September 16, 2019 | 65° F

COMMENTARY: Gender roles are all too prevalent in schools settings

In college classrooms, gender roles are all too clear. My newfound frustration stems from my recent epiphany that even in my majority-female environmental policy classes, the voices that dominate the classroom are usually male. I have noticed that male students are more likely to call out without raising their hands, or offer examples and anecdotes that are not entirely relevant.

To me, class participation is a sort of calculated performance. I rehearse what I am going to say, plan out my sentence and polish each word. If it does not add any value, I do not bother. Before I raise my hand, I think a lot about the words that are about to come out of my mouth. Is this stupid? Is my professor going to judge me? Am I wasting everyone’s time?

In other instances, even when the time is right, I convince myself otherwise. My professor once asked toward the end of the lecture, “Does anyone have questions or comments?” A few male students raised their hands. My professor answered each question comprehensively. Suddenly, a question popped into my mind, and I almost raised my hand. But, I decided it was at the very end of class, approximately 7 p.m., and I did not want to waste anyone’s time. I figured I could look it up if I really wanted to know.

After talking with some friends, I realized I am not entirely alone. This phenomenon of self-doubt extends into conferences, meetings and work environments. A recent study found that women ask fewer questions than men at conference talks. At an international conservation biology conference, male scientists asked on average 1.8 questions for every one question asked by a female scientist, even when females made up 40 percent to 75 percent of the audience.  

My point is not to blame men for speaking up more than women, but to criticize the culture that allowed this behavior to develop. 

So why do females speak up disproportionately less than males? The gender divide is not because females are intrinsically submissive and males confident, but due to how males and females are socialized differently, since birth. For instance, parents spend a longer time comforting girls and letting boys play further away from them than girls, establishing gender roles from a young age.

Teachers also have a hand in forming gender roles. Teachers “tend to acknowledge girls but praise and encourage boys," according to a 2015 Time article. "They spend more time prompting boys to seek deeper answers while rewarding girls for being quiet.” More striking, “When teachers ask questions, they direct their gaze towards boys more often, especially when the questions are open-ended.” Is it such a surprise that as early as 6 years old, girls start to internalize that women are inherently less smart and talented as men?

Let us not forget that gender expectations manifest differently for people of color. For example, a study from the National Women’s Law Center found that Black girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls. Nationally, up to 12 percent of Black girls are suspended — twice the rate of suspension of white boys. “... It’s not because they are misbehaving more frequently than other girls,” said Neena Chaudhry, director of education for the National Women’s Law Center. “This uneven discipline is often the result of deeply ingrained racist and sexist stereotypes that push Black girls out of school.”

I had my first vision of clarity in second grade. I would sit in class and watch day after day as rowdy boys called out across the room without raising their hands, and our female teacher was okay with it. Once without thinking, I did the exact same thing, and lo and behold, I got chastised. My 7-year-old self was bewildered.

Later, in college, I took a calculus class, where at least once a week, one particular male student would correct our professor (also male). “I don’t think you did that problem right,” he said with an air of overconfidence. I rolled my eyes. The audacity, especially because the professor was right 9/10 times.

Confidence in the classroom makes way for confidence in the workplace. A well-known study found that men apply for jobs when they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, but women only apply when they meet 100 percent. A close examination of the figure suggests that the differences are a result of women perceiving the application rules differently than men and having a greater aversion to failure. Known as the confidence gap, it holds women back from gaining a seat at the table.

So in an attempt to be my best feminist self in 2018, I am making it my mission to let go of the unnecessary standards that clutter my mind and speak up in class as often as my male peers. Whatever male god is out there, please give me the self-confidence to speak freely without filtering myself, to believe everything I think is brilliant and that every idea of mine is worthy of validation. 

Emily Cheng is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore majoring in environmental policy, institutions and behavior. 


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Emily Cheng

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