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Gender Dynamics in the Classroom

Classroom Dynamics

Though once excluded from most institutions of higher education, female students have made significant gains in educational achievement within the last thirty years. So much so, that by the end of the twentieth century, women began outnumbering men at US colleges. Since 1993, women have accounted for roughly fifty-five percent of all students at four-year colleges and universities (“Report Sees”), and by the end of the 1990s, they earned the majority of both bachelor and master’s degrees (Banks 251). No visible exclusion seems to remain. Though still up for debate, recent critics have even begun advocating more attention be paid to male students, noting that young men lag in verbal skills and college attendance while having a higher dropout rate and participation in crime (Banks 251).
Despite these changes, subtle obstacles to women’s education may still be present in the curricular content (what is taught) and in what How Schools Shortchange Girls calls “the classroom as curriculum” (how this content is taught). An important part of the hidden curriculum for women stems not just from their current environment, but also from their past classroom experiences. When students step into our classrooms, they bring their experiences with them, often acting in our classes in ways they learned in earlier courses. Our classrooms fit into a larger social and cultural context, where many factors, including gender, work together to influence the behaviors and learning styles mentioned below. Being aware of the potential gender dynamics described in this chapter can help you create true gender equity and promote the learning of all students, male and female.

Teacher and Student Behaviors

Studies of classrooms ranging from kindergarten through graduate school (Sadker, “Sexism in the Classroom” 513, Hall & Sandler 5-9, and Sandler et al. 10-14) have shown that teachers are more likely to

  • call on male students, even when female students raise their hands or when no one does
  • wait longer for male than for female students to respond to questions
  • give male students more eye contact following questions (thus inviting response)
  • remember and use the names of male students
  • ask male students more questions that call for “higher order” critical thinking as opposed to “lower order” recounting of facts
  • coach male students to develop their thoughts by giving them more extended and more specific feedback on the quality of their ideas
  • give male students specific information on how to complete projects themselves, rather than doing it for them.

These patterns remain remarkably consistent despite the grade level of the course, the subject matter taught, the ethnicity of the teacher or students, the geographical location of the school, and the teacher’s gender (Sadker, “Sexism in the Classroom” 512). Even more surprising, teachers are usually unaware that they treat students in this way. They may even be unaware of the extent to which female and male students actually participate. In response to questioning, Sadker found that teachers will often say that their female students talk more often than their male students. Videotaping the class, however, and then counting who speaks, revealed instead that female students generally talked a third as much as male ones (Sadker, “Sexism in the Schoolroom” 54). Nor are such patterns limited to overtly sexist teachers. One female teacher, astounded to discover such patterns in her classroom, was a twenty-year member of the National Organization of Women (Sadker, “Sexism in the Classroom” 514).

Teachers are not the only ones who treat male and female students differently-so do other students in class. Perhaps in response to this, female students often respond differently to the teacher’s questions than do male students. For example, studies (Sadker, “Sexism in the Classroom” 515, Hall and Sandler 8, and Sandler, et al 12-14) show that female students may be

  • less likely to raise their hands immediately in response to initial questions than their male counterparts
  • less likely to call out and demand the teacher’s attention
  • less likely to receive peers’ approval if they do “break rules” and speak out in class frequently without being called on
  • less likely to receive feedback, whether praise, help, or criticism
  • less likely to have their comments credited, developed, adopted, or even remembered by the group
  • more likely to be interrupted when they speak or to have other students answer questions directed to them.

Such patterns continue past elementary, high school, and college classes to business meetings and boardrooms. Recognizing such patterns and working to counteract them can help make women and men more effective speakers and listeners.

Differences in Linguistic Styles

Differences in linguistic styles may be one reason male students receive more attention. Linguists Robin Lakoff and Deborah Tannen, among others (Lakoff 204, Tannen 239, Hall and Sandler 9-10, and Sandler, et al. 19-22), have found that female students in the US may be more likely than male students to exhibit the following speech patterns:

  • make shorter and quieter statements
  • present their statements in a more hesitant, indirect, or “polite” manner o use “I” statements (“I guess . . .,” “I was wondering if . . .”)
  • qualify their statements (“sort of,” “maybe,” “perhaps”)
  • add “tag” questions (“. . . isn’t it?,”. . . don’t you think?”)
  • ask questions rather than give statements, even if they know an answer
  • use intonations that turn a statement into a question, or accompany their statements with smiles or averted eyes rather than more assertive gestures, such as pointing
  • apologize for their statements (“I may be wrong, but . . .”).

These mannerisms may stem from a preference for collaborative discussion, since most stress the individual nature of the speaker’s opinion, thus leaving room for other opinions and ideas. Such styles may also be more than individual, since they tend to be exhibited more frequently by members of underrepresented groups. Factors of race, class, culture, and personality are equally important “in determining who gets to speak and for how long and whose voice is taken seriously” (Brookfield 158) in the classroom and in our culture at large. Recognizing the benefits of such a collaborative speaking style may contradict our assumptions about effective or authoritative speech and may even force us to examine our own, often unacknowledged, gender stereotypes. Though frequently perceived as hesitant or insecure, these speech characteristics are not negative ones-they are simply different from the standard style validated in most classrooms. Ideally, if a statement is intelligent and interesting, its quality should not be affected by how aggressively it is stated or whether it is phrased as a statement or a question; louder statements are not intrinsically better than quieter ones and longer statements are not necessarily more useful than condensed ones. Indeed, collaborative styles can have an important positive effect on social and academic conversation. Asking tag questions or using questions instead of statements can improve discussion by more readily inviting responses from other students. Such manners of speaking can also help prolong discussion; nodding, clarifying, listening, etc. are all behaviors that encourage others to speak and participate.

Deeply embedded gender stereotypes can also cause faculty to respond differently to male and female students exhibiting the same linguistic styles. For example, women who ask extensive questions are often seen as troublemakers, while men who do so may be considered bright or interested. Or women speaking in an assertive, confident manner, using clear and definitive speech may be labeled “rude,” “abrasive,” or worse by faculty or other students. Becoming more aware of our own stereotypes about gender and how they influence our perceptions and reactions to individual students can help address these problems as we begin to shift our concern with the form or tone of a question to a concern with the content of student remarks.

Possible Effects on Female Students

The negative messages teachers imply can have several effects on female students. When combined with social influences, they can lead female students to expect less of their abilities. Although male and female children start school testing equally well in both content and self-esteem, this parity erodes as students advance through their education. Beginning in middle school, male students begin to show a higher self-confidence in their intellectual and career abilities, though female students may score as well on standardized tests and may in fact get better grades (How Schools 13). This lowered self-confidence may, in turn, lead to fewer female students in some fields. At the same time as their self-confidence about their mathematic and scientific abilities begins to drop, female students begin to show a waning interest in these subjects and go on to take fewer courses in these areas (Rosser 56). With fewer hands-on scientific or technical experiences outside the classroom, and lower expectations from parents, teachers, peers, and counselors, these students may shift their focus toward those courses and fields where society expects them to do well.

The trend of diminished self-confidence and expectations continues for many women in college. Although a student’s degree of self-confidence (as opposed to ability) may seem irrelevant on the college level, advisors and teachers may focus more attention on highly self-confident students or consider their ideas and potential more seriously than those of other students who do not exhibit the same potential as aggressively. Teachers may be less likely to notice less confident students and thus less likely to encourage them to pursue certain majors or graduate careers, to offer them recommendations or chances for research assistant positions, or to mentor them.

Such messages from teachers and peers may also lead some female students to participate less frequently in class discussion. As a group, women participate less frequently than men. One recent study of coed institutions even showed that the frequency of female students’ participation actually decreased throughout the semester (Sandler, et al. 7), at a rate inverse to an increase in participation at single-sex institutions. In particular, studies have found that male college students tend to dominate discussion in classrooms with a male instructor and a majority of male students (Krupnick 18-19), particularly in traditionally male-dominated fields such as science, mathematics, and engineering.
Another factor contributing to the smaller percentage of female student who major in math and science may be the competitive learning environments often favored in such disciplines. When studying male and female students in introductory science courses, Shelia Tobias found that many women-no matter how well they did in the course-responded that what they liked least about science was the intensely competitive, hierarchical, and isolated nature of the environment. She concluded that the women’s uneasiness with science’s perceived “chilly climate” may be connected to the higher attrition rate among women considering a science major (Tobias 70). In other words, female students sometimes drop out of science not because they cannot do as well as male students, but because they recognize that their preferred learning environment does not match the teaching style of their science instructors. To provide all students with equal opportunities to succeed, teachers in these fields may need to pay particular attention to the participation patterns of female students in their courses.