Inclusivity Lessons From a Women’s College

By Emma Bjorngard-Basayne & Kristi Kaeppel

Isabel Fields is a first-year student from Smith College intending to major in Women and Gender Studies with a minor in Public Policy. She has her own podcast called She Said, which tackles topics “from menstruation to sex education to reproductive justice” (iTunes description). For our March series on women in the classroom, we interviewed Isabel about her experience attending a women’s college in order to glean insights for college instruction in general.

It seems we might have a few lessons to take from women’s colleges as research has shown their students to be more likely to engage in higher order thinking activities, use collaborative and active learning, and have more interactions with diverse others (Kinzie, Thomas Palmer, Umbach, & Kuh, 2007). They also report higher academic self-confidence (Kim, 2002) and more satisfication overall with their undergraduate experiences (Langdon, 2001). For time and space purposes, the below is a condensed version of our conversation.

Q: Why did you choose a women’s college?

I: “I chose a women’s college because I wanted to be a Women and Gender Studies major, and obviously Smith had one of the best programs for that. Also, a community with a majority of all women and no cisgender men seemed like an experience I could not pass up on. Someone told me; this will be your only opportunity to live in a matriarchy!”

Isabel went on to to discuss how women’s colleges have changed over time. “Women’s colleges started out being very white, cis, and proper, so thinking about its history and how it has evolved is very interesting.” She continues, “Even though women’s college is the term we use, we acknowledge that it is not just women on campus; it is just no cisgender men. I have plenty of friends that are non-binary, or transgender or transsexual, and so on and so forth.”

Q: What were the biggest changes for you moving from a co-ed high school to a women’s college?

Isabel fields, student at Smith College
Isabel Fields is a 19-year-old activist attending Smith College in MA. She is an LA native attending school on the east coast. Isabel intends to study Women and Gender with a minor in Public Policy. She is the host of She Said podcast and founder of FEM Project (

I: “I don’t know if this is necessarily a product of all women’s colleges or specifically Smith, because I know that a lot of other colleges are not as sexuality accepting. But I did not come out until I came to Smith and I definitely did not feel comfortable coming out as bisexual in high school, and I think that is the result of many things, but also definitely being here in a community that is so accepting.”

Isabel noted that Smith is different from her high school in that “people feel comfortable talking in the classroom, and creating ideas on their own,” and not always necessarily “relying or falling back on having men there.” She also describes feeling that at Smith students are being “celebrated for their ideas” and the classroom environment is different compared to her co-ed high school.

“There is more of a collaboration and less competitiveness…not that there isn’t competitiveness, but in a co-ed space there was more of a competition about who was the leader on group projects, whereas here there is more of a want for collaboration between ideas.”

Her comments reflect research that women tend to establish and prefer equalizing relationships over hierarchical relationships (Mayer et al., 2008). For women, and other student populations, setting up groups whose aim is to problem-solve and collaborate (not divide and conquer) through low-stakes in class activities may help ease feelings of anxiety and friction that arise from being responsible for  other member’s grades.

Q: Have you noticed that your instructors do things differently at Smith to bring out collaboration between students?

I:“Hmm…[Collaboration is] definitely a topic of conversation, and in any class whether you are talking about Economics, Women and Gender studies, or English, marginalized groups and “the other” comes up, and I’ve always said that every single class turns into a Gender Studies class, which is great and that would not happen at a co-ed university. And, inclusivity is also super important…as the student body is concerned, everyone when they introduce themselves also say their pronouns. No one has to ask about it. If I am at a club meeting and everyone is introducing themselves, I just say “I’m Isabel, she/her” and that is just a very standard thing to do.”

Isabel says that instructors don’t necessarily state their pronouns or ask about the students’. However, she wishes that they would because “instructors that have so much more power and prestige, if they were to set an example by doing that, I mean I think that would open up a whole new world.”

Q: Have you noticed anything different in the design and structure of your classes at Smith compared to at your co-ed high school?

I:“Acknowledging privilege is a continuous topic that is brought up in my classes at Smith, which was something that was never brought up in my co-ed high school… I believe a lot of my peers from high school went to colleges where they are still surrounded by the same type of people. But, at Smith the teachers and students really put an emphasis on understanding your privilege, and obviously that is a very complex concept to understand and it is a constant relearning… Understanding how it [privilege] is so complicated, and grasping that it is not only that you have privilege because you are white or cis or because you are straight, but understanding the levels and hierarchy within it.”

Isabel also talks about the importance of instructors reflecting on the research that is out there, which shows that instructors are more likely to call on male students than female students in class. She says, “at least once you [the instructor] know that, then you can be a little bit more aware of what you are doing. The first step is making sure there is an equal playing field.” For further information on the ways women are more likely to be treated differently in the classroom, read this entry on the University of Virginia’s Center for Teaching Excellence website.

She continues to say “make sure that when people speak out they are respected for it, and that it is not a division or competition, and that one person speaking out does not reflect badly on those that aren’t.” Moreover, Isabel explains

“women haven’t been told that they can speak out and should be proud to do so, but men have been taught this. We have to teach women, and this starts at a young age but can grow in college, that they are allowed to speak their minds and be active in the classroom.”

When we asked Isabel if she had any ideas for how we could help encourage this in our students, she talked about the powerful impact that bringing diverse speakers (in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality) to campus, and more specifically to your classroom, can have on the students. “Because if you see a female, like Rachel Maddow for example, speak her mind I think that can change a lot of people’s perspectives and tell women that it is OK for them to be active speakers.”

Based on the thoughts that Isabel shared with us above, we drew a few implications for college instructors on building more inclusive classrooms:

  • Create more in-class opportunities for low-stakes problem-solving exercises that foster genuine collaboration without group members being accountable for each other’s grades.
  • Use more inclusive language. For instance, state your preferred pronouns on your syllabus, mention them as you introduce yourself during the first day of class, and encourage your students to do the same.
  • Recognize that you, like all humans, have implicit biases that may manifest in behaviors such as calling on certain students more or having higher expectations of certain students. When possible, remove student identifiers when grading. In class discussions, use alternative ways to elicit more voices (for example, by using writing or technology like Poll Everywhere).
  • Invite diverse guest speakers to your classroom. By doing this you can create opportunities for your students to learn from diverse viewpoints and see examples of leaders and thinkers that run counter to stereotypes.
  • Interweave discussions of power and privilege into your classes. Ask, “Who benefits from X? Who loses?”
  • Strive to make students feel that their ideas are valuable and celebrated. This will build confidence in the students, encouraging further participation and the creation of new ideas. This can be done by lifting up the ideas  that students share in class. For example, say “That is an interesting idea; I haven’t thought of that before”. Also, try to find connections between students’ ideas and the course content, as this will encourage the idea that they are thinkers and scholars too whose perspectives resonate with a wider body of work.

For other ideas, see the University of Michigan’s comprehensive list of resources on inclusive teaching.

Mayer, A. P., Files, J. A., Ko, M. G., & Blair, J. E. (2008, February). Academic advancement of women in medicine: do socialized gender differences have a role in mentoring?. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 83, No. 2, pp. 204-207). Elsevier.
Kim, M. M. (2002). Cultivating intellectual development: Comparing women-only colleges and coeducational colleges for educational effectiveness. Research in Higher Education, 43(4), 447-48
Kinzie, J., Thomas, A. D., Palmer, M. M., Umbach, P. D., & Kuh, G. D. (2007). Women students at coeducational and women’s colleges: How do their experiences compare?. Journal of College Student Development, 48(2), 145-165.
Langdon, E. A. (2001).Women’s colleges then and now: Access then, equity now. Peabody Journal of Education, 76(1), 5-30.