Male college students more likely to speak in class, Dartmouth sociology study finds

by Penelope Spurr | 2/8/21 2:00am

lee-mccabe
Source: Courtesy of Jennifer Jiwon Lee '17 and Janice McCabe

In 1982, a group of scholars coined the term “chilly climates” to describe the “overt and subtle” discrimination women faced in educational settings. In a recent study, Jennifer Jiwon Lee ’17 and sociology professor Janice McCabe set out to see if nearly four decades later, college classrooms remain just as “chilly.” 

The study, titled “Who Speaks and Who Listens: Revisiting the Chilly Climate in College Classrooms,” found that men speak, on average, 1.6 times more than women in college classrooms. Additionally, Lee and McCabe found that men’s language tends to be “more assertive,” whereas women’s language tends to be “hesitant and apologetic.” 

Observing nine Dartmouth classrooms, Lee and McCabe found that all of the dominant speakers — defined in the study as “students who talk the most frequently and dominate the topic of conversation” — in each class were men. Men also spoke three times as much as women in situations in which the professor did not call on raised hands, according to the study. 

The paper began as Lee’s senior thesis in 2017, which was inspired by her own experience. 

“There were a lot of times when I would talk with my woman friends about how we [could] speak up in class,” she recalled. “We would … keep each other accountable to make sure we spoke at least once in class because it was so difficult, especially when I was a first-year student. It was just really intimidating. But I never had that kind of conversation with my men friends; it just seemed to come so naturally to them.”

Lee, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at Indiana University Bloomington, said she had seen studies that discussed gender differences related to the occupation of physical space — such as the use of armrests on planes and the more commonly discussed “manspreading” — but she wanted to see if there were differences in the occupation of sonic space.

Having previously conducted research with McCabe, Lee sought her partnership again, and in the winter of 2017, the two began their research. 

Lee spent 95 hours observing nine Dartmouth classrooms across several disciplines. She noted that having been a Dartmouth student, she was able to fit into the classrooms without disrupting the environment. 

“I knew the lingo and the interactions … so it just gave me a better position to speak to the interactions and analyze [them] better without imposing preconceived notions,” she said.

Qualitatively, Lee documented what participants said, student posture, whether professors stood or sat and whether professors called on students by name or instead used physical gestures. Quantitatively, she counted the number of times students spoke. The team then used ATLAS.ti research software to attach codes to classroom behaviors. With these codes, they identified “gendered patterns in classroom participation,” as well as “how classroom structure influences these patterns.”

This meticulous, long-term process was “intense,” McCabe said, but it allowed the data to reveal clear patterns.

Biology professor and vice provost for research Dean Madden said that he was impressed by the pair’s approach. 

“The study was extraordinarily well-constructed, carried out at the highest level of rigor by a student who was able to illuminate findings that are important for [academia],” he said. 

In observing “follow-up discussions” and “prolonged conversations” with professors, Lee and McCabe found that men continued to dominate the space, reflecting their tendency to “actively pursue answers and claim education.” While women also spoke in those two circumstances, they did so only in classrooms that were predominantly women or in conversations when the professor “continuously asked them follow-up questions.”

Lee and McCabe also observed the disparity of tone between genders. From men, they heard assertive comments, such as “I’m not kidding” or “It’s impossible.” But among women, they heard hesitance and apology in comments like “‘Um, so I couldn’t find a whole lot online, but …” or “Perhaps this is too specific, but …”

As a result, Lee and McCabe argue, women are placed in a “double bind”: They are “expected to actively participate and contribute their ideas,” but “they may be stigmatized for transgressions of gendered expectations, such as engaging in firm and assertive language.”

They also found that the role of the professor may reinforce — or challenge — these gender hierarchies. Professors who actively sought to “distribute sonic space” and establish “clear and enforced classroom rules for participation” fostered more equitable speaking time.

Lee noted that this result was somewhat surprising for her, as she had assumed that a more flexible classroom format would encourage different students to speak up, but found the opposite — that more structure encouraged a more diverse array of students to speak.

After the study was published, Lee said that many faculty members told her that the findings were eye-opening. She said she hopes this data can help professors be “more mindful” that their classroom policies “have real implications on their students.”

In order to address these structural issues, McCabe said, students and professors alike must reflect on their own positions.

“Are you contributing to these patterns, or not?” She asked. “If we want free speech, free exchange of ideas, and we know that having more diverse ideas can lead to better insights, deeper insights, then we want that range of voices.”

Madden noted that the study’s findings resonated with him and encouraged him to reconsider his own teaching practices.

“Honestly, when I read it, I was already thinking, ‘OK, the next time I'm going to be teaching, I'm going to be thinking about these results and trying to synthesize them and integrate them into my own teaching practices,” he said.

Sociology department chair Marc Dixon echoed Madden’s hopes for concrete changes based on Lee and McCabe’s findings.

“If we're not thinking about [this behavior], we just sort of let go and reproduce unequal dynamics in classrooms, and that leads to a less fulfilling education for half or more of the classroom and diminished educational opportunity,” Dixon said. “We can do better in the classroom.”

Lee spoke to the research’s relation to her own experience. 

“It's not that [women aren’t] smart enough or they don't think fast enough,” she said. “That's what I used to think — I used to think that I'm not quick on my feet and I'm not good at talking and that's why I have to work harder, but it’s not.”

Amina Zoklat ’23 shared similar feelings, having seen evidence of Lee and McCabe’s findings in her own Dartmouth experiences.

In class, she said, she often hesitates to speak, thinking “‘I don't know if I should raise my hand or not, or ‘I'm not sure if it's the right answer’ or ‘I'm nervous that I'm gonna get it wrong in front of a whole class.’”

She added that in her experience, the difference in speaking behavior can also come from a difference in confidence levels between genders.

“I feel that … men are more eager to answer the questions [and] raise their hand even if they don't really know the answer right away and go for it and just be more assertive,” Zoklat said. “I feel that women are more worried about not knowing the answer.”

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