What We’re Reading: Class Discussion as a Forum for Inequity

illustration by Clare Reid

Ideally our in-class discussions are a forum where all of our students can contribute and learn—but a recent study by Jennifer J. Lee and Janice M. McCabe (Gender and Society, 2021) found striking and meaningful differences between men and women in their amount and style of participation. Overall the picture is of an ongoing “chilly climate” for women hoping to join the conversation.

The idea of gender disparities in participation—women participating less frequently and less assertively—is not, as these authors point out, new; the original scholarship on this subject took place forty years ago. The question was whether we would still find such differences today.

The data speak for themselves. Among other specific findings from this in-class field research, “men students [in this study] speak 1.6 times as frequently as women, on average,” and are substantially more likely to have extended back-and-forth exchanges with their instructors. They were also more likely to interrupt others, to speak without first raising their hands, and to use assertive language when they spoke.

This imbalance matters for a number of reasons, not least of which is that, as the authors note, “active participation in college classrooms contributes to increased student learning and development.” An inequality in “sonic space” can therefore mean an inequality in learning.

This is a hard situation for women students to address on their own. “Women students, who are fully aware of gendered cultural beliefs, often face a double bind in classrooms: They need to be active in classrooms to succeed academically, yet social penalties may accompany such violations.”

Importantly for us, the study also finds that professors’ actions were able to mitigate this disparity. The authors noted instances where professors were able to bring balance to the conversation by intentionally calling less-heard voices into the conversation, whether by insisting on hand-raising or asking explicitly to hear from people who haven’t yet spoken. Or, in the words of these authors, “Recognizing that men and women students come into classrooms with contrasting socialization processes and gendered expectations…is an important step for professors. By then actively trying to distribute sonic space and enforcing stricter classroom structures, professors may transform existing status hierarchies.” See our Inclusive Pedagogy hub for more ideas.