Having just finished our gender atypical act papers, I feel that it would be appropriate to discuss gender equality in academics, or the lack thereof. I could easily get into a discussion about how the ratio of male to female professors differs greatly between different departments and what that says about gender equality in various disciplines. Yet, I am more interested in the inequality of the sexes that we see from student-professor interactions in the classroom every day. Some of you who are reading this might be thinking “what in the world is this person talking about? I definitely do not feel like I am at a disadvantage in school because of my gender.” I was thinking the same thing when my professor, Dr. Frey from the WUSTL chemistry department, brought up this topic in a seminar for academic mentoring. However, the longer I looked at it, the more apparent the discrimination became.

                 One of the key points Dr. Frey made in her lecture was that teachers/professors (both male and female) tend to call on male students more often than female students in class. Furthermore, teachers will wait longer for a male student to respond and even coach male students to develop their thoughts by giving them more extended feedback to their responses. Interestingly, the teachers are not intentionally biased. They do not realize that they treat their male and female students differently. If that is the case, does that mean it is the students’ problem?

                   While most students are brought up in an environment that promotes gender equality, males and females do in fact develop different communication styles. In most situations, the female style is disadvantageous. For example, girls tend to present their statements in a more hesitant fashion and often use qualifiers like “I guess” and “I was wondering”. Though it may be a sign of politeness, statements made in this manner are less likely to be taken seriously. Furthermore, in a large lecture class, female students are less likely to speak up and so males tend to dominate the discussion. Again, this kind of behavior is unintentional, but it is easily observed. Why does this happen? And perhaps more importantly, how can we stop it?

                    The underlying mechanism is the problem of gender construction in culture. It is a process that begins from birth and includes mundane things such as naming and color association as well as more subtle acts like social interactions with people. As functioning members of society, we have become successfully enculturated and so we have behavioral tendencies that seem to go against gender equality. This is not our fault, but it can be if we choose to ignore this fact. Culture is not easily fixed, but it can be changed as long as people in a society are aware of cultural issues. Therefore we must consciously watch ourselves and correct certain behaviors that we know go against our personal beliefs. For teachers, that may mean taking note of who you are calling on and making an effort to “count” the number of boys and girls you pick. For male students, it might mean encouraging your female peers to speak with more assertiveness and not overshadowing their opinions. For female students, it could mean not being apologetic when you speak, even if you are not completely sure of the answer. After all, if you are going to be wrong anyways, might as well be confidently wrong.

Posted by: Elizabeth Fang

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