Speak up: striving for gender equity in the classroom

If there’s one thing I love about attending Duke University, it’s that my male classmates appear to value my contributions in the classroom,  encouraging me to bolster my participation in the classroom and uplifting my intellectual abilities. 

But every time such genuine praise escapes their lips, I am awash in shock. Having attended a small high school in Mississippi, I perceived the derogation of active class participation by intelligent and ambitious women as an established standard, an obvious consequence one would have to face should she choose to take full advantage of her education. Such treatment conditioned my fellow girl classmates and me to believe that our voices were dispensable in educational arenas and worse, that they detracted from our sense of femininity. 

Although experiences such as these may seem to be an aberration in a prestigious institution as well known as Duke University, they remain the norm and not the exception in educational systems across the world. In fact, this limitation of intellectual space for women in schools and universities is widely recognized as one the gravest consequences of integrating classrooms into coeducational classrooms. 

A research paper by Alison L. Booth, Lina Cardona Sosa, and Patrick J. Nolan “investigates the effects of single-sex classrooms in a randomized university experiment.” The study reveals startling results, finding that “one hour a week of single-sex education benefits females: females are 7% more likely to pass their first-year courses and score [a whopping] 10% higher in their required second-year classes than their peers attending single-sex institutions.” 

The finding can be attributed to a psychological phenomenon known as the stereotype threat, which dictates that a woman’s academic performance and participation are likely to decrease when she is in a situation that activates any negative stereotypes concerning her intellectual capabilities. For example, if a woman arrives to take an economics exam and spots male peers in the examination hallway, and she is aware of the stereotype that women are not very good at economics, she may perform poorly on the exam. The concept can also be applied to class participation: exposed to the stereotype that her sex is poor in economics, a woman may be significantly less likely to participate in class discussions or answer questions posed by the professor. 

Such cognitive differences are precipitated early in women’s educational careers. Throughout elementary school, “girls are more motivated to perform well in school than boys.” But then, as they progress through middle and high school, the adverse consequences of social conditioning settle in. This social conditioning is often spearheaded by teachers themselves who, falling prey to their implicit biases, treat girls and boys very differently in the classroom, such as encouraging girls to be soft-spoken in the classroom while imploring boys to speak up. 

But this divergence in this treatment is not only so superficial; instead, it presents grave concerns for maintaining equity in the classroom. For example, “teachers interact with boys more often than with girls by a margin of 10 to 30 percent.” There are several explanations for this finding but the most fascinating is “that boys, compared to girls, may interact in a wider variety of styles and situations, so there may simply be richer opportunities to interact with them.” Rather than attempting to bridge this gap, teachers may capitalize on the increased opportunities to engage with boys; therefore, further perpetuating male domination in the classrooms. 

Additionally, teachers often display the tendency “to praise boys more than girls for displaying knowledge correctly but to criticize girls more than boys for displaying knowledge incorrectly.” As a result, they make “boys’ knowledge . . . seem more important and boys themselves more competent,” making “girls' knowledge less visible and girls themselves less competent.” Complimentary to this propensity of teachers is their management of behavior in the classroom: “teachers tend to praise girls for ‘good’ behavior, regardless of its relevance to the content or to the classroom, and tend to criticize boys for ‘bad’ or inappropriate behavior.” This discrepancy produces a “net result . . . mak[ing] their goodness seem more important than their competency in the classroom.” 

Although teachers may engage in such behaviors subconsciously, their complacent participation in such harmful practices of social conditioning at the elementary school level produces grave consequences as girls enter puberty and experience the stirrings of their first romantic attraction. Recalling instructions to remain obedient and quiet from their childhood,  girls “begin to downplay their academic ability in order to appear more likable to both sexes.” As Dr. Maria do Mar Pereira from the University of Warwick’s department of sociology explains, “Young people try to adapt their behaviors according to . . . pressures to fit into society. One of these pressures is that young men must be more dominant - cleverer, stronger, taller, funnier–and that being in a relationship with a woman who is more intelligent will undermine their masculinity.” 

As a result, young women come to believe that they are only romantically desirable when they are less intelligent than their male interests, dimming down their diamond-like brilliance in an attempt to satiate their natural human desire for companionship. They must choose between their ambition and romantic sentiments, and the instilled fear of being “lonely forever” often compels them to give up their aspirations in favor of socially conditioned inclinations. 

An obvious bandaid solution is to revert to days of single-sex classrooms, but such a proposition fails to acknowledge the mutual intellectual growth that emerges from coeducation spaces. Instead, we must restructure training procedures for teachers themselves, implementing implicit bias awareness as an integral prerequisite to active teaching in the classroom. Teaching does not need to be an unthinking, unfeeling endeavor; we can actively make instructional choices that empower girls in the classroom to believe that not only are their voices welcome in all spaces that champion intellectual curiosity; they are absolutely necessary. 

I was in seventh grade when I was first told that I was acting too loud and too dominant during class discussions, and a freshman in college when I was told that I ought to be wary of my loud participation in lectures lest I ward off male friends. At every turn, my voice has been scorned for its volume, and I have been derided for taking up space authentically in the classroom. I have been warned to choose between being loud and assertive or being a woman. 

Yet, here I remain, existing, breathing, and thriving as a loud, assertive woman. This is the pinnacle of my rebellion against a social structure that dulls the value of my intellectual contributions, and to quiet my voice would be to remain silent in the face of all its injustices. Every time I speak in spite of the consternation that I elicit from others, I rattle these foundations to their core, and it is the collective resistance of myself and my fellow young women that will one day extirpate this cancer from our social conscience.  

Advikaa Anand is a Trinity freshman. Her columns run on alternate Thursdays.

Advikaa Anand | Opinion Managing Editor

Advikaa Anand is a Trinity sophomore and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


Share and discuss “Speak up: striving for gender equity in the classroom” on social media.