Gender Biases in the College Classroom

Client:

Professor Billings

Role:

Researcher

Tools:

Ethnography

Observation

Interviews

Deliverables:

Ethnographic Report

Observational Notes

Research question:

How does gender influence the college classroom experience, specifically in the Philosophy department?


Approach:

Approach: I will explore this question by conducting an ethnographic analysis of male-female dynamics and behavior in an introductory-level philosophy class (Philosophy of Time and Time Travel).


Significance:

This question is important because gender biases in the classroom can perpetuate overall gender inequality, prevent students from voicing their opinions, and influence who decides to pursue a major, or career, in that field.


Overview of Ethnographic Scene:

Having just finished with my own philosophy class in the same room, Thornton 104, I did not feel the urge to move from my seat; however, when the first student for the following class arrived, he began to arrange the seats in a row-like fashion. Sensing my puzzlement, he explained that the professor prefers five rows with three seats on each side of the room and an aisle in the middle instead of the residual circular arrangement from the previous class.


As the rest of the students trickle in, I immediately notice the gender disparity and decide to keep a tally in my notebook: 19 males - 7 females (later, I was intrigued to learn that the only TAs for the class were both female). Upon meeting the professor, I note that his speech impediment makes speaking with him a little awkward. I begin to wonder how this might impact the way certain students view him. I make a side-note: Does the professor’ s stutter and resulting slowed speech make him more vulnerable and/or approachable?


Before he starts his lecture, the professor explains the “quantitative spatial directions” for the upcoming midterm assignment. Uninterested in that specific topic, I turn my attention toward the faint, lemony scent in the air. A change of voice catches my attention, however, when a white male student asks, “That’s double-spaced, right?” After addressing a few more questions, which all happen to be from male students, the professor moves on. Within the span of a single class period, I observe the professor’s lecture on special relativity and the students’ group-work on an in-class problem set.

Throughout the lecture, I am captivated by the gender dynamics in the classroom, and focus on social interactions more so than the actual subject material. I notice how sometimes the professor picks a female student over a male student, even when the male student raises his hand long before the female student does. At some point during the lecture, a male student asks about the properties of the space time interval function—and I am grateful when another male student seeks clarification on the subject.


Key Findings:


(1) Gender seems to shape classroom seating preferences.

At the start of class I make note of my placement in the room: right-side, middle row. Glancing around, I notice that four of the seven females are Asian, three are white, and the rest of the male students comprise of the same demographic. The four female Asian students occupy a square formation within the first two rows, a female white student sits in the first row next to the two female Asian students, and the other two female white students sit near the middle on the left side of the room. In general, the female students tend to sit near the front of the room, while the male students tend to sit in scattered clusters everywhere else.


(2) Male students tend to speak loudly, with or without being called on.

Within the first five minutes of class, the professor asks a question and a female student raises her hand. The professor nods in encouragement, prompting the student to softly provide an answer, but he immediately shuts her down with a brusque and odd-sounding, “No,” and then jumps to a male student whom he addresses by name. I notice how the males in the classroom comfortably speak out without being called-on, and how they tend to speak loudly, regardless of being correct in their answers, or not. During a discussion of planes, geometry, physics, and vectors, the classroom rings with only male voices as they ask in-depth questions, make lengthy remarks, and connect abstract dots. Eventually, a small voice shifts the tone of the room when a female student asks how to correctly draw one of the diagrams that is currently being displayed on the board.


(3) Female students tend to speak minimally and qualify their statements.

As the professor passes out a problem set to be worked on during class, a few male students hurriedly stow away their phones. Instructed and encouraged to work together, the students in the back half of the classroom immediately break into small groups, while the students in the front half remain still, choosing to work independently. I observe the structure of the activity and notice the lack of interaction between males and females. Though I focus on the male voices in the back of the room, which seem to be discussing the worksheet problems openly and freely, I witness a domino effect as one of the female students on the left side of the room asks the professor a question. He kneels next to her and responds animatedly. Then, the only other female student on the left side of the room turns to the male students surrounding her and starts to talk. Finally, and for the first time all class, the female students in the front begin to converse with each other about the problem set. Gradually, the entire room fills with discussion. In the last few moments of the period, the professor asks if he should review some difficult questions from the worksheet and a few male students nod their heads in agreement. The female white student in the front of the room timidly gives a brief, but correct, answer to the problem on the board, finishing with, “Yes, I think that’s it.”


Interview Summary

I chose to interview a TA because I desired an unbiased account of the classroom experience. Since the TA’s job is to read and grade assignments, she would have a better understanding of the students’ performance and general sense of the overall comfort level of the students in the class. Furthermore, I thought she might be able to provide insight into gender dynamics during group discussions. Lastly, this TA is also a Philosophy major, so she has a vast amount of experience working with the department.


Before the interview began, I noticed that the informant seemed relatively tired. She revealed to me that she just finished a practice LSAT. We sat in baker lobby, which was not entirely conducive to the interview structure because the ebb and flow of students would occasionally drown the informant’s soft voice. As the interview progressed, I realized that it was difficult for me to gauge whether the informant’s long pauses were the result of not understanding my questions, or of critically thinking about her experiences in the class. Consequently, I would sometimes rephrase my questions and give her extra time to think. Often, she would ask if what she was saying made sense and would reword her statements before finishing them. Overall, however, I found the interview to be helpful, and that the interviewee seemed engaged and thoughtful in her responses.


Interview Protocol

  1. Why did you choose the philosophy major? What kind of philosophy do you enjoy the most? Can you describe to me your experience thus far in the philosophy department?
  2. What encouraged you to TA for this course?
  3. What has your experience been like as a TA?
  4. What do you see happening in the classroom, in terms of gender dynamics?
  5. What do you think about the layout/structure of the class?
  6. Can you describe the professor’s approach to his students?
  7. When someone is talking too much in class, how does the professor respond?
  8. Can you describe general student interaction during class?
  9. How do you behave in your own philosophy classes?
  10. What are your final thoughts on the subject?

Key Points from Interview:


(1) Female students tend to share more thoughtful responses.

The interviewee shares that she is always impressed by how thoughtful the girls in her philosophy classes are. Acknowledging her bias, she says, “In the quality of comments that guys and girls will have in a philosophy class, I’ve found that guys’ come more varied—meaning they’re more likely to have comments even when they’re bad or when they’re good—and for girls’ comments I find that they are always pretty good.” She goes on to explain that she appreciates the quiet intelligence that many girls seem to demonstrate, and how in philosophy, what is impressive is “good, slow, clear, and detailed thinking. It’s not like talking your way to the point. I feel like, in some ways, the girls who are more quiet, or more likely to step back before speaking, are at an advantage because then you’re tempted to think more slowly and carefully anyway.” She explains how male students, in both their writing and conversation, try to seem “smart.” Referring to the papers that she has graded, she says, “the more you try to seem smart, the more you try to seem logical, the less logical you actually become.” We both notice the irony of the situation.


(2) Male students tend to be more assertive.

“Something I’ve noticed before you even came and talked to me about gender is that in this class and in a class I took last term, there has been one particular male, not the same person, but who is more inclined to raise their hand and kind of talk about what they think about [a subject] for a really long time, in a way that is very assertive.” The interviewee is recalling an awkward interaction from class last Friday, when a male student insisted that something the professor said did not make sense. She notes how, in both instances, the assertive students had been male. When exchanges like this happen, she explains that the professor will stay calm and provide a reasonable defense, or answer. For many students, “there’s a tendency to use charisma or confidence to compensate for the lack of actual understanding of the material.” She believes that the professor handles the situation well and always drives the conversation back to the material, “making it so that you have to speak in a way that makes sense... it’s not just speaking for speaking’s sake.”


(3) Female students may feel less confident.

The interviewee describes the logical nature of philosophy, and how that can be difficult for her because she does not view herself as a “logical” person. Although she doesn’t necessarily attribute this feeling to her being female, she admits, “I feel like I have to work extra hard, or be extra careful in my academics, to make sure that I am just as smart, or just as good, at this kind of thinking as other students.” She suggests that maybe some of the students in the class that she TAs for might feel this way too, but perhaps not the female students in the rest of her philosophy classes, who she claims are “some of the best, smartest philosophers” that she personally knows. We move in a different direction when the interviewee describes her experience in a college biology class. She explains how her male lab partner would say sometimes things that would put her down, like, “Oh, this is wrong,” or, “I’ll just do it,” and how that would make her feel uncomfortable. Having gone to an all-girls school before college, she did not feel prepared for a co-ed environment. At the end of the interview, she contemplates how interesting it is that every professor who has taught her in the Philosophy major here at Dartmouth has been male, and wonders, if she were to ever pursue a career in Philosophy, whether she would be perceived as less credible.