Speaking Up Gender Imbalance in the Classroom

by Novi Zhukovsky | 10/3/18 2:00am

“I raise up my voice not so I can shout,” said Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate for women’s rights who won a Nobel Prize at age 17, “but so that those without a voice can be heard. We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”

Malala fights for the rights of impoverished girls to get an education. But even the most privileged girls sometimes struggle to be heard.

Most of us — men and women — know the anxiety of raising our hands in class. We know the feeling that builds in our chest when our heart starts to pound — the fear that we will say something pointless or worse, stupid. Maybe the fear keeps us from speaking at all. But chances are, it is women who are more affected by this anxiety and who are more likely to think twice before speaking out.

Jennifer Jiwon Lee ’17 wrote her senior thesis on the disparity between genders in speaking out. “Who Speaks and Who Listens: An Examination of Gender Differences in Dartmouth Classrooms” examines the disparity between the participation of men and women. Lee tracked nine courses in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences for five weeks and analyzed the different behaviors of men and women. At the end of her study, she found that in all of the classes she followed, the men had established themselves as the “dominant speakers” in the classroom by being the most talkative overall. Sixty-three percent of the time, they were also the first students to speak. These numbers were reached even though male students actually comprised only 45 percent of the students in the study.

Lee also noticed a difference not only in terms of frequency of participation, but in speaking habits as well. She noted that, “men students frequently used assertive language and tone to convey their arguments … In contrast, women students’ tones were largely hesitant and apologetic.”

Additionally, she noticed differences in the ways in which men and women made their initial remarks. Men made comments or answered questions with their first comments, while “women students’ first comments often involved reading excerpts, asking logistical questions about an upcoming assignment, or responding to professors’ cold calling.”

Lee suggests these differences in speech reflect a larger truth about women in society. She believes they represent a “series of subtle micro-inequities that collectively result in discouraging classroom atmospheres that limit women’s potential to contribute to the conversation and to become active participants in the classrooms.” Moreover, she believes that “these instances reflect the tendency of men students to actively pursue answers and claim education, instead of passively receiving education.”

Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology who is also affiliated with women’s, gender and sexuality studies department, and who was also Lee’s thesis advisor, has similar feelings about the impact of the participation gap.

“I think that it compounds and reinforces things that are happening elsewhere in society,” said McCabe. “In and of itself, it may not be an issue, but when combined with patterns about who participates on conference calls and in business meetings, where one study showed that men talked 92 percent of the time in conference calls, it becomes problematic.”

McCabe believes that talking about the disparity may be the best solution.

“I think raising awareness of the issue is a great step because it is important for people to be aware that not everyone has the same assumptions about roles in the classroom,” McCabe said. “We must educate each other different gender and racial dynamics. We should be raising awareness not only among women, but among men too.”

In her thesis, Lee suggests that teachers must lead the way by taking responsibility not only to be aware of gender disparities in the classroom but also by mitigating the divide. Recognizing the “social responsibilities that come with their profession,” she writes, “professors should invest more effort to transform classroom structures.”

There is some debate about how best to handle the differences. Jessica Heine ’19, who is majoring in philosophy, believes that it is up to students to push themselves to speak up and close the gap.

“I would rather see girls be empowered and feel confident enough to succeed in really assertive and aggressive environments than having the environment changed because we think girls can’t handle it,” Heine said. “I think that reinforces the stereotype in the first place and reinforces people’s ideas that women can’t and shouldn’t be assertive. I don’t agree with programs that have a different standard for girls, or try to give them extra help by calling on them or getting them to them speak up.”

The issue leads to the question — is there anything specific to Dartmouth that might make this phenomenon more prevalent in our classrooms?

Giavanna Munafo, senior lecturer in the women’s, gender and sexuality studies department, thinks Dartmouth might be influenced by its previous status as an all-male college.

“Dartmouth only became coed in 1972 — not very long ago,” she said. “I started college in 1979, and while the school I went to, [the] University of Virginia, had only become coed a few years before, it did not feel to me at all the way many women feel [at Dartmouth] — like they have been added in and are second class citizens here.”

Munafo thinks that although the College is now coed, the “old boys club kind of hangs on.”

  “When I came here in the early ’90s, there were some alums who had been very generous supporters of Dartmouth and who stopped giving money when the decision was made to admit women,” Munafo said.

Jessica Heine believes that both the college’s geographic isolation and heavy Greek life might contribute to its male-centric identity, and further the divide.

“There might be a romantic veneration of those old traits ­— of having that type of arrogant, confident behavior,” she said. "Maybe in part because this college is so excluded from outside life in a unique way.” Heine thinks Dartmouth’s transition to coeducation may have been a more difficult process than at other previously single sex schools, due to Dartmouth’s isolation, in comparison to its urban counterparts.

“If you’re in Boston or New York, there may be only boys in your classroom, but you’re still in an environment where there are girls everywhere,” she said. “But here, it was just a totally boy-centric community.”

According to Heine, a thriving Greek life, such as the one at Dartmouth, and gender equity on a campus cannot coexist.

“[It’s] sort of naïve to think that we can have our education and be all equal and have great, aggressive debate and then a few hours later, all of the girls are going to spend all of this time getting dressed up to go into one of these boy’s fraternity houses where [the boys] are the ones in control of what’s going on,” said Heine. “I don’t think you can have that dynamic playing such a big role in people’s lives and then expect all of those same people to become completely equal once they enter the realm of the classroom.”

No matter how long we have been at the college, the tune of the "Alma Mater" has now been cemented into the brains of all Dartmouth students. Though some of us have yet to memorize all of the lyrics, there are a few lines that seem to have stuck:

“Give a rouse, give a rouse, with a will!

For the sons of old Dartmouth,

For the daughters of Dartmouth.”

While these three lines are certainly the catchiest, they conceal an underlying reality that is easy to forget: the last line was inserted in 1988, nearly 100 years after the original lyrics were created, and when the title of the song was “Men of Dartmouth.” Now, even though the school maintains a 50:50 male-to-female ratio and has fully integrated women into the college, the goal of equality, as Lee’s research has shown, has not made itself evident in all classrooms. And whether or not Dartmouth’s history as an all-male college or its association with Greek life contributes, the disparity is real.

With continued attention and thought, perhaps one day all members of the Dartmouth community will become more conscious of both the impact and importance of their participation in the classroom. And maybe soon the voices of women at Dartmouth will be as loud and sure and firm as Baker Library’s daily call of the "Alma Mater."