Women’s voices and in-class participation in college: Who is speaking up in your classes?

There has been much talk of women in the workplace and how difficult it can be for a woman to make her voice heard. Women are interrupted, talked over, and not given credit for their ideas.

But what about in a college classroom? In an environment where a high percentage of our students are women, are their voices being heard as much as their male peers? And what can we, as teachers, do to encourage women to speak up and participate in class?

The benefits to the student of participating in class are many:

  • It brings students actively into the educational process;
  • It motivates students;
  • It improves retention;
  • It improves communication skills, group interactions, and functioning in democratic society;
  • And it encourages the development of critical thinking and higher level skills such as interpretation, analysis, and synthesis.

Many studies on college classrooms have demonstrated that girls and women participate verbally less in class than do their male peers, and that teachers (usually unknowingly) recognise contributions from male students more than those of female students (Rocca, 2010). These findings are more pronounced in classes taught by males. This can rapidly set up patterns in the class culture, where girls are called on and contribute less and less. In fact, by the time they reach college, girls have already settled into these habits, which are the result of years of gender bias in the classroom. Students who speak more develop that habit, and vice versa. The classroom discourse then tends to be dominated by quick thinkers rather than reflective thinkers, and those who speak more early in the session tend to dominate the discourse throughout.

Another factor which may contribute is the cultural upbringing of boys as risk-takers and of girls as perfection-seekers. We as society tend to encourage boys to take risks, while we encourage girls to be safe (An amazing TED talk on the subject: see Saujani, 2016). This can translate into a willingness in male students to speak up in class (and risk being wrong). Women, who have been trained to play it safe, prefer to wait until they are sure they know the answer and will not make a fool of themselves.

In general girls also tend to wait their turn to speak and are more likely to be interrupted (by other females or by males). Boys are more likely to speak without being called on.

What this means is that even when a female student might be thinking of raising her hand to contribute to a discussion or to answer a question, a male student has probably beat her to it and is already speaking. When a female student does speak up, she is more likely to use phrasing to preface her statement such as, “I may be wrong, but…” or “I guess…” instead of using affirmative speech.


We know that all students benefit from participating, and that the learning environment is enriched if everyone in the class contributes to discussions. A class that participates is more interesting to teach and allows for more active, student-centred learning. So how can we encourage more participation from our female students (and from male students who may have similar tendencies and habits in the classroom)?

  • Take note of who is participating in your class. Is it always or often the same people? Is there a gender difference between who contributes and who is quiet?
  • Increase wait time:  count to 5 after posing a question and before calling on a student to answer. Often more reflective thinkers will take more time to volunteer to answer.
  • Small group discussions allow for participation from more students in a less exposed way. Quick strategies like “think-pair-share” (students think about and answer, pair up with another student, and share their ideas) are easy ways to get everyone discussing. Many (male and female) students feel more comfortable sharing their ideas in smaller groups.
  • Use discussion roles and rules. Establish rules for discussion (e.g. no interrupting). For more involved discussions, distribute different roles at random to the group (roles might include “question asker”, “idea builder” “contrarian”, “paraphraser”, etc. (See Girgin & Stevens, 2005, p. 99-101). Teach students to build on each other’s comments.
  • A strategy that’s made it to the headlines recently is something that President Obama’s staff is using: A strategy called “Amplification”. When a woman in a meeting conveys an idea, or contributes in a constructive way to a discussion, another woman (could be a man too!) verbally acknowledges the contribution and attributes credit to the woman who said it. The strategy was developed in order to “amplify” women’s voices and to ensure that women received credit for their original ideas and contributions. As educators, we can use this strategy by verbally crediting the ideas of female (and less verbally participative) students. “Jessica has brought up an important point, I’d like to continue with that train of thought for a bit. Why is Jessica’s point important to our discussion?”.

Women in general have less self-confidence than men and this persists through college, into university and the workforce. Building women’s self confidence in college is important and as educators we have the opportunity to do that in easy ways in our classrooms. More confidence participating in class translates to a better learning experience for everyone, and to a stronger society in which women’s voices are heard and acknowledged.


Resources & References

Columbia University. (n.d.). www.columbia.edu/cu/tat/pdfs/gender/pdf. Gender Issues in the College Classroom. New York, NY: Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center.

Eilperin, J. (2016, 09 13). White house women want to be in the room where it happens. Retrieved 10 20, 2016, from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/13/white-house-women-are-now-in-the-room-where-it-happens/

Girgin, K. Z., & Stevens, D. D. (2005, 02). Bridging in-class participation with innovative instruction: Use and implications in a Turkish university classroom. Innovations in Education & Teaching International, 42(1), pp. 93-106.

Krupnick, C. G. (1985). Women and men in the classroom: Inequality and its remedies. Retrieved 10 20, 2016, from Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University : http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/html/icb.topic58474/krupnick.html

Rocca, K. A. (2010, 04). Student participation in the college classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review. Communication Education, 59(2), pp. 185-213.

Saujani, R. (2016, 02). Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection. Retrieved from TED.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/reshma_saujani_teach_girls_bravery_not_perfection?language=en

 

 

 

 

 

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