WILLA v4 - Psychological Safety of Women on Campus: A Collaborative Approach

Volume 4
Fall 1995

Psychological Safety of Women on Campus: A Collaborative Approach

by Lynn Butler-Kisber

Recently it has been acknowledged that women experi ence and evaluate their space differently from men and that ethnicity, race, class, age, ability and sexuality all have a direct bearing on how we experience our environments (METRAC, 1991). Women have begun to articulate the many dimensions of settings which merit scrutiny and change in order to avoid the considerable, and often unconscious, en ergy that is expended when our surroundings are physically and/or psychologically uncomfortable. Women's groups on campuses across the country are challenging institutions to study policies, practices, services, and physical designs which are prejudicial to women. This paper describes a two-year safety audit project at McGill University. Its success depended on a collaborative effort by students, staff, and administrators.

A safety audit is a close evaluation of the physical environment for safety factors. It is an educational tool and an action plan.... The audit looks at the environmcnt--at how a space is put together and how it enhances or reinforces a sense of safety... The goal of safety audits is to improve the physical environment in ways that reduce the opportunities for sexual harassment or sexual assaults and to make the environment more comfortable and accessible to all ... The safcty audit process validates women's experience of the environment by acknowledging that women are the experts of their experience. (Women's campus safety audit guide, METRAC/COU)

Included in this description are the nature of the process, the difficulties, the results to date, and some future directions which merit consideration.

The mini-audit

McGill University in Montreal is a large, decentralized institution in the heart of the city with approximately 21,000 full-time day students. An additional 10,000 evening students are part of the Centre for Continuing Education. Fifty two percent of the 14,000 undergraduates are women.

In March 1992, the Advisory Committee on Women Students' Issues initiated and conducted a mini safety audit in and around several buildings on the McGill campus. The composition of the group included the students, professors, and staff on the Advisory Committee, the Dean of a large faculty, and the Director of Physical Resources as well as a representative from METRAC, Toronto (Metro Action Committee on Public Violence against Women and Children). The impetus for the audit came from a tragic and violent shooting of 14 women at Ecole Polytechnique (a sister institution), a campus rape, and a general perception that assaults against women were increasing both in and around the University. The mini-audit was predicated on the notion that:

... every possible avenue must be examined in order to avoid all incidents involving safety on campus and... there is a responsibility to deal with the PERCEIVED physical and psychological safety needs of women in the McGill community.... to increase the comfort level of women, and consequently everyone, particularly after dark and during silent hours.
(Butler-Kisbcr et al., 1992, p. 2).

The METRAC representative walked us through the process at early twilight and helped the group to "make the familiar strange" and to raise questions about the environment that had not consciously been addressed before. A summary of the exercise was submitted to the Advisory Committee by the METRAC representative and resulted in approval of a recommendation from the Dean of Students to do a campus-wide audit. The Dean of Students delegated the work to the Advisory Committee which formed a small subcommittee to complete the task.

Involving the University-at-large

The original involvement of the METRAC representative as an "outside expert," the Dean of Arts, and the Director of Physical Resources as well as approval from the Dean of Students gave a legitimacy to the pilot effort and subsequent campus-wide task. The next problem was how to retain ownership for the project in order to "research the work from below, rather than from above" as Dagg and Thompson (1988) would suggest and at the same time generate commitment for the exercise from the University as a whole.

It was decided to approach the University through the Vice-Principal Academic Dean's Working Group. Since McGill is fairly decentralized where faculties and other such units enjoy relative autonomy, without a university-wide commitment of some sort, there was the danger that even if the audit were implemented the recommendations might never be realized.

The project was presented to this group as fundamental to the quality of all academic life. The deans were asked to support it by appointing a delegate who would then become part of an audit team that would survey the buildings and surrounding areas of the faculty or unit for which each dean had responsibility. In retrospect, the academic route carried momentum. The dean who had participated in the pilot study helped to garner support. The deans were reassured that their delegates would ensure a "faculty perspective" in the process. At the same time it was a way of keeping the Deans informed about and committed to the work. Similarly, the involvement of the Director of Physical Resources made it easier to get custodial staff participation (which had direct links to McGill security) and the funds to train the teams for the process. The students on the audit subcommittee were given the task of finding sufficient student volunteers to equip each of the subsequent 41 audit teams of 4, with 2 students, to ascertain gender balance and an equitable student-staff ratio. This responsibility also gave them the opportunity to recruit feminist participants.

Team formation and training

Lists of teams were drawn up and circulated to the Deans and their delegates, and then all participants attended a 2 hour training session given by Connie Guberman from METRAC who had already worked with other institutions on safety audits. Again, the external expert provided weight and legitimacy to the project. In addition to orienting the teams to the open-ended audit questionnaire and the fundamental ideas underlying the exercise, this forum helped to elicit and refute some of the sexist notions about women's safety that certain participants brought with them. One of the key shifts in thinking we were hoping to achieve was the understanding that issues on women's safety include psychological safety. We were trying to increase the understanding that women need to FEEL safe as well as be safe. Without this perception, low incident statistics are only partially indicative of campus safety. During the training sessions it was emphasized that the elaborated METRAC questionnaire that was to be used in the audit was structured to encourage the elicitation of feelings and perceptions as part of the data.

The audit process

At twilight on March 10, 1992, 41 teams met at their assigned buildings and for approximately 2 hours audited the interiors and immediate exterior surroundings of each. They were asked to keep copious notes using the audit questions as a guide and then to integrate their information and submit this to the subcommittee using two audit forms for an interior and exterior report. It took until June of the same year to receive all the reports. The open-ended nature of the survey, the large differences in audited areas and the composition of the teams produced interesting formats and variation. The rich and idiosyncratic qualitative data raised the usual issues that qualitative inquirers face: how to present the information and how to counteract questions concerning plausibility/validity.

The audit report

We grappled with how to retain the individual voices of the women which were so descriptively documented in the audits in order to persuade the quantitative scrutineers of the legitimacy of the process and results and to get the recom- mendations implemented. To do this, each audit was reduced to a one-page, individual summary of the area surveyed. These summary reports included location, descriptions, functions, hours, observations, and notations as well as the specific recommendations outlined in the report. All audit summaries were included in the appendix of the final report. The inclusion of these summaries in the report was perceived by a few University staff as overly negative. However, the response from most, in particular the women of the community, was extremely, positive. They were pleased that the nature and details of their concerns had not been glossed over by generalities.

Maria Portela, the research assistant who helped with the data analysis, was a graduate student studying architecture. Her expertise facilitated the task of compiling all the information about dark and isolated areas and then displaying this graphically on a map of the McGill campus. These data helped us to make the case for developing a "night route" and to obtain immediate resources to increase and concentrate safety and security measures along this route.

This Night Route Map outlines the optimal way of crossing the campus after dark and includes where the new phones are located and other pertinent information. Sightlines have been cleared, lighting has been enhanced, and security patrols this route more frequently. The map is currently distributed to all new students and as extensively as possible to all members of the university community.

The open-ended questions and recommendations were grouped into common categories, collapsed and expanded appropriately to encompass all the data, and ultimately classified into 14 dimensions. Summary tables of the indoor and outdoor audit recommendations were presented, indicating the frequency of the various recommendations classified by category and priority. The most important recommendations and comments were elaborated upon and interpreted further. Thirteen recommendations came out of the report. These included the need for improved signage and lighting, increased security, emergency communications and incident reporting, and a coordinating committee reporting to a vice-principal to ensure the recommendations would be implemented and that audits would be done regularly.

Releasing the report became a delicate balancing act. The members of the subcommittee responsible for the exercise all had to agree to the recommendations and sign off. Meanwhile, a tragic event at a sister university in which a professor shot four colleagues had suddenly put safety high on the University's agenda. The Administration began pressing for the report in mid-October 1992. Fortunately, a re- sponsive vice-principal was persuaded that confidential access to a draft of the report could potentially undermine the whole process, and he rescinded his request. The report was finally released in early December. The report was released to the Administration, sent to participants, and made public simultaneously. The university-wide involvement, the methodology employed, and the distribution seemed to contribute to the generally favorable response. A strong letter of com- mendation to the subcommittee from the Principal of the Uni versity no doubt contributed to the momentum of the next stage in the process.


In January 1993, a Committee on the Personal Safety of Women in the University was established, reporting to a senate committee chaired by a vice-principal. It began the task of implementing the recommendations. This work is still underway. To date, eight additional emergency phones of the most sophisticated type have been added to the campus. Lighting has been increased in some key areas, and mechanisms for reporting and replacing light outages and making requests for improving sightline obstructions have been put in place. A third patrol car has been added, and patrol frequency has been increased. A new software package that will interface incident location with the McGill security and Montreal police is being installed. The voluntary, student-run Walk-Safe Network has been given some financial support and the University has agreed to include the necessary expertise when adding or replacing signage. While the work is by no means over, perhaps most rewarding has been that, increasingly, up per level administrators and others are referring to women's psychological safety.


  • The audit process is useful both for the concrete kinds of changes that can result from it and the consciousness-raising it provides. However, there is no doubt that the way the process is organized and implemented has a direct bearing on the degree of commitment and subsequent results. Attention to a process that engages and retains ownership for all constituents across an institution has a direct bearing on the momentum and realization of results.
  • The notion of psychological safety should extend beyond the idea of perceived physical safety and include any context in which women in some sense do not feel safe or comfortable. The whole issue of sexual harassment is naturally a part of this. But it also includes contexts which have been referred to as hostile environments (Sandler & Paludi, 1993), places and situations in which women are hindered or expend unnecessary energy because the environment is either blatantly or subtly unsafe or uncomfortable. Encouraging women to log these situations and events as bases for discussion and action is both appropriate and necessary if changes are to be made.
  • We need to develop ways to "audit" contexts from the "bottom up" and to extend these audits beyond the university and college level to the high schools and elementary schools. Only recently have educators begun to realize just how pertinent the notion of women's and girls' safety is to our schools and how perhaps inadvertently, but overly accepting, we have been about what constitutes admissible attitudes, behaviors, policies, and practices.

Works Cited

Butler-Kisber, Lynn et al. ( 1992). The McGill safety audit report. Montreal, Que: McGill University, Office of the Dean of Students.

Dagg, Anne Innis & Thompson, Patricia (1988). Miseducation: women and Canadian universities. Toronto, Ont: OISE Press.

METRAC/COU (1991). Women's campus safety audit guide. Toronto, Ont: METRAC and Council Or Ontario Universities Committee on the Status of Women.

Sandler, Bernice R. & Paludi, Michele A. (1993). Educators guide to controlling sexual harassment.. Washington, DC: Thompson Publishing Group.

LYNN BUTLER-KISBER is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education at McGill University in Montreal. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1993 Fall Convention of the National Council of Teachers of English. Support for the project came from the Department of Physical Resources and the Office of the Dean of Students at McGill University.

Copyright, 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Butler-Kisber, Lynn. (1995). Psychological safety of women on campus: A collaborative approach. WILLA, Volume IV, 5-8.

by Radiya Rashid