Is the College Classroom Still “Chilly” for Women?

Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

Senator Kamala Harris’s “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking” and Vice President Mike Pence’s frequent interruptions during this year’s vice-presidential debate were all too familiar to women across the country. 

Women have come out on social media to share their similar experiences at the workplace, at home, and, most strikingly, at schools. While we may hope that our classrooms are more equitable than the vice presidential debate, research suggests otherwise. In fact, a report in 1982 described a “chilly climate” in college classrooms in which women students are largely silent while men tend to monopolize classroom discussions.

In the next two decades, research on elementary school to college classrooms showed boys and men participating more often than girls and women, and women reporting higher levels of discouragement and invisibility. During that same period, women began graduating from college at higher rates than men and with better grades. Thus, 40 years after its initial publication, it is unclear whether college classrooms remain chilly for women students.

To help answer this question, we conducted 95 hours of observation at Oakwood College (a pseudonym), an elite school located in the Northeastern United States. Between January and March 2017, we observed a total of 80 class sessions taught by male and female instructors across 9 different courses, which were all in different academic departments across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. We recorded each time a student spoke, their gender, and how they started the interaction (e.g., raise hand, speak out, etc.). We also carefully recorded the specific words and body language used by each speaker. We found substantial gender differences in how students occupy their classrooms, how much of the space they fill with their talk.

Gendered Participation Patterns

Men students are more likely to take the floor to talk while women students are more likely to wait for their turns. Across all nine courses observed, men students talk 1.6 times as often as women. In addition, men are also more likely to speak out without raising their hands, interrupt other speakers in the classroom, and engage in prolonged conversations with the professor during class.

Men more frequently use assertive language and tone to convey their arguments, such as “I’m not kidding” or “It’s impossible.” On the other hand, women use a more hesitant and apologetic tone. They often begin their responses with “I don’t know if this is off topic, but…” or “Perhaps this is too specific, but…” As such, men effectively establish themselves as strong participants in classrooms while women remain largely hesitant. More importantly, women students also face a double bind: while they are expected to actively contribute their ideas as students, they are also aware of the possible repercussions for being too assertive as women.

Despite these clearly unequal gender patterns in class participation, we find that how professors organize their courses and intervene during the class greatly affect the interaction patterns. One practice involves deliberately trying to distribute and equalize the responses across students by saying things like “Let’s get other people’s thoughts in here as well” or coming back to students who no longer have their hand raised but did not speak.  By doing this, professors provide more opportunities for different students to contribute to the discussion.

Another practice involves enforcing clear classroom rules for participation, such as raising hands, so that all students have the opportunity to be recognized without having to assertively compete for the chance.  Being aware that men and women students may come into classrooms with different practices and actively trying to distribute their opportunities to speak sends the message to all students that their voices matter regardless of style.

Takeaway

Despite great gains in women’s access to and achievements in higher education, contemporary college classrooms seem to have remained “chilly.” Our observations suggest that men students continue to occupy advantaged positions while women students are largely hesitant to take up space in classrooms. These differences occur regardless of students’ or professors’ awareness of these inequalities. Like in the vice presidential debate, race and gender together may contribute to these patterns, and we encourage future researchers to take an intersectional approach, being careful not to tokenize the experiences of students of color.

But our finding that professors have the ability to transform such unequal patterns should be a beacon of hope. Instead of expecting our students to speak up more and organize their thoughts faster, we should expect our professors to be more mindful of the power imbalance in classrooms and be sure to distribute the opportunities to contribute equally to women and men.   

Jennifer J. Lee is a doctoral student in the sociology department at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her primary research interests include gender, higher education, and social psychology.

Janice M. McCabe is an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College. Her book Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success and other research focuses on how gender, race/ethnicity, and social class operate as social identities and how they shape social networks.

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