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Professors: encourage female students to speak up more in class

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Opinions

February 26, 2016

In one of my politics classes (which will remain unnamed), men speak up far more frequently than women. In an informal tally recording how often men and women spoke in class, about eight male students spoke up per every one female student. This is in a 40-student, gender balanced classroom led by a female professor. On a few occasions, the professor has even deliberately asked women to answer questions or give their viewpoint. When this happens, one female student usually raises her hand to contribute before the class discussion quickly returns to being dominated by male students. Even when discussing women’s rights issues, the discussion is monopolized by men.

Similar patterns are apparent in other classes. In English classes, most of which are majority female, I’ve observed that the few men in class often overtake the discussion and are usually more likely to make comments that disagree with the professor or another student. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Smaller classes can undergo enormous changes in dynamic based on the personalities of students. A few assertive women in a small class can make a big difference in the usually unbalanced gender dynamic. But despite the ability of women to alter the gender imbalance of small classes, the majority of classes feature discussions that are dominated by male students.

This problem ranges far wider than Brandeis. It is far larger than universities in general. This is part of an enormous trend in our society in which women feel afraid or unable to assert themselves in public situations. The reason for the disparity between male and female classroom speakers is the societal expectation put on women to be passive people­-pleasers. Speaking up in class, especially to assert an opinion or argue with another student, requires a level of assertiveness that defies gendered expectations and learned behaviors for college-­aged women. Despite the robust, assertive feminist community at Brandeis, it is not easy for female students to simply unlearn these societal norms and expectations.

Obviously, Brandeis’ student body includes far more diverse gender identities than just men and women. While I don’t have any data about the discussion habits of nonbinary students in Brandeis classes, it is likely that they face similar problems to cisgender women when it comes to speaking up in class, since nonbinary people are silenced similarly to and often more intensely than women.

This is a huge problem when it comes to the future of gender equality. Unfortunately, the habits that lead women not to speak up in class are the same ones that lead them to remain quiet in their personal and professional lives. How can we expect women to assertively negotiate salaries or run aggressive political campaigns at the same rate as men if it is not even socially acceptable for them to raise their hands in class at the same rate as men?

This is not an easy issue to solve. In order for women to speak up in class as often as men, they would have to completely erase the psychological effects of a culture that teaches them to be docile and pleasing. However, we should not ask women to do this on their own. Professors, regardless of gender, are the ultimate leaders in a classroom and hold the power to ensure that women feel safe and confident to speak up in their classrooms.

Gender disparities are not the professor’s fault. Professors cannot singlehandedly change the effects of the culture in which their students were brought up. For the most part, students will fall back to whatever classroom participation habits they learned earlier in life. But if professors are able to recognize that a gender imbalance exists in their classroom discussions, there are some ways that they can remedy it.

The simplest way to help combat this imbalance is to first make students aware of it. Many students probably don’t realize the extent to which they are not speaking up in class. If they think about their participation in the context of classroom gender disparity, students may be more motivated to fix the problem and speak up more often. While it might seem like a waste of class time to verbally encourage people to participate in discussion, the few moments required to advocate for students is worth the time because a more ­diverse class discussion will likely lead to more developed and varied ideas, vastly improving the educational situation of the entire class.

Hopefully, as gender equality advances, more people will feel able to assert themselves more often in the classroom and eventually in their careers. For now, the ridiculous domination of white cis male speakers will likely continue, but we should always be conscious and try to take steps to remedy this, even if just a little bit.

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