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Female BC Students Report Lower Self-Confidence When Leaving College

Heights Editor

Published: Monday, February 25, 2013

Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 02:02

At a faculty forum in April 2012, amidst a slew of data presented by Vice President of Planning and Assessment Kelli Armstrong to the hundreds of faculty members who had gathered that day, one statistic stood out to the crowd: female students leave Boston College with lower self-confidence than they had as freshmen. In contrast, men generally gain self-confidence during their four years here, despite having, on average, lower GPAs than their female classmates.

“I could see the shock and horror on some of the faces of the women faculty as Kelli was talking,” said Vice Provost for Faculty Patricia DeLeeuw.

After the presentation was over, a handful of senior female faculty, the majority of whom are department chairs, gathered in the hallway to discuss what could be done.

“They called Kelli and me over and said, ‘Would the two of you facilitate a series of conversations among senior women faculty on, first, what do these data mean, and secondly, and more importantly, what can we as women faculty do about it?’” DeLeeuw said.

This began a series of monthly meetings devoted to picking apart the data, gathering new information, discerning the causes of the statistic, and brainstorming ways to improve the experience of female students at BC. The meetings culminated on Friday, Feb. 15, with a draft of a proposal outlining the data they had gathered over the past 10 months and suggestions for future action.

“I didn’t think we’d be going this long,” DeLeeuw said. “We intended to be finished in a couple months with a couple meetings, and it has gone for just about a year.”

This statistic that sparked the fire was the result of the analysis of two surveys administered by the Office of Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment (IRPA) every other year: the survey taken at freshman orientation and the senior exit survey. The IRPA is able to track specific students and observe how the answers to questions like “What do you think of your academic achievement” or “How would you rate your drive to succeed?” have changed over four years at BC. The fact that women report lower self-confidence as seniors struck members of the faculty forum as surprising and concerning, in part because it did not seem to fit with their experience with students in the classroom.

“How come the women have a worse self-understanding after four years and men have a better self-understanding?” asked theology professor and director of the Presidential Scholars Program Rev. James Keenan, S.J., who was the only male faculty member to take part in the monthly meetings from the beginning. “It seems to be counter to our experience.” In fact, the small collection of senior faculty that initially made up the informal, ad hoc committee realized after a few meetings that the pressures female students face at BC extend beyond the classrooms and what they, as professors, would have necessarily witnessed.

“I think it became clear to us when we started having the conversations that it wasn’t just an academic thing, it was a cultural thing,” Armstrong said.  “We needed people outside just the academic culture to weigh in.”

The committee decided to bring in members of the administration concerned with student affairs to shed more light on the situation. Among those invited were Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Quigley, Associate Vice President for University Counseling Thomas McGuinness, and Director of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) Katie Dalton. In addition, the committee held numerous focus groups with students, hosted panels of students, alumnae, and staff psychologists from Health Services, and, individually or in small groups, took students to lunch in order to gain insight to the experience of a female undergraduate at BC.

Problems that were frequently cited by students as being harmful to one’s self-esteem included the pressure to look or dress a certain way, the hookup culture, and the housing lottery.

Some faculty members, such as Robin Fleming, chair of the history department, were shocked to hear of the drama associated with the annual scramble to assemble a specific number of roommates.

“None of us ever had a clue about this, and it turns out that it’s this incredible drama for everybody,” Fleming said. “How is it that we never knew this?” She added that conversations initiated by the committee enlightened her to “this total disjuncture between student life and academic life.”

Chair of the marketing department in the Carroll School of Management Kay Lemon also appreciated how the conversations that occurred at the meetings and with students helped in expanding her understanding “of the universe at Boston College from a ‘this is the academic culture’ to a broader look that included all the different aspects of Boston College culture.”

Some of those aspects, it turns out, are detrimental to a woman’s self-confidence. Fleming, who has worked at BC since 1989, compared the environment she experienced as a young teacher to the one female students live in today, and cited the hookup culture as one of the most destructive new elements of today’s student culture.

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