A Room of One’s Own in the Academy: The Writing Center as a Feminized Space

by Lisa Leit, James Riddlesperger, Ashley Squires, Kanaka Sathasivan, and Justin Smith,
University of Texas at Austin

A statistical look at gender in the writing center

A recent statistical finding at the UWC revealed that among undergraduates, men are significantly less likely both to visit the center and to return for a subsequent consultation than women. This article explores potential contributing factors and implications with a view to encouraging writing centers to increase diversity with balanced approaches to gender-specific learning and motivational styles.

Writing centers have been discussed as feminized spaces (Trachsel & Birnbaum) and in her 1999 article, “Real Men Don’t Do Writing Centers” in The Writing Center Journal, Margaret Tipper contended that the structure and practice of writing centers may not appeal to or work for male consultees. With this in mind, our research project group at the Undergraduate Writing Center (UWC) at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) used consultee records collected during the Fall 2006 and Spring 2007 academic year to statistically test the degree to which being male or female predicted whether students both initially visited and returned to the UWC.

A part of the Department of Rhetoric and Writing and partially funded by student fees, UT’s UWC serves a key function in supporting students and raising retention rates. To document the important work of the writing center, in the last three years the UWC administrators have been analyzing data collected using the Filemaker software program for each consultation held since 1995. When checking in with the front desk at the UWC, students are asked to provide information about themselves and their writing projects on intake forms. The student self-reported data is then entered into Filemaker by the front desk staff and kept in our consultation warehouse for record keeping purposes. The two variables from the intake information that are of interest in the current study are “sex of student” and “first time visit.” For the first variable, instead of having a student enter his or her sex on the form, the sex of the consultee was assessed and entered by the front desk person on duty. For the second variable, students were asked to answer “yes” or “no” to the question “First visit?” on the intake form. Responses to this question were then manually entered into Filemaker by front-desk staff. To facilitate targeted analysis impossible in Filemaker, we exported the 2006-07 consultation records to the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) software program.

Research Question #1: How Many of our Consultations were Return Visits?

To get an overview of consultation patterns with regard to sex and return visits, we first analyzed the descriptive statistics using the 10,107 valid records of consultations collected between August 2006 and May 2007. Of these, 30% (2,995) of the consultations were first-time visitors, and the remaining 70% (7,112) were returning students (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: UWC Profile of Return Visits 2006-07 Academic Year

Figure 1

Research Question #2: Did More Men or Women come for Consultations?

Despite the fact that we strive to serve all undergraduates, and there is an equal sex balance in the UT overall student population (51% female in 2006-07 school year), over two thirds (67%) of UWC visitors were women (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2: UWC Sex of Visitor Profile 2006-07 Academic Year

Figure 1

Research Question #3: Who Came Initially, and Who Came Back?

As shown in Figure 3, returning female students (48%) came to the UWC for consultations more than returning males (22%) or first time visitors. More women, 19%, came for initial consultations, than men; only 11% of our consultations last year were with first-time male visitors.

Figure 3: UWC Sex and Return Visit Profile 2006-07 Academic Year

Figure 1

Research Question #4: Were Women Significantly More Likely to Visit and Return to the UWC?

Next, we conducted statistical tests to find out if women were both significantly more likely to visit and to return to the UWC. To test whether women were significantly more likely than men to visit the UWC initially, we created a sub-dataset with only first time visits and conducted an independent samples t test with sex as the grouping variable. Our results indicate that women were significantly more likely to come to the UWC (t=130, highly significant: p <.01). To test the question of whether women were significantly more likely to return than men (significantly meaning greater than would be likely to occur by chance), we then conducted a binary logistic regression using sex (“Male or Female”) as the independent or predictor variable, and first visit (“Yes or No”) as the dependent, or outcome variable. We found that men were 18% significantly less likely to come for return visits than women (p<.01). These results indicate that women use the UWC significantly more than men and support the premise that our writing center is indeed a feminized space.

Discussion: Why Might the UWC be Utilized more Frequently by Women?

The UWC is significantly more used by women than men. Our findings bring up challenging questions for our writing center and the entire field: Why might this be, and what does it mean? Do our philosophy and practices work better for women? How might gender-influenced motivational and learning styles contribute to who comes and returns? Does the sex ratio of our staff play a role? What are potential implications for our practice?

The UWC’s process-centered approach, best seen in our non-directive consulting style, may work better for women than for men due to differences in preferred motivational styles.

Does our Philosophy Work Better for Women?

Although the goal of the UWC is to be a welcoming and open place for all students to seek advice during any stage of the writing process, the similarities between writing-center and feminist-theory pedagogies may contribute to women being more drawn to seek help from and return to the UWC. As Meg Woolbright points out, “both have egalitarian agendas, interactive teaching methods, emphasis on the personal, and conflicts with the patriarchy over the distribution of power” (16-30).

Tipper challenges us to explore how writing center structures and philosophies may not appeal to or work for men. She asserts that most men feel less adept than women at work that centers around on reading, writing, and talking (2-5). She contends that men may find the collaborative, non-directive approach inefficient and artificial (2-5). When students come for help, rather than instructing students on how to improve their papers, consultants encourage students to create their own solutions. Instead of correcting grammatical problems by copy-editing alone, consultants work with students to help them understand their errors and the reasoning behind the corrections. Tipper asserts that a man visiting the writing center and finding himself in a one-on-one collaborative session with a tutor where such “reflection is stressed over action” might feel like “a cat getting thrown into a swimming pool” (38).

The UWC’s process-centered approach, best seen in our non-directive consulting style, may work better for women than for men due to differences in preferred motivational styles. Discussion about the ways in which writing centers are serving male students has been and ought to be influenced by research into what Marcus Weaver-Hightower calls “The Boy Turn” in research on primary and secondary education, a body of controversial work that has shed considerable light on the motivational styles of boys and young men. The highly debated Newsweek article, “The Problem with Boys,” made much of the educational problems posed by the tendency of boys to avoid asking for help if asking for help is likely to make them look weak (Tyre 3). Furthermore, as Tipper argues in her discussion of the problems faced by a writing center at an all-male high school, “Research suggests that men attribute success to their own efforts and abilities, and failure to bad luck and difficulties with the task” (36), while women and girls do quite the opposite. Furthermore, young men are likely to be skeptical about the effectiveness of a form of consulting that is non-directive and that attempts to hide power differences, as men tend to favor pragmatic problem-solving approaches and more traditional hierarchies (36-7).

Could the Sex Ratio of our Consultants Play a Role?

The UWC is staffed by graduate students in English and the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, a few graduate students from other disciplines, and undergraduates trained in a preparatory class. 62% (46 out of 74) of our consultants are women. This is actually a more balanced sex ratio than most writing centers’ 65-70% average (Formo and Welch 108). Possibly, as Lisa Birnbaum has pointed out in her article arguing for a gender balance in writing center staffing, this sex ratio is one way we create and reinforce the “feminizing” of our writing center. She observes that most writing center tutors are women and asserts that the selection of tutors is influenced by a preference for tutoring approaches which are more stereotypically feminine (Birnbaum 6). Male clients have been found to prefer male tutors whom they perceive to be “more authoritative, task oriented, and efficient,” and female students to appreciate female tutors whom they experience as “more understanding and caring, easier to trust and talk to” (Hunzer 8).

Conclusion: Potential Implications for our Practice

Our findings that men are significantly less likely both to come to the writing center and to return for additional support challenge us to reevaluate our practices and raise a number of questions for future research. Since the UWC’s motive is to strengthen the writing skills of all students over the course of their lifetimes, we aim to encourage both male and female students to come to and return to the writing center. In a process as complicated and ingrained as writing, a single 45-minute consultation is too short a time in which to expect profound changes. If men are not returning at the same rates as women, our long-term strategy is not working for that part of our constituency.

That is not to say that we are not doing a good job: it may be that, even if it is not as comfortable for some males, both men and women find a haven of transformative nurturing and caring amidst the dominant academic culture of competition and autonomous striving (Trachsel 24-45). Moving forward, these findings call for ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of our philosophy and practices for men and women.

Additional research can explore pragmatic ways to bring more men into the writing center while maintaining a space that is nurturing and supportive for both sexes.

Consultants may benefit from being sensitized to some dynamics such as student defensiveness and resistance that may arise as a result of culture shock when students are used to more hierarchical educational dynamics. Tipper poses thoughtful questions:

    Might the student who tries to enlist the tutor as an ally against the teacher or who gets into a power struggle with the tutor just be trying to create relationships that make sense to him? Might the boy who insists on the tutor telling him what is “right” just be functioning out of his ancient warrior psyche thinking “this guy is supposed to be on my side, therefore, he must know what is right”?

We may also want to consider offering some additional services to cater to more traditionally masculine approaches to learning. In her high school writing center, Tipper reports having successfully made changes such as small group sessions related to classes since the boys at her school seemed to prefer this to their “pseudo-equal” stance in a one-on-one consultation in which they are seeking expert feedback but asked to collaborate as a peer (38).

With increased sensitivity and accommodation to gender-socialized learning and motivational differences, writing center consultants may very well be able to overcome “The Boy Code” problem that Pollock has identified and provide more motivational support for male clients (Tipper 35). Future studies can be done in other writing centers to see if they too are more utilized by female clients. Additional research can explore pragmatic ways to bring more men into the writing center while maintaining a space that is nurturing and supportive for both sexes. Further research could delve more into topics such as the relationship between sex and willingness to seek help from writing centers, sex and communication patterns in consultations, and whether the sex of the consultant predicts the likelihood of client return. As Tipper writes, “Let us hold our sacred practices up to scrutiny and systematically research whether nondirective tutoring serves men as well as women; whether group critiques prove to be positive vehicles for response to writing, especially for men; whether external motivation and competition improved writing among our young men” (35).

Works Cited

Birnbaum, Lisa C. “Toward a Gender-Balanced Staff in the Writing center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 19.8 (1995): 6-7.

Formo, Dawn, and Jennifer Welsh. “Tickling the Student’s Ear: Collaboration and the
Teacher/student Relationship.” Writing Center Perspectives. Ed. Byron Stay,
Christina Murphy, and Eric Hobson. Emmitsburg, MD: NWCA Press, 1995. 104-111.

Hunzer, Kathleen M. “Misperceptions of Gender in the Writing center: Stereotyping and
the Facilitative Tutor.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 22.2 (1997): 6-10.

Tipper, Margaret O. “Real Men Don’t Do Writing centers.” The Writing Center Journal 19.2 (1999): 2-5.

Trachsel, Mary. “Nurturant Ethics and Academic Ideals: Convergence in the Writing
Center.” The Writing Center Journal 16.1 (1995): 24-45.

Tyre, Peg. "The Trouble with Boys." Newsweek 134 (30 January 2006): 44—52. 12 February, 2007,
< http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10965522/site/newsweek >

Woolbright, Meg. "The Politics of Tutoring: Feminism within the Patriarchy." Writing Center Journal 13.1 (1992): 16-30.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. (1929) Rpt New York: Harcourt, 1957.


Lisa Leit
Lisa Leit

Dr. Lisa Leit, a long time writing center consultant and former UWC Assistant Director, successfully defended her dissertation "Conversational Narcissism in Marriage" in the Department of Human Ecology, College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin this September, 2007.


James Riddlesperger
James Riddlesperger

James Riddlesperger received his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006, where he worked as a writing consultant at the UWC. He is currently teaching in Baltimore as a Teach for America Corps member and is attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University.


Ashley Squires
Ashley Squires

Ashley Squires is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin, concentrating in American Literature.


Kanaka Sathasivan
Kanaka Sathasivan

Kanaka Sathasivan recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in Cell and Molecular Biology and English. While at UT, she worked on several writing projects with the Department of Biological Sciences. Currently, she is developing material for a textbook publisher. Kanaka is also an avid performer and dance instructor.


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Justin Smith
Justin Smith

Justin Smith is a nursing student at the University of Texas at Austin.