I’ve spent the last three quarters at the University of Washington Tacoma. Being a Politics, Philosophy, and Economics major, I expected to spend a lot of class time discussing contentious topics. What I didn’t expect, though, was to be amongst only one or two other women per class who are willing to engage in class debate or contribute simple answers or thoughts.
There are only a few explanations for this. Maybe my female classmates are uninterested in the subject matter: what constitutes human rights or whether gun regulation is a valid cause. More likely, my female classmates have felt self-conscious about voicing their opinions, afraid, like I have been in the past, of having to debate a more vocal and aggressive opponent. You see, I’m like most women who believe that expressing myself clearly and directly means I’m being too forceful. On more than one occasion I’ve fretted over my words, wondering if I was too aggressive or pushy? These certainly aren’t feminine qualities.
Catherine G. Krupnick of Harvard University writes, “The advantages of classroom discussion, long considered to be an integral part of education in sections and tutorials, are unequally distributed between the sexes.” Krupnick led a research team with the sole purpose of examining how gender affects participation, reviewing classroom videotapes from 24 different instructors. They found that males participated more than females. Male conversation became more dominant when there was a male instructor. Women, it turns out, are more likely to interrupt one another when we do decide to speak (big surprise there). Krupnick summarizes the effects of mixed gender classroom settings, writing, “…The male competitive style won out. Apparently, it’s as hard for men to give up the habits of competition as it is for women to learn them.”
This study, and others that confirm its findings, paint a depressing picture for women. If we can’t vocalize our opinions in a classroom setting, how can we hope to be represented in government? Whether on the federal or state level, women hold around 20 percent of public offices or less. When it comes to women in political office, the United States ranks 90th among 188 countries.
Given my major, I can only speak from my personal experience in classes that rely on exchange of opinions and ideas to reach consensus. When women have opinions but neglect voicing them in order to avoid conflict, as I’m sure is also the case outside of political science classes, they are doing themselves and their classmates a disservice. Students can only advance their understanding of issues when forced to acknowledge the opinions and points raised by others. When it comes to politics, there are no right or wrong answers. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Because of this, ladies have a unique opportunity to help push classroom and national discourse towards moderation – but first we must learn to raise our hands.