Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Classroom Gender Dynamics

In Sweden, there is currently a debate raging about girls' role in the classroom. This debate has been revived through a movie come out this year (which is, in its turn, based upon a book that came out in 2006). The movie, the name of which is "Tusen gånger starkare" (translated into "A thousand times stronger"), explores the dynamics of girls and boys in the classroom in a middle school class. While I haven't seen this movie myself, having emigrated to Scotland and all, this debate has been going strong in my native country and for a news junkie like myself hard to avoid. Women's role and gender roles are always in the back of my mind, but this debate has brought this certain aspect into the front of my mind.

Having, then, had my only class of the week this semester, I walked home reflecting upon the dynamics of our class. The class I am taking is called citizenship and democracy and explores the political philosophy and practice of both: the philosophy being more in the democracy department with authors such as John Stuart Mill; the practice consisting of an internship where we will experience and analyse active citizenship first hand. This mainly philosophical class is a bit heavy on the male side, with the females making up approximately 1/3 of the class, perhaps a bit more.

As a part of our class, we are required to participate and also get assessed on it. 10% of our grade is oral participation, or as out lectures so neatly puts it, active citizenship. It is therefore in everyone's interests to speak up sometimes. However, even though we did not have this grade in oral participation, at this stage in our university degree, it is to our benefit if we do participate in class discussions as this is the simplest way of assessing our knowledge. Not only do we get peer reviewed but we also have the benefit of the very knowledgeable lecturer to comment on our considerations. Having to write an essay, holding a presentation and sitting an exam, all of a part of the assessed course work, it is very beneficial for all of us to find out as quickly as possible to which extent our assumptions are correct.

Interestingly, despite having the lecturer actively assessing our participation, I have always found that, unless women are over-represented in numbers in a class, the males are the ones that speak up the most. Today, I was the only female out of at least six students who said anything. The rest were all male. Where were the females?

According to logic, if six students speak, at least two of those would be female in a class with our numbers. This could possibly be the exception of an equal classroom dynamic, but looking back to most of my other classes, males are predominant. They speak the most, make the most arguments and execute those with the most confidence. This, according to personal experience, is the rule, not the exception.

Granted, there are males that do not take up as much space as their fellow male friends and who sit quietly and unnoticed next to the wall. I would, however, think it very interesting to see some kind of statistics on how many of those males there are on those females. I am going to be so bold as to assume that the females would be greatly over-represented in the category of quiet, unnoticed students.

It makes sense to me, if you think about it. We live in a society were men have traditionally held the power, and arguably still do so. They are instilled with the confidence from birth that they can do things, their arguments are valid, when they speak they will be heard, not just listened to - what they say matters. This is a confidence that women have not had the time or the opportunity to accumulate. There is a saying that goes something in the way of "If a woman is further than three feet from the kitchen, she has escaped." It sums up the limitations historically put on women and a mentality that still lives on in our society. I would not argue that people agree with this saying, but I am arguing that the sole fact that people find it funny is implying something about women, something that is not based on thin air but rather centuries of oppression.

Of course, it is partly women's responsibility to make sure that they, too, get the amount of time and space that they should be allocated (we do after all make up half of the population and should demand to be allocated that share as well). However, not being born with that inherent confidence that seems to be a part of male nature, it is hard to demand that space when you perhaps feel you do not have the right to. Additionally, if the teacher and the rest of the room (including the women) may not be willing to give you this space, however subconsciously that may be, it is even harder to take it. After all, how many of us enjoy walking into a room to talk about something that people do not want to listen to on the basis that you are presumed to lack the knowledge of, or simply be too stupid to talk about?

This is not a revolutionary question, or one that hasn't been posed before. Nonetheless, it is still very much relevant and worth pondering for a while.

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