I vividly remember how excited I was to start classes at Wesleyan this past fall. After a long, lazy summer, all of the traumatizing memories of senior year had begun to fade and I was ready to start expanding my mind alongside other bright, intellectually curious young students. I was going to challenge myself! I was going to do all the assigned reading! I was going to attend 8:50 classes five days a week without sleeping through a single one! And for the most part, my expectations were fulfilled. My professors were brilliant and my classes were—mostly—fascinating.
Gradually though, I began to notice something about my male classmates: they talked constantly. This was particularly obvious in my First Year Seminar, a small, discussion-based course where it felt like the seven male students—despite making up less than half the class—managed to dominate every single discussion. At first, I wondered if I was imagining things—if coming from an all-girls high school had made me particularly sensitive to the presence of men—but when I talked to my friends about it they all nodded knowingly.
“Of course the boys talk more,” was the near-universal response. “That’s what boys do.”
This experience is not unique to me, nor to Wesleyan. People (and by “people,” I mean “men”) who believe that institutional sexism is no longer a pressing issue love to point out that women make up around 57 percent of college students, and thus cannot possibly face obstacles in seeking an education. The real story of gender and education is a bit more complicated, as around the world, from elementary to grad school, study after study after study has found that men speak more in class.
This is rarely intentional, especially at supposedly progressive schools like Wesleyan, where few men consciously believe they are smarter or more deserving of class time than their female peers. It’s also not entirely the students’ fault; by consistently paying more attention and giving more constructive feedback to boys than to girls, teachers and professors play a major role in creating an unequal classroom environment. This phenomenon is so well documented that it has a name: the chilly climate. The chilly climate, a term popularized by researchers Bernice Sandler and Roberta Hall, refers to an educational environment that “subtly or overtly communicates different expectations for women,” and there are countless ways for teachers to contribute to this climate. Instructors at virtually every grade level have been found more likely to call on boys, more likely to tolerate interruptions coming from boys, more likely to address boys by name, and more likely to give long, thoughtful responses to boys’ questions and comments.
Furthermore, most people are blissfully unaware of this bias. Unless they hear recordings of their classes played back to them, teachers generally believe they are spending equal time on their male and female students, and when they do call on men and women equally, they report feeling that the women are “dominating” the discussion. As a result of this constant, subtle discrimination, women tend to be much more cautious about voicing their opinions. They are far more likely to phrase their comments as questions or to use excessive qualifiers (“I think,” “perhaps,” “it seems possible”). They are perceived as less confident and thus less knowledgeable, and their contributions to the class are further devalued, leading to increased cautiousness in a terrible and endless cycle. And before you tell me about the girl in your government class who won’t shut up, or about how you always got terrible participation grades in high school, please don’t. I’m fully aware that classroom participation varies widely among both men and women, and that often, the majority of students don’t participate at all. But as a group, there’s no denying that men are taking up more than their fair share of class time.
This phenomenon is hardly limited to the classroom. Men dominate casual conversations, professional meetings, every possible genre of journalism, and even Twitter. Because men are constantly being told that their opinions are worth hearing, they are confident enough to constantly express their opinions. And because women are incorrectly perceived as the more talkative sex, they struggle to push back against this deeply entrenched sexism without being labeled as aggressive or unreasonable. There’s no easy solution to this maddeningly persistent issue, but there are several steps each individual can take. Teachers need to make a constant, genuine effort to listen to and respect their female students. Women need to remind themselves that they deserve to be heard as much as anyone else.
You guys need to take a step back.