviors have been shown to be the most
upsetting to victims in the short-term, the insidious nature of covert
behaviors also have long-term negative emotional and professional
One of the most common and potentially damaging areas where contrapower
harassment occurs is via anonymous teaching evaluations of instructors.
Students' evaluations of women faculty are sometimes suspiciously
low. Susan Basow's research has found consistent gender differences
in student ratings of professors, particularly when male students
rate female professors. Additionally, Caroline Turner has found that
female faculty of color are frequently challenged by and negatively
evaluated by students, regardless of teaching ability. These discrepancies
make it appear that women are less capable instructors, the effects
of which can persist beyond a single semester. For example, teaching
evaluations are often the initial screening tool used to determine
which faculty will be nominated for teaching awards. Professors with
an established history of high average ratings are more likely to
receive such awards, which provide the foundation for future career
awards such as Distinguished Professor. Therefore, the systemic bias
in teaching evaluations can dramatically reduce the number of women
eligible for prestigious career awards in the future.
In addition to averaged rankings, written comments on evaluations
often reveal active misogyny and harassment. To demonstrate this point,
several students in a Multicultural Psychology course at a Midwestern
university examined the content of anonymous student comments on a
Web site accessible only to other students within the institution.
The purpose of the site is to provide more detailed information on
specific courses and instructors to inform students as they select
courses. The results were profoundly disturbing. Female professors
were criticized as being "ugly," "dorky," or "frumpy" in their dress
and appearance. Other comments were often filled with sexual images,
fantasies, and explicit comments regarding sexual acts students wanted
female professors to perform. In hostile student commentaries, the
words "bitch," "whore," and other derogatory names were commonplace.
In some cases, students wrote detailed fantasies of how they would
like to hurt or kill their female professor. The students found no
similar examples of comments wishing harm or violence against male
faculty. In fact, while men were occasionally described as "jerks"
or "assholes," the vast majority of explicit sexual comments and derogatory
names were directed toward female faculty.
Specific to teaching evaluations, Michael Messner found that while
men are evaluated for their skills and abilities as instructors, women
are first evaluated by their gender performance and then by their
teaching performance. He analyzes this phenomenon by examining comments
about female professors' clothing and found that women are caught
in a catch-22 whether they dress more or less formally. For example,
if a woman tries to assert her authority in the classroom by wearing
more formal attire, she may be seen as being less feminine and, therefore,
not performing her appropriate gender role. As a result, students
are critical because she is not conforming to their stereotypes of
women as feminine, not authoritative. However, if she dresses informally,
it contributes to the image of women as unworthy of the same respect
and status afforded to male faculty, no matter what their attire.
Regardless of why and how it occurs, contrapower harassment has a
severe impact on the psychological and professional lives of women
faculty. Many faculty who experience contrapower harassment report
heightened levels of depression and anxiety, and severe cases of harassment
can lead to traumatic stress symptoms. There are also negative job
consequences. Some women's interest in teaching decreased as a way
to avoid harassment. For those who remain, negative class ratings
and skewed peer or supervisor perceptions can influence tenure and
promotion decisions for female faculty, resulting in fewer women achieving
positions of power within academic institutions.
Addressing Contrapower Harassment
Given the high cost of contrapower harassment and the vast number
of women affected, it is important to reduce its impact. Having a
syllabus that includes highly structured guidelines and grading criteria
and adhering strictly to those standards can offer some protection
from claims of subjectivity, capriciousness, and disorganization.
Women can also assert their authority by not allowing students to
use the professor's first name, dressing more formally, and keeping
the physical space of the classroom orderly.
Another suggestion for combating student bias in teaching evaluations
is to get independent evaluations of professors' teaching effectiveness.
For example, many institutions have instruction consultants who will
not only help faculty with their teaching but also will observe them
in the classroom and provide written feedback. This feedback can be
used to improve teaching, regardless of one's current abilities. Perhaps
more importantly, such evaluations can provide independent verification
of a professor's teaching skills, which then can be used in conjunction
with student evaluations for tenure and promotion decisions.
Michele Paludi and colleagues suggest that the best method for combating
the negative career impact of contrapower harassment is implementing
policies and training to educate people, especially other professors
and university officials about its prevalence and consequences. Many
successful anti-harassment and anti-discrimination programs already
exist that can be used to create training and educational programs
specifically addressing contrapower harassment. It is important to
include those who make tenure and promotion decisions in such workshops.
Because of the complicated nature of contrapower harassment and the
entrenched social hierarchy and power that cause it, easy and quick
solutions do not exist. We remain hopeful, however, that actively
addressing contrapower harassment with policy and training initiatives
will decrease its prevalence and its consequences on the career trajectories
of women in the academy.
Basow, S. A. (1998). Student evaluations: The role of gender bias
styles. In L. H. Collins, J. C. Chrisler, K. Quina (Eds.), Career
strategies for women in academe: Arming Athena (pp.135-156). Thousand
Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc
Buchanan, N. T. (2005). The nexus of race and gender domination:
sexual harassment of African American women. In P. Morgan and J. Gruber
(Eds.), In the company of men: Re-discovering the links between sexual
harassment and male domination (pp. 294-320). Boston, MA: Northeastern
DeSouza, E., & Fansler, A. G. (2003). Contrapower Sexual Harassment:
A Survey of
Students and Faculty Members. Sex Roles, 48, 519-542.
Messner, M. A. (2000). White guy habitus in the classroom: Challenging
reproduction of privilege. Men and Masculinities, 2, 457-469.
National Center for Education Statistics (2002). Digest of Educational
Postsecondary Education: Degree-Granting Institutions, Faculty, Full-time
instructional faculty in degree-granting institutions, by race/ethnicity,
academic rank, and sex: Fall 1999. Retrieved January 10, 2005, from
Nelson, C., Trzemzalski, J., Malkasian, K., Pfeffer, K. (2004, April).
Expressions of incompetence, sexual fantasies, and sexualized hostility
toward male and female faculty: A Qualitative Analysis of student
comments on an anonymous faculty evaluation website. Presentation
at Multicultural Psychology (Psy 493W/Psy 992), Michigan State University,
East Lansing, MI.
Paludi, M. A., DeFour, D. C., Roberts, R., Tedesco, A. M., Brathwaite,
J., Marino, A.
(1995). Academic sexual harassment: From theory and research to program
implementation. In H. Landrine (Ed.), Bridging cultural diversity
to feminist psychology: Theory, research, and practice (pp.177-191).
Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Turner, C. S. (2002). Women of color in the academe: Living with
The Journal of Higher Education, 73, 74-93.
Turner, C. S. (2003). Incorporation and Marginalization in the Academy:
Toward Center for Faculty of Color? Journal of Black Studies, 34,
Caplan, P. J. (1995). Lifting a ton of feathers: A woman's guide
to surviving in the
academic world. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Toth, E. (1997). Ms. Mentor's impeccable advice for women in academia.
PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Defour, D. C., (2003). The interface of race, sex, sexual orientation,
and ethnicity in
understanding sexual harassment. In C. A. Paludi, M. Paludi (Eds.),
Academic and workplace sexual harassment: A handbook of cultural,
social science, management, and legal perspectives (pp.31-45). Westport,
CT: Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.
McKinney, K. (1992). Contrapower sexual harassment: The effects of
student sex and
type of behavior on faculty perceptions. Sex Roles, 27, 627-643.
Rospenda, K. M., Richman, J. A., & Nawyn, S. J. (1998). Doing
power: The confluence of gender, race, and class in contrapower sexual
harassment. Gender and Society, 12, 40-60.