The Subtle Effects of Gender Disparities in the Classroom
Issue   |   Tue, 03/20/2018 - 22:07

I’ve always been keenly aware of my gender and the consequences it carries: I know that white women earn 80 percent of what men in the same position make (with women of color earning even less) and need to work harder and longer to receive promotions, and I know that one in three women experience physical abuse. However, coexisting comfortably alongside this understanding of global women’s issues is the awareness that I myself exist in a privileged bubble away from these things. It is a bubble where I cannot directly relate to those who are paid 80 cents on the dollar or those who have faced sexual harassment or assault, for I myself have not encountered those experiences — although I know it’s not outside the realm of possibility of what I may someday face. Thus, I’ve often felt at a loss for how I fit into the feminist movement; most of the gender discrimination I encounter has been small but nonetheless present. I want to focus on the more insidious aspects of sexism that persist in the classroom, which are overlooked but become internalized and can act as stepping stones for these larger, more harmful acts of misogyny and are indicative of broader misogyny embedded into our cultural norms.

I realized that the entry point for me to recognize how feminist issues impact me was right in front of me: in the classroom. One specific instance on International Women’s Day precipitated my thinking of how gender plays out in education. In a group for my environmental studies course, we were discussing an environmental policy and preparing to give an informal presentation to the class. I posed question after question to my group as a way of preparing ourselves for teaching the nuances of the policy to the class. Rather than build on my comments, though, one group member gave a curt response, in a tone that suggested I didn’t know anything I was talking about. My initial reaction to this, besides embarrassment (maybe I actually don’t know what I’m talking about?), was to stop asking questions; I internalized the feeling of my own inadequacy. I realized later that this reaction was one common for so many women and girls in classrooms everywhere: often, when male students dominate the conversation, female students withdraw, rather than contribute, their voice. This creates a vicious cycle. As I watched in my class, this condescending classmate would always turn to another male group member for confirmation of his facts, never to me, the sole female of the group, which undermined my confidence in my knowledge. Instead of speaking up, I took a backseat in the conversation, worried that I would make myself look like I didn’t know what I was saying again.

This was the wrong thing to do, but it is the all-too-common thing to do. Women are far less likely than men to speak up in class, even if they are just as likely to know the correct answer. This makes conversations in male-dominated classes, like the one I was in, even more likely to center on male voices. It is this internal hesitance to speak up that paints the false picture of female students as less knowledgeable or intelligent than their male peers. As women don’t speak up, their peers are less likely to look to them for answers or more likely to overlook them in discussion, confirming the feeling that women’s voices are less valued in the discussion. Even teachers are more likely to call on male students, a study by a teacher-in-training at Florida State University found.

This is how we enter a vicious cycle that keeps women’s voices out of the classroom, even as more women are in college classrooms. However, while data may capture overall college gender totals, they do not grasp the divides within specific classes and fields. In my experience, all of my classes have had one gender as a distinct majority. The result is a strange skew that makes it so that my environmental studies discussion section has 17 men and eight women while my English class has 19 women and only four men.

This trend of distinct gender divides extends beyond what I have anecdotally observed. Amherst’s Curriculum Committee conducted a report outlining gender and race demographics within the class of 2017’s major. Nearly each major revealed one gender was a clear majority (i.e. almost every field was noticeably more male or female dominated). It is important to note that at Amherst, overall, humanities majors were 56.3 percent female and 43.7 percent male while science and math classes were 43.9 percent female and 56.1 percent male — subtle but clear gender divide. We must keep these statistics in mind with the consideration that Amherst does have a 50/50 gender split overall. We must also consider the danger of imbalance in either direction (it is just as harmful to have only females in SWAGS classes as it is to have males dominating economics), for it perpetuates gender biases in different disciplines.

This is a strange phenomenon to observe, especially when there is no evidence to suggest that males are innately more equipped for STEM fields. The answer stems, then, from this attitude trend alive in the classroom, of males dominating conversations and pushing women out.

In its report “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation found that “girls are systematically discouraged from courses of study essential to their future employability and economic well-being . . . Girls are being steered away from the very courses required for their productive participation in the future of America, and we as a nation are losing more than one-half of our human potential.”

These words were a potent reminder to me that these tiny irritations I encountered were not just bothersome to me, but were harmful to women as a group, and dangerous to the nation; they remain as a reminder that these small, quotidian encounters add up to an issue larger than each of us. At the same time, it is an issue whose solution begins with each of us, with an act as simple as raising your hand or knowing when to put yours down.