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Classes Subject to Gender Inequality

By Susan Schwab

I'VE noticed in my sections that often, only one or two women in the whole section ever say anything. I think this must partly be because of unconscious intimidation.

Sadly, this observation is neither uncommon nor new. For years now, studies have shown that on average, women students participate less frequently than men in college classes.

In 1982, Catherine G. Krupnick, former director of the Danforth Center for Teaching, studied 24 Harvard sections and found that in all cases, men spoke more than women. In predominantly male classes taught by male professors, she found that men spoke 2.5 times longer than women.

Many other studies at different universities have reached similar conclusions. And last spring at a Harvard conference on gender and learning, Krupnick and others testified that substantial gender inequality persists in classrooms today.

Despite the overwhelming consensus of research on the issue, students and teachers at Harvard have yet to confront their responsibility to eliminate the problem of gender inequality in the classroom. Until they do, the quality of education at Harvard--for both men and women--will continue to suffer.

IN FEBRUARY and March of last year, the Danforth Center put up graffiti sheets in the houses to solicit comments about gender in the classroom. Remarks such as those excerpted here in italics attest to the problems' severity; many women here feel marginalized by the aggressive atmosphere of the typical Harvard classroom.

I've seen so many intelligent women act really stupid when in the presence of males.

Eeeek! It hurts to watch! I'm just as bad, though--I often don't ask questions in class because I feel that [my questions] might not be "good enough."

A study conducted by Roberta Hall of the American Association of College's Project on the Status and Education of Women found that common female classroom behaviors are hesitations and false starts in speech, high-pitched or soft vocal tones, qualifiers throughout comments and questions, a questioning tone when making a statement, polite or deferential speech and avoidance of eye-contact when talking.

In her study, Krupnick found that women talk more frequently after other women talk. In a classroom "gender run," men dominate discussions for a substantial period of time until a woman breaks in; the woman's comment initiates a relatively short series of remarks by female students. When a man rejoins the discussion, the cycle begins again.

What explains these behaviors? According to Corrie Norman, a former teaching consultant at the Danforth Center, women's lack of confidence may reflect not lack of knowledge or seriousness on their part, but social conditioning of both women and men.

In my tutorial I was out-numbered by men 2:1. On several occasions I was teased and even insulted for being outspoken in class. But I have also spoken with men who felt women have been passive in section because they perceive themselves to be less capable than men.

Confident women may be criticized as over-aggressive and abrasive because they challenge traditional assumptions about how women should behave. But women who speak less assertively are often overlooked, although many women have been subtley taught since childhood to be deferential and non-confrontational.

Verbal and non-verbal cues from other students and faculty tell women that they are not valued in the classroom.

Here are some examples of comments that have made me feel marginalized this year in my science classes:

"I'm using `men' in the bisexual sense."

"Your mother would never understand this."

"I've got a research position open for a freshman or sophomore who would like to get an early start on his career."

"You've just watched a football game and your mom has been baking cookies.."

Such insensitive language and comments are only part of the problem. Other behavior--that which focuses on women students individually--may be even more discouraging to their participation.

Both teachers and students often take men's comments more seriously than women's. Studies show that women are interrupted more frequently than men, that men are given authorship of ideas more often than women (as in "as John said...") and that men's comments are responded to more extensively than women's comments.

Hall's study further indicates that section leaders call on women less frequently than men and that teachers more often address analytical questions to men and factual questions to women.

Yes, women who feel intimidated do have an obligation to themselves to overcome this fear of being teased, humiliated, looked at strangely, whatever. But even more importantly, section leaders and students are obligated to maintain an environment where no one has any good reason to feel intimidated. It is the responsibility of those who feel comfortable in an environment to make sure that those who initially feel uncomfortable do not feel that way for long.

Students and teachers must work to remedy classroom inequality. Everyone should carefully observe classroom dynamics, especially during the first weeks of class when patterns are set for the rest of the semester. It is important to respect all students' contributions and to avoid common behaviors which work to silence women. Students must give professors and teaching fellows positive and negative feedback regarding these issues, either in person or in the CUE Guide evaluations.

But the issue is not as simple as counting the number of times that men and women speak. The fundamental problem is the competitive nature of classroom discussions. Even if more women could compete on these terms on an equal basis with men, this structure guarantees that someone will always be left out.

Why is the problem always defined in terms of "What women are doing wrong (or failing to do) in class?" Why not address the real problem--sections dominated by a few people who are overly aggressive...I'm tired of being told that women are too passive and that I must conform to a standard I don't value.

Without everyone's participation, the class loses the exchange of ideas that makes classroom discussions so valuable. In addition, the ability to listen to others and to elicit information--the so-called "feminine skills"--are important intellectual tools that students need to learn.

Students and teachers must transform sections in a way that encourages discussion, exchange and cooperation rather than aggressive exclusion.

Sarah Igo '91, Alix Ohlin '92 and Susan Schwab '92 are co-chairs of the Radcliffe Union of Students' Academic Affairs Committee.

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