Confronting Sexist Language and Behaviors in the College Classroom

This post is part of the “Fair Harvard?” series by Aubry Threlkeld.  A discussion about the Cultural Dimensions of Teaching and Learning at Harvard 

So I have been raging about two things recently. Sexist language used by students toward professors and teaching fellows, and the general objectification of women in higher education. These concerns are already situated within a broader cultural climate where rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment of young women on college campuses are not always taken to be serious concerns. I hope in a future post to share some of my colleagues’ words instead of my own. Somehow in our overly casual culture we find it acceptable to assume that friendly language can do no harm. Many times it sets a tone of acceptability for unprofessional advances, denigration and objectification of women, and a space where women are not taken seriously as intellectuals and leaders. This week’s post addresses these concerns by focusing specifically on the language and approaches we use in classrooms.


 1)   Do not refer to female professors or teaching fellows as ladies. Do not refer to instructors with PhDs as Miss or Ms. Do not refer to anyone by their first name unless invited to do so.

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I wish this were an obvious point. When you start an e-mail or a welcoming phrase with ladies or informal monikers, at the very least, you are being patronizing. This happens frequently with teaching fellows that are often only a few years older than their students, but it is never acceptable. Please show female professors and teaching fellows respect by referring to them by name and also by title if available.

2)   Do not comment on the clothing that female staff wears.

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Students really should not be commenting on what a teaching fellow or professor is wearing. It assumes a degree of familiarity that may not be present between the two individuals. Describing an outfit as hot or sexy, while perhaps intended as a compliment, objectifies your classroom leader. It may also be a larger symptom of misogynistic or sexist tendencies worth some self-reflection.


I would be remiss if I did not provide some suggestions for what you can do as a teaching fellow or professor to address these behaviors. Some of these suggestions come from public blogs as well as private conversations with teaching staff that have had the unfortunate experience of being objectified. For a particularly disturbing experience, check out “Teaching Naked” from Tenure She Wrote provided below.

1) Have a 1 to 1 Conversation in a Safe Space

Try talking with the offending student in a safe space about their offensive behavior. Describe what specifically is making you uncomfortable and urge them to seek additional resources on their own to prevent misogynist behavior.

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The downside to this approach is that it only allows the individual to learn from their undesirable behavior. It renders the offense invisible to the classroom at large and it may only target one person when the problem is pervasive.

2) Have a Class Discussion

Or as a colleague of mine suggested: engage the class in a discussion. Do not point on the offending individual and instead discuss the offending action. Publicly reject the inappropriate comment or behavior. Urge all students to recognize what sexist behaviors might reveal about someone’s attitudes toward women. Have a discussion about the nature of objectification and why it might prevent you from being the best professor possible. Discuss how it hurts everyone by creating a climate where objectification is tolerated.

“Teaching Naked” discusses an example where a student wrote that a way to improve the professor’s teaching would be to “teach naked.” The professor in this example take the opportunity to discuss how this made her feel with the class and their reactions to it. For more read, “Teaching Naked” from Tenure, She Wrote:

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