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Fall 2010

Volume 39
Number 2

Campus Climates for Women


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Annemarie Vaccaro
Annemarie Vaccaro
Still Chilly in 2010: Campus Climates for Women
By Annemarie Vaccaro, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, University of Rhode Island

Much has changed since Roberta Hall and Bernice Sandler published their original chilly climate series in 1984. Yet hostility, invisibility, and the feeling of being an outsider are still realities for many undergraduate and graduate women (Vaccaro 2010). Since female undergraduates now outnumber males, one could assume that gender inequality is a relic of the past. But parity in numbers is only one small piece of the gender inequality puzzle (Subrahmanian 2005), and chilly climates continue to exist, particularly for women with multiple marginal identities.

Mere numerical or proportional representation tells us little about women’s lived experiences when it comes to educational policies, practices, and programs. Campus climate is not merely tied to head counts, but to students’ attitudes about, perceptions of, and lived experiences with an environment (Peterson and Spencer 1990). Institutions of higher education must understand how women experience the campus, classroom, and workplace climate if they want to address deeply rooted forms of gender inequality.

Microaggressions and Campus Climates

Feminist scholars argue that women experience sexism on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels (Risman 2004). Chilly campus climates result from a combination of these tripartite dimensions. While the oppression of women may not look exactly like it did when Hall and Sandler began writing about the chilly climate, it is still present in multiple manifestations, including violence against women, everyday sexism (Swim, Mallett, and Stangor 2004), objectification (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997), and benevolent sexism (Glick and Fiske 2001). These manifestations are common on college campuses. For example, Swim and colleagues found that college women experience one or two events each week that qualify as “everyday sexism,” including gender-role stereotypes and prejudice, degrading comments, and objectification (2004).

The literature on microaggressions provides one of the most comprehensive taxonomies of sexist messages and behaviors currently available (Capodilupo et al. 2010; Nadal 2010). Microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities (whether intentional or unintentional) that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative sexist slights and insults toward women” (Nadal 2010, 158). The following taxonomy of gender microaggressions contains eight themes (Capodilupo et al. 2010; Nadal 2010). Independently, each can have damaging effects on women’s psyches. Taken together, they create chilly campus climates. The eight themes are:

  1. Sexual objectification. Objectification encompasses behaviors ranging from using innuendos to catcalling to sexual violence. When women are referred to as “hotties” or as body parts, they are being objectified. Campus events such as date auctions are an example of objectification.
  2. Second-class citizenship. Whether they are in the classroom, on the playing field, or in extracurricular settings, women may receive messages that they should not have the same privileges or opportunities as men. (A student I interviewed for a qualitative study of a campus feminist group alluded to these messages when she said she believed the university was “more responsive [to] men” (Vaccaro 2009).)
  3. Assumptions of inferiority. Although it is uncommon to hear such beliefs stated overtly, some people assume that women students are less capable than men in a variety of arenas, whether physical, academic, or emotional. In the physical arena, assumptions of inferiority may cause women to be excluded from formal or informal sports. In the academic arena, some women may be discouraged from majoring in science, math, or other traditionally male-dominated fields. And in the emotional arena, women may be viewed as too sensitive or weak.
  4. Assumptions of traditional gender roles. Even in the twenty-first century, people tend to praise women for engaging in domestic tasks such as decorating for homecoming weekend, cleaning up after extracurricular events, or cooking for roommates. Women students may also be expected to enact “feminine” behaviors, such as caring for others or displaying “proper” demeanors. When women’s behaviors diverge from these expectations, peers, faculty, and staff may respond negatively.
  5. Use of sexist language. Demeaning terms used to describe women can be commonplace on campus. Women may hear peers, campus performers, and even faculty and staff use offensive terminology to describe women.
  6. Denial of the reality of sexism. When people downplay women's oppression, they can make the phenomenon invisible and perpetuate the cycle of sexism. Examples include citing women's achievements in education as evidence that the climate is no longer chilly or telling a woman that she is being “too sensitive” about oppression.
  7. Men’s denial of individual sexism. Individual men contribute to chilly climates when they refuse to acknowledge their own sexist behaviors. Denial can include refusing to admit that a joke, belief, or comment is sexist.
  8. Environmental microaggressions. These systemic microaggressions are messages in the social and cultural environment that communicate to women that they are inferior or less deserving. Environmental microaggressions are similar in form to what feminists refer to as institutional sexism (Risman 2004), which includes structural concerns such as the invisibility of women’s issues in curricula, the exclusion of women from leadership roles, or the lack of programs or services designed for women.

Research has highlighted many negative consequences of microaggressions, including increased stress, depression, anger, rage, and hopelessness (Sue 2010). With these effects, it is no surprise that microaggressions can also result in chilly campus climates for women.

Multiple Identities

Sexism and gender microaggressions affect all women. At the same time, women of different races, ages, socioeconomic statuses, abilities, and religious identities can experience the same campus in vastly different ways. The campus climate can be chillier for certain women, including women of color, nontraditionally aged students, and women in majors traditionally dominated by men (Morris and Daniel 2008).

Generally missing from the literature on campus climate is research about multiple identities, intersections between identity categories, and the relationship between identity and the nuanced ways women experience campus environments (Torres, Jones, and Renn 2009). While some excellent qualitative studies have explored women’s multiple identities (Abes and Jones 2004; Abes and Kasch 2007; Jones 1997), most higher education research on women students focuses solely on one identity or on two intersecting identities (for example, gender and race or gender and sexual orientation). In general, higher education research has yet to sufficiently explore the connections between women’s multiple identities and their experiences with campus climate.

In the following paragraphs, I briefly summarize higher education literature that offers a glimpse into the climate experiences of women from various backgrounds, at the same time recognizing that these studies are limited by their focus on single or dual identities. I offer snapshots of the microaggressions women of color, lesbian and bisexual women, women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, women with disabilities, and women from nondominant religious backgrounds encounter. Despite these studies’ narrowness, they illustrate the overarching theme that there is not one chilly climate. Instead, women experience a variety of chilly climates that correspond to their complex identities.

One does not have to look far to find poignant descriptions of women of color’s feelings of exclusion from the academy. A recent edited volume titled Standing on the Outside Looking In describes a multitude of ways women of color experience the climate as unwelcoming (Howard-Hamilton et al. 2009). Asian women may be treated as perpetual foreigners or members of a “model minority” (Poon and Hune 2009). Latinas may find the rich forms of cultural and social capital they possess devalued in the academy (González 2009). Black women may feel compelled to rely on oppositional stances to succeed in hostile climates (Sulé 2009).

Students from the same racial background can experience a climate differently depending on their varying ethnicities. For example, a woman I interviewed in my research explained that as a first-generation Chinese American, she found it difficult to “fit in” on campus in general and in the Asian American Student Association in particular. She explained, “I’m not the only Asian, but the Asians around me are […] Hmong and Vietnamese and they grew up here. That’s why it’s hard for me to integrate” (Vaccaro, forthcoming). Moreover, campus structure and policies typically validate monoracial identities (Literte 2010). Students from mixed-race backgrounds can face unique challenges adjusting to such environments (Renn 2004). Women from mixed-race backgrounds may be unable to locate student services, organizations, or programs that validate their complicated identities.

The climate for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students can be hostile, unwelcoming, and downright dangerous. Homophobia, harassment, and physical violence are too often a reality (Rankin 2005; Rankin et al. 2010). Lesbian and bisexual women must contend with both sexist and heterosexist language. They also face a multitude of stereotypes, including assumptions that lesbians are hypersexual, sexually confused, sexually deviant, and angry (Geiger, Harwood, and Hummert 2006). Lesbian, bisexual, or queer-identified students can have difficulty finding inclusive spaces on campus: many schools still do not have LGBT centers or LGBT student organizations. Groups designed specifically for lesbian or bisexual women are even scarcer. Even campuses that have student organizations for LGBT students can feel exclusionary to women. As a former LGBT club adviser, I saw many women leave the organization when they felt their needs were not acknowledged or addressed by male leaders.

Studies on college students and social class suggest that those from lower-income backgrounds often feel that they do not fit in on campus. In one study, low-income women described having to adopt a “wealthy mindset” to adapt to an upper-class campus (Aries and Seider 2007, 146). Women from low-income backgrounds may lack resources to pay dues for campus organizations (such as clubs and sororities), fees for campus programs or events, or expenses related to study abroad, resulting in their general exclusion from these activities. Women may feel further excluded if their need to work requires them to forego participating in extracurricular activities, service learning, or unpaid internships.

Despite the fact that a higher percentage of female students (57.3 percent) than male students (43.1 percent) report having a disability (National Center for Education Statistics 2009), few studies focus specifically on college women with disabilities. In their review of the literature, Nichols and Quaye (2009) describe how institutional, physical, and attitudinal barriers that originate with peers and faculty keep students with disabilities from fully engaging on campus. More specifically, feminist disability literature shows how women with disabilities experience unique forms of objectification, such as stereotypes that they are unattractive, dependent, or asexual (Garland-Thompson 2006).

Women from nondominant (that is, non-Christian) religious backgrounds can also feel ostracized and isolated on college campuses. Students from minority religious groups can experience unwelcoming climates if they cannot practice their faith openly or if they feel disrespected when they do. Religious minorities may find themselves unable to obtain meal plans that accommodate their dietary restrictions or find on-campus spaces where they can gather, pray, or celebrate important events (Mahaffey and Smith 2009). Many academic schedules also fail to recognize non-Christian holidays.

Taken together, the aforementioned literature suggests that climate is complicated. There is no single way that women—or men, for that matter—experience campus climates. As the limited research on multiple identities suggests, people's identities intersect with their environments in complicated ways. In short, women's multiple identities offer them unique perspectives about and experiences with campus climates.

Creating Warmer Climates

Just as women experience campus climates in diverse ways, institutions should look for diverse approaches to warming campus climates. The following suggestions represent only a few ways that institutions might warm the campus climate for all women.

  1. Get beyond numbers. Move institutional discussions beyond their frequent focus on statistical parity so that they include how different women might experience a campus climate. Local climate assessments will help campuses understand the lived experiences of women students, faculty, and staff. Until campuses know how women experience their particular climates, they cannot effect positive change.
  2. Make women and women’s issues visible. The presence of women’s centers, women’s studies departments, and women’s organizations speaks volumes about women’s value on a campus. Those spaces must be welcoming and supportive of all women. If they are designed only for a predominantly white, able-bodied, Christian, and middle-class constituency, these supposedly warm campus spaces may still represent chilly climates for women with different identities.
  3. Increase campus awareness of microaggressions. Institutions cannot hope to address microaggressions directed at women or other marginalized groups without first expanding awareness of the phenomena. Educational workshops, events, lectures, classes, and professional development sessions on microaggressions can contribute to increasing overall campus understanding.
  4. Address institutional sexism. Overall climate is intricately tied to the presence of institutional sexism. Practitioners should consistently review policies, procedures, and protocols to ensure that they validate diverse women’s experiences and appropriately address their issues.
  5. Focus on intersectionality. Institutions cannot assume that there is one type of woman, nor that women experience campus climate in any one way. Higher education professionals must attend to women’s complex intersectional identities.
  6. Support women as they organize around intersectionality. Women from diverse backgrounds need safe spaces where they can share their experiences and find support from women with similar experiences. Institutional leaders should support women’s efforts to organize across identities (for example, by creating groups for lesbians of color or associations for women with disabilities), no matter how few members may initially participate.

There is no magic formula for creating campus communities free from microaggressions, but one important step is to acknowledge and validate the vast diversity among women. To truly understand how students experience our campuses, higher education professionals must focus more intently on recognizing and validating students’ intersecting multiple identities. Only then can we imagine inclusive educational solutions to the persistently chilly climate.


Abes, Elisa S., and Susan R. Jones. 2004. “Meaning-Making Capacity and the Dynamics of Lesbian College Students’ Multiple Dimensions of Identity.” Journal of College Student Development 45 (6): 612–32.

Abes, Elisa S., and David Kasch. 2007. “Using Queer Theory to Explore Lesbian College Students’ Multiple Dimensions of Identity.” Journal of College Student Development 48 (6): 619–36.

Aries, Elizabeth, and Maynard Seider. 2007. “The Role of Social Class in the Formation of Identity: A Study of Public and Elite Private College Students.” The Journal of Social Psychology 147 (2): 137–57.

Capodilupo, Christina M., Kevin L. Nadal, Lindsay Corman, Sahran Hamit, Oliver B. Lyons, and Alexa Weinberg. 2010. “The Manifestation of Gender Microaggressions.” In Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestations, Dynamics, and Impact, edited by Derald Wing Sue, 193–216. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Garland-Thompson, Rosemarie. 2006. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 257-74. New York: Routledge.

Geiger, Wendy, Jake Harwood, and Mary Lee Hummert. 2006. “College Students' Multiple Stereotypes of Lesbians.” Journal of Homosexuality 51 (3): 165–82.

Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. 2001. “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Contemporary Justifications for Gender Inequality.” American Psychologist 56 (2): 109–18.

González, Juan Carlos. 2009. “Latinas in Doctoral and Professional Programs.” In Standing on the Outside Looking In: Underrepresented Students’ Experiences in Advanced Degree Programs, edited by Mary F. Howard-Hamilton, Carla L. Morelon-Quainoo, Susan D. Johnson, Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, and Lilia Santiague, 103–23. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Hall, Roberta M., and Bernice R. Sandler. 1984. Out of the Classroom: A Chilly Climate for Women? Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, Project on the Status and Education of Women.

Howard-Hamilton, Mary F., Carla L. Morelon-Quainoo, Susan D. Johnson, Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, and Lilia Santiague, editors. 2009. Standing on the Outside Looking In: Underrepresented Students’ Experiences in Advanced Degree Programs. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Jones, Susan R. 1997. “Voices of Identity and Difference: A Qualitative Exploration of the Multiple Dimensions of Identity Development in Women College Students.” Journal of College Student Development 38 (4): 376–86.

Literte, Patricia E. 2010. "Revisiting Race: How Biracial Students are Changing and Challenging Student Services.” Journal of College Student Development 51 (2): 115–34.

Mahaffey, Caitlin J., and Scott A. Smith. 2009. “Creating Welcoming Campus Environments for Students from Minority Religious Groups.” In Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse Populations, edited by Shaun R. Harper and Stephen John Quaye, 81–98. New York: Routledge.

Morris, LaDonna K., and Larry G. Daniel. 2008. “Perceptions of a Chilly Climate: Differences in Traditional and Non-traditional Majors for Women.” Research in Higher Education 49 (3): 256–73.

Nadal, Kevin L. 2010. “Gender Microaggressions: Implications for Mental Health.” In Feminism and Women’s Rights Worldwide, Volume 2: Mental Health and Physical Health, edited by Michelle A. Paludi, 155–75. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2009. “Number and Percentage Distribution of Students Enrolled in Postsecondary Institutions, by Level, Disability Status, and Selected Student Characteristics: 2003–04 and 2007–08 (Table 231).” National Post-Secondary Aid Study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Nichols, Andrew H., and Stephen John Quaye. 2009. “Beyond Accommodation: Removing Barriers to Academic and Social Engagement for Students with Disabilities.” In Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse Populations, edited by Shaun R. Harper and Stephen John Quaye, 39–60. New York: Routledge.

Peterson, Marvin W., and Melinda G. Spencer. 1990. “Understanding Academic Culture and Climate.” In Assessing Academic Climates and Cultures: New Directions for Institutional Research 68, edited by William G. Tierney, 3–18. San Francisco; Jossey Bass.

Poon, Oiyan A., and Shirley Hune. 2009. “Countering Master Narratives of the ‘Perpetual Foreigner’ and ‘Model Minority.’” In Standing on the Outside Looking In: Underrepresented Students’ Experiences in Advanced Degree Programs, edited by Mary F. Howard-Hamilton, Carla L. Morelon-Quainoo, Susan D. Johnson, Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, and Lilia Santiague, 82–102. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Rankin, Susan R. 2005. “Campus Climates for Sexual Minorities.” In Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation: Research, Policies, and Personal Perspectives: New Directions for Student Services, edited by Ronni L. Sanlo, 111. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rankin, Susan R., Genevieve Weber, Warren Blumenfeld, and Somjen Frazer. 2010. State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People. Charlotte, NC: Campus Pride.

Renn, Kristen A. 2004. Mixed Race Students in College: The Ecology of Race, Identity, and Campus Community. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Risman, Barbara J. 2004. “Gender as a Social Structure: Theory Wrestling with Activism.” Gender and Society 19 (4): 429–50.

Subrahmanian, Ramya. 2005. “Gender Equality in Education: Definitions and Measurements.” International Journal of Educational Development 25, 395–407.

Swim, Janet K., Robyn Mallett, and Charles Stangor. 2004. “Understanding Subtle Sexism: Detection and Use of Sexist Language.” Sex Roles 51 (3-4): 117–28.

Sue, Derald Wing. 2010. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Sulé, Venice Thandi. 2009. “Oppositional Stances of Black Female Graduate Students.” In Standing on the Outside Looking In: Underrepresented Students’ Experiences in Advanced Degree Programs, edited by Mary F. Howard-Hamilton,Carla L. Morelon-Quainoo,Susan D. Johnson, Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, and Lilia Santiague, 82–102. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Torres, Vasti, Susan R. Jones, and Kristen A. Renn. 2009. “Identity Development Theories in Student Affairs: Origins, Current Status, and New Approaches.” Journal of College Student Development 50 (6): 577–96.

Vaccaro, Annemarie. 2009. “Third Wave Feminist Undergraduates: Avoiding Ivory Tower Bureaucracy by Fighting for Social Justice Off Campus.” Journal about Women in Higher Education 2, 1–25.

———. 2010. “What Lies Beneath Seemingly Positive Campus Climate Results: Institutional Sexism, Symbolic Racism, and Male Hostility toward Equity Initiatives.” Journal of Equity and Excellence in Education 43 (2): 202–15.

———. Forthcoming. “In Search of Our Truer Selves: Stories of Multiple Identity Journeys of Six Queer Students of Color.” In Colors of the Rainbow: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People of Color in the Academy, Vol. 1, edited by Vernon A. Wall and Jamie Washington. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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