Of course, an analysis of academia would not be complete without focusing on one of its core elements: teaching. Statistically, women tend to make up a higher percentage of teaching positions in pre-university education; a study done by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the percentage of male educators have actually declined between 1999-2000 and 2017-18 in pre-primary, primary, and secondary education. However, at the university level, this trend is reversed. A summary of global data by nonprofit group Catalyst shows that not only do women hold fewer senior academic positions in universities in Australia, Japan, the United States, and many countries in Europe, but they are often paid less for their work as well.
However, this is not to say that women who are given the opportunity to hold higher-ranking or tenured positions in academia do not perform fulfilling work. Here, Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones describes how she feels she is engaged in constant growth as an educator, even though she has stopped teaching through more traditional avenues at the current point in her career.
"I was a TA when I was in college and when I was a resident, I taught Harvard medical students. That's because we all did give lectures and had students with us. When I came here, we were a very small department, and everyone has students with them all the time...so you're teaching every day. It's not like in undergradutate school [where] people teach, they have a couple of courses that they teach a year...we [had] students with us 24/7. Every time we [were] at the hospital, we [had] students with us.
Now I'm not teaching that much. People will ask me to give a guest lecture, which I usually do three or four or five times a year. I used to travel a lot to teach for post-graduate courses. But now I have a podcast...The Seven Domains [of Women's Health]. I have about 300 short podcasts there, [each] about 10 minutes and now [I] have about 12 half-hour podcasts. And so that's a teaching opportunity.
I think [teaching has] been a way of learning new things, so being an educator means you keep learning new things. You don't get to just teach the old stuff. And presenting something that you think is magic and wonderful to someone so that they see it in a new way...makes it all new to you again."
~Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones
Dr. Burrows also cites a young environment and constant student turnover as her reason for teaching at a university before her career took a research-oriented turn. It seems that even as educators, there is still learning to be done.
"I like universities because there are perpetually young, bright students. They get four or five years older, you can watch that, but then there's this constant new crop coming in. And so I liked that. I liked that they're young, that the environment is young. And I also felt like I didn't know enough to go out in the real world. I needed...to know more. I was still learning."
~Dr. Cynthia Burrows
However, there are unique challenges when it comes to teaching, especially within the first year that students arrive at institutions of higher learning. Students might need different amounts of time or support in order to make the necessary transition from secondary education to college, and sometimes the class size of introductory courses make it difficult for professors to directly address the needs of every student.
"Let's say [it's for] a large lecture course, and I'm often doing large lecture courses, whether it's organic or biochemistry, then there are a lot of students out there. And the question is are you, are you being fair in your delivery of material, helping them learn?
And then, you know, the unpleasant part is we have to give exams and we have to give grades at the end. So that is always an ongoing challenge...I mean, the good students can also can often do well, no matter who the instructor is and what the method is, whether it's traditional lectures or flip classroom, a good student will almost always do well. And a poor student can really struggle in those.
But you know, on the other hand, if you teach to the lower tier of the class then you are, maybe you risk losing the upper tier of the class, who are the great students that you want to motivate, right? You want to inspire [them] to go on and do other things. So finding that balance between extremes is really challenging, uh. But what I like about it is that every once in a while there is a personal interaction that really pays off."
~Dr. Cynthia Burrows
Large and often less personal class sizes, along with the new social environment of a university or college may lead to a student falling behind in a class, even if they did well in traditional learning environments prior to entering college. Chemical Education researcher Regina Frey has studied different styles of learning in regards to this problem, and suggests that a growth mindset is very useful in helping underrepresented or minority students succeed. A growth mindset is a way of viewing intelligence or understanding of material not as a fixed limit among students, but rather as a constant, evolving practice. By using the growth mindset in a random-assignment classroom experiment among entry-level college students who were taking General Chemisty 1, Frey and her partners found that achievement gaps between minority and majority students were minimized, or in some cases, completely eliminated.
Even educators themselves can learn from this practice—Dr. Burrows recounts a very positive experience with a teacher's assistant in graduate school that influenced her flexibility in approaching problems she didn't understand immediately. While she does not explicitly mention a growth mindset intervention, it seems this method is useful even when it is not purposefully implemented by name. A growth mindset is important because it can encourage students to achieve, especially women or students who have historically been told they are less capable and intelligent than other students.
"...Because I had, you know, the super TA in my first year of graduate school, one thing she taught us was, you know, she said sometimes students ask a question and your immediate response's to say, I don't know. And she said, just stifle that, don't say it, go to the board and say, well, here's what we know and rewrite the problem, redraw it out and start just thinking out loud.
And the fact is you probably do know the answer. And do you know, that did a world of good for me, that approach. I realized that, yeah, I probably do know the answer in the end, even though my first response may well have been, I don't know. Oh my gosh. But that, that helped me a lot, even in, you know, a lot of research areas where someone will ask a question and you're thinking: oh, I never thought about that before. But instead of saying that, you kind of restate the question and then go on to say, well, here's what I do know about that area. And therefore, maybe I can answer this question, you know? So, so that was pretty helpful."
Page written and researched by Abigayle Kendall, Kaylee Martin, Rachel Nelson, and Eva Quintus-Bosz.