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Girls in the Classroom

By Isabel H. Evans

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Sandberg has said that one of the biggest obstacles to women achieving success and respect is a lack of confidence and bravery to voice their ideas. Specifically, she suggests, “We need to teach women to raise their hands more.” With all due respect to Ms. Sandberg, a hesitancy to speak up is not necessarily the main reason women have trouble becoming successful. It can be, but at least in the academic setting of Harvard the problem is not that women are afraid to speak up and are too shy to raise their hands. We do raise our hands. The problem is that once female students are called on, we often fail to articulate our ideas and arguments as confidently as male students do.

This is a very broad statement and deserves explanation. From personal experience it seems to me that in the academic setting of Harvard, female students and male students raise their hands with about the same frequency. Both contribute, in section and in lecture, at roughly equal rates. I also cannot discern any difference in quality between the ideas and comments of male and female students.

The big difference lies in how those ideas are expressed. Generally when male students express an idea, they express it loudly and in a confident tone. Even if the subject is not something they are particularly familiar with, they address the issue confrontationally. Female students, on the other hand, tend to speak up in a very different, and often less effective, way. They often laugh in a self-deprecating manner after their comment and if they are not sure about what they are saying, female students will usually tell the class: “I’m not sure about this, but…” or “This may sound stupid, but…” One could say that honesty about what one knows is a commendable trait, but in the classroom, it detracts from what the student is saying. An intelligent remark will now have a stamp of “inadequacy” placed upon it that taints the argument.

Perhaps the worst habit is the apology. In my experience, it is common to hear girls reply to a classmate’s comment in the following way: “I have to say that I disagree with that–sorry!–and think this.” Yet it is extremely rare to hear an apology for a disagreement ever come from a male student. Again, this apologetic style detracts from the weight of the speaker’s words. Even though the reason for the disagreement is usually valid and intelligent, it is impossible to take it seriously when the speaker has apologized for it as if it were something to be ashamed of.

What is the source of this female timidity? Why is it so prevalent? One very persuasive theory is that girls are constantly afraid of coming on “too strong” or “too intense” in the classroom for fear it may damage their popularity or make them seem unlikeable. An EdChange study on Gender Bias in Education asserts that girls from a very young age are socialized to view assertiveness as an essentially masculine quality. The study argues that, “Assertive behavior from girls is often seen as disruptive and may be viewed more negatively by adults.”

Another study shows that as they enter adolescence, the pressure to be “feminine” greatly affects how girls speak and state their opinions. They feel the pressure to be “proper, pleasing, quiet, and nice,” and are afraid of coming off as disruptive or “too loud.” From experience in the classroom at Harvard, it seems that this fear and these pressures often comes into play in girls’ behavior, either by not talking in class or, more commonly, by talking in class but doing so apologetically and bashfully. Women at Harvard are proud of their intellect and opinion and possibly would deny that they are thinking of other people’s judgments when they speak up. Their behavior, then, is perhaps subconscious and exists as a result of habits established long ago.

Of course, this tendency to self-deprecate does not exist in all female students, just as assertiveness is not a quality associated with all male students. There are students of both genders that completely defy this trend and characterization. But it seems to be much more likely for women to detract from the importance of their statements and to diminish their own arguments. We, as fellow students and peers, need to correct this. If we as women notice that we keep watering down our points, we should actively try to stop it. And if we notice a friend doing it, we should point it out so that they can improve as well. It may be an awkward conversation but it will be an important and useful one.

An ability to express a conviction is surely crucial. At a university filled with dynamic, intelligent, ambitious women, it is frustrating that there is such pervasive self-deprecation and humility. We, as female students, should be just as confident and outspoken in our ideas in the classroom as men are. There is no need to apologize for an opinion, however controversial it may be. Let’s keep raising our hands, and when we’re called on, let’s raise the bar in our confidence to express ourselves.

Isabel H. Evans ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator living in Adams House.

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