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Report Confirms Decline Of Female Self-Esteem At BC

Heights Editor

Published: Thursday, December 12, 2013

Updated: Thursday, December 12, 2013 11:12

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Jordan Pentaleri and Breck Wills / Heights Graphic


The ad hoc Faculty Committee on Undergraduate Women, formed in the spring of 2012 in response to the statistic revealing that female Boston College students’ self-confidence declines during their four years at BC, recently completed a report that sheds greater light on this issue. The 40-page document compiles all the relevant data from both the survey that initially uncovered this statistic and the committee’s subsequent investigation into the matter. It concludes with recommendations for how BC can begin efforts to reverse this problematic trend and foster a culture that is academically and socially supportive of women.

Among the findings presented in the report is the fact that women’s self-perception of their academic skills and related abilities most often declines or remains the same during their time at BC, while men’s self-perception is more likely to increase or remain the same—despite the fact that, in general, female students have higher GPAs than their male classmates. The report goes on to note that female students believe that the social culture at BC has a large effect on their confidence in an academic setting, and it points to the “Plex culture,” body image pressure, and the stress of the housing selection process as elements of life at BC that corrode a female student’s self-esteem.

The first portion of the report presents the quantitative data gathered from two surveys completed by the Class of 2011—one at the beginning of their freshman year and one during their senior year. Both surveys were administered by the Office of Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment (IRPA) and are part of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, a long-term study conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. The two surveys contain 60 identical questions, allowing IRPA to track students’ progress. Many of these items asked students to rate themselves in various “skills and traits,” including academic ability, creativity, intellectual self-confidence, drive to achieve, and spirituality, among many others.

The data reveals that BC females’ self-perceptions either decrease or remain the same in the categories of academic ability, computer skills, drive to achieve, leadership ability, mathematical ability, public speaking ability, intellectual self-confidence, cooperativeness, creativity, emotional and physical health, social self-confidence, and spirituality. Women in all schools except the Connell School of Nursing (CSON) believe their writing skills increase in college, and females in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) and the Carroll School of Management (CSOM) believe their self-understanding and understanding of others improves. A&S females also rate their artistic ability higher after four years. In these categories in which some females feel they have improved, all other females report no change.

The statistical portion of the report also breaks down survey responses based on the competitiveness of the student’s college application, and based on his or her discipline. Within the former category, survey results seemed to depend more on the admissions rating than on gender, but the results were more discernible when divided by discipline—humanities, social sciences, or science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“Women majoring in humanities seem to experience more declines in their assessment of academic skills than women in either social sciences or STEM fields,” the report read. “All groups of students in these three disciplines report declines in intellectual self-confidence between freshman and senior year; at the same time, all student groups show an increase in their assessment of their writing skills.”

Since the College Senior Survey (CSS) is a national survey used at several other institutions, the committee was able to compare BC students’ responses to those from students at 42 other universities. BC females’ responses did not differ significantly from the national sample. This fact is also addressed later in the report, in a section that looks at research from Duke and Princeton which came to similar conclusions about female self-esteem on their campuses.

“The reality is that what we face is the same things all other colleges face,” said University Spokesman Jack Dunn. “This is an issue that is not at all unique to Boston College, but part of a national issue, and Boston College is taking a leadership role in addressing it.”

The second portion of the report is devoted to the results from the committee’s research, which consisted of hosting focus groups and student panels with female undergraduates during the 2012-13 academic year.

The report contains several anonymous quotes from students, including one from a woman who spoke about conversations she had with a male Australian exchange student about the culture at BC. This friend was struck by the lack of power that females at BC have in social settings. The woman recalls him saying, “The girls here are just all standing around waiting for guys to notice them.”

Several quotes mentioned the immense pressure BC girls face to be thin. One read, “[Boston College’s] women’s perceptions of what’s normal and what’s thin [are] just completely warped in comparison to what people generally accept as a healthy body weight and a healthy appearance.”

With regard to the classroom environment, students expressed varied opinions. Some felt disrespected or unfairly judged by male classmates or professors, while others praised professors as being consistently supportive and empowering.

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