The Women in Housing series is a month-long project featuring the voices, stories, and experiences of women who currently or formerly work in housing and residence life. Today's post was written by Katie Schmitt.
In a conversation with a colleague over breakfast, I finally heard the words that I had been too hesitant to say myself.
“Evaluations can be so oppressive.”
A few weeks beforehand, I had received the results of my bi-yearly evaluation—an anonymous survey open to anyone that I work with, including students I supervise and colleagues I serve on committees with. Amongst the usual feedback were a series of similar comments:
“Sometimes maintains too much of a professional boundary”
“At times Katie does too well at keeping a professional boundary and is not able to connect with her staff.”
“Very professional in the community, at times too much so.”
“She gives off this vibe that is 'all work, no play.' It is easy to talk to her about work or about a building issues, but hard to talk to her about just the simple things of life.”
To some extent, I was not surprised to receive this feedback, as supervisors and peers have previously pointed out the professional boundaries I often set. While I would like to think that I am receptive to constructive feedback, this evaluation in particular caused an uncomfortable heaviness in the pit of my stomach that I could not quite pinpoint. After a few days of thinking, I went back to the evaluation, ready to make sense of my discomfort with the feedback I had received.
While I am not sure that being perceived as too professional is any cause for alarm, I worried about the ways in which being perceived as too professional gave others the impression that I was unapproachable. The feedback brought me back to a time when nine year old me was referred to as bossy by a classmate during a group project. I remember the panic I felt for the rest of the school day, eventually deciding that since my father was a manager, it was natural that I would have boss-like qualities. I began to wonder what comments my male colleagues had received on their evaluations, and if any of them had been told they were too professional, or had someone suggest they work on becoming better at talking about life.
Just last year, a Northeastern University professor used data from RateMyProfessor.com to illuminate gender bias on evaluations from the site. Using an interactive graph, users can see the number of times a word was used, the gender of the professor it was used to describe, and the frequency of the term by discipline. Unsurprisingly, female professors were far more likely to be penalized for not exhibiting traits expected of them. It is important to note that the graph does not account for genderqueer, agender, transgender, or gender fluid professors, who are also penalized for the ways that they might reject gendered expectations.
The truth is that while the feedback I received was based off of the perceptions of those I work with, it is impossible to separate those perceptions from the systems of oppression that influence them. It should be no surprise that the same gendered stereotypes we openly criticize in popular culture also impact students’ expectations of their supervisors, and our colleagues’ expectations of their peers. They are the same systems that characterize women in leadership roles as bossy, abrasive, and unapproachable, especially penalizing women of color. They are the same systems that encourage students and colleagues to make unwelcome comments about the physical appearances of the women they work with, and that create the expectation for women to be nurturing and motherly, putting others needs before their own.
When students evaluate their professors, when student staff evaluate their supervisors, and even when we evaluate our own peers, the person being evaluated receives feedback that is based on how the evaluator believes they should be performing. As much as we might insist that our perceptions of others’ performance are unbiased, it is impossible to separate our professional expectations from our expectations based on a variety of identities.
In looking over this evaluation again and again, I have far more questions than answers. While I do not plan on attempting to be any less professional this semester, I do plan on taking a more critical look at the ways in which we utilize evaluations within housing and residence life.
How do we, as professionals in a field with a heavy emphasis on assessment, ensure that our evaluations are as fair as possible? Is there a way to account for the discrimination that evaluations inevitably reveal? Most importantly, how can we examine our own biases, especially towards what constitutes professionalism, and work towards creating a more inclusive vision of what being a housing professional entails?
Katie Schmitt is a second year graduate student at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. In May she will be receiving a master's of education in college student personnel, as well as a graduate certificate in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. In her spare time, Katie enjoys hiking, cooking, and anything involving coffee and conversations about social justice.