Listen to this physics concentrator at Harvard. “In high school it never occurred to me that it was an issue to be a woman. Since I came here, it’s been a major issue in my experience. I really feel the fact that I’m one of two women in a class of 30 students. And I really hate that the fact that I’m a woman is on my mind all the time.”
Or this history and literature major who attended a “very small, very liberal girls’ school in New York” before coming to Harvard. “I’ve been very used to being very comfortable speaking my mind. And at Harvard it feels like I’m not being given the same respect from men because I’m a woman.”
These were just some of the comments that emerged in the seminar on “Gender in the Classroom” last Friday – one of several events in the three-day summit on women in academia sponsored by the Radcliffe Union of Students and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Women in the Social Sciences.
During Friday’s session, Lee Warren, associate director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, moderated a candid discussion of how men and women behave in the classroom. A video of teaching situations at Harvard served as a springboard for discussion.
Differences in the way men and women speak up in class became apparent in the video. Equally interesting were the seminar members’ interpretation of those differences.
In the video, Marina, a student arguing forcefully with a male student in class, was praised by the women in Warren’s seminar for both her politeness and her ability to stand by her arguments.
“She was very polite, and she waited until the speaker had finished, and then she asked him a question – ‘don’t you think’ – articulating her point while phrasing it toward him,” said Kate Clancy ’01, president of the Radcliffe Union of Students and one of the organizers of the summit.
“She didn’t apologize for what she was saying,” said another student, “and sometimes we do that.”
“One of the perceptions is that women are supposed to be warm and open and empathic, and men are supposed to be upright and lecturing and top-down and all this kind of stuff. Even if there is a grain of truth in such a statement, the greater issue is how that perception is used to judge individuals.
Lee Warren, associate director of the Derek Boc Center for Teaching and Learning
In another videotaped scene, a female student made a salient point and then hedged, “I mean, I don’t mean to sound militant and extreme.”
“You say something, and in your head it seems like a great point, but then you see people looking at you funny so you backtrack or you apologize for it being too extreme,” Clancy said.
Warren cautions that generalized statements about “male” or “female” behavior are limited in their accuracy; but certain “gender-related” if not “gender-specific” tendencies can sometimes be observed. For instance, Warren noted the difference in body language between some of the male and female speakers in the video. Some of the women looked down while speaking – fidgeting and shrinking into themselves. In contrast, the women in Warren’s almost all-female seminar (only one man attended) spoke rapidly and confidently, for the most part, while also deferring, often, to let others speak first, and affirming the points of others.
Both women and men bring expectations to the classroom, Warren noted, and judge their teachers and classmates accordingly.
“One of the perceptions is that women are supposed to be warm and open and empathic, and men are supposed to be upright and lecturing and top-down and all this kind of stuff,” Warren says. “Even if there is a grain of truth in such a statement, the greater issue is how that perception is used to judge individuals. Thus, if a woman is good at setting boundaries and is somewhat distant in her relations with students, she is criticized in a way a man would not be, because she is expected to be warm and nurturing. And if a man is open and receptive and concerned about his students, he could get marked down. Thus the same behavior in a man and a woman gets a different response from students and colleagues.”
Similarly, some seminar members said they noticed what their female teachers wore and subconsciously factored that into their assessment of the teacher, while holding their male teachers to a different standard. Gabriella Gonzalez, a graduate student in sociology, and president of GSAS’s Women in the Social Sciences, noted another aspect of a grooming double standard.
“There is this idea that we should have this ‘professional’ look,” Gonzalez said. A friend at another university is “rebelling” by growing her hair long, counter to what she perceives as the unspoken norm that a woman’s hair should be shorter and tidier. Another graduate student agreed that she dressed to avoid drawing attention to her femaleness on the days that she teaches. She almost always opts for trousers and a shirt. “I’m very aware of what I wear before I get up in front of 30 male students, or whatever.”
Gender differences in the classroom can cause genuine pain, as one physics concentrator testified.
Her style of learning, she explained, has been at odds with that of her predominantly male classmates and professors. She said, with visible emotion, “In order to learn well, I need to interact with people. And I find it very frustrating that that’s really not the model that you’re supposed to work under in all our classes.” She related working on problem sets with male classmates – they intent on moving quickly to an answer, she wanting to talk about the problems, understand through interchange what concepts they were learning. Similarly, she likes to ask questions during lecture, “and I get attacked for that,” she said.
“There are women who have changed their behavior to correspond to what’s expected of them,” she said. “I don’t want to do that.”
Warren says, “It is probably true that on the whole, women are more collaborative, men more competitive. Women are more likely to engage with students in active learning, men more likely to keep a distance through lecturing.”
“That said, three women – Professors Diana Eck, Helen Vendler, and Marjorie Garber – are among Harvard’s most accomplished lecturers, and three men – Professors Eric Mazur, Michael Sandel, and Ronald Heifetz – are at the cutting edge of making large classrooms interactive,” she adds.
Warren advised women to “find allies” – classmates, teachers, mentors who understand some of these gender-related frustrations. Gonzalez said two of her students formed a “tag-team,” unbeknownst to her, ensuring they’d each have a chance to speak in section. One student would refer to her friend after making her comment, directing the flow of conversation to the friend’s next comment.
The Bok Center and the Bureau of Study Counsel also offer some help on these issues, and student organizations like Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe and Women in Economics and Government may offer support as well.
Women at Harvard repeatedly ask Warren about workshops on becoming more effective leaders, not only in the classroom but in social and political organizations, “and ultimately onto the local, state, and national scene,” Warren says. “The fact that this request comes up so often makes me think that they really are concerned, that they’re not able to get to the microphone and have a voice.”
Warren concluded the session soberly. “Good luck to all of you in finding voices of authority and confidence.”