Reader query: teaching a class with a huge gender imbalance

A colleague and I were talking today about what to do when you have a class that is wildly gender-imbalanced (in this case, 13 men and 2 women). Do the FPers have any strategies or suggestions for making sure that this imbalance does not skew the dynamics of the classrooom and/or for making sure that the women feel comfortable participating? We’d be interested both in first-day strategies and ongoing strategies to employ. Thanks in advance.

22 thoughts on “Reader query: teaching a class with a huge gender imbalance

  1. During summers, I teach logic (sometimes critical thinking, sometimes formal logic) at an academic summer camp for 13-16-year-olds. I almost always have a gender imbalance this striking. Relatedly, `the girls’ often express some self-confidence issues within the first few days: `the boys’ can always answer the questions during the lectures, `the boys’ finish the problems quickly, etc. Girls are also more likely than boys to show symptoms of `math anxiety’ in the formal logic class.

    All of this seems to me to be straight-up stereotype-threat triggering. So I try to deliberately deactivate the stereotype by doing these sorts of things:

    – explain to the girls expressing self-confidence issues that `the boys’ are just more willing to guess about the right answer and are sloppier and less systematic on the problems; consequently, once we get to proofs, `the boys’ are likely to have more trouble than `you girls’;
    – call on girls slightly disproportionately when they volunteer an answer to a question during lecture;
    – similarly, ask girls to put answers to homework problems up on the board slightly disproportionately;
    – use a balanced mix of genders in the examples and logic puzzles;
    – assign one group of girls Ada Lovelace for the history of logic presentations (I would rather give them Ruth Barcan Marcus, but they have trouble finding biographical information on her).

  2. I get this situation all the time. I think it helps to make sure tat the class is run as a fair meeting. By this I mean things like:
    -at least start out with the rule that you raise your hand to speak
    -don’t always call on the first person to raise their hand. (I often ask students to give me a sign when they have a thought, then wait for a few moments and choose a student who has not spoken up much in class (sometimes I say, ‘no one speaks until I see five thoughts.’ this is good because it doesn’t let students rely on a couple of outspoken colleagues)
    -don’t allow students to interrupt one another
    -make an effort to chat with the minority students before or after class early on to help them find their voice and learn that they can trust you
    -don’t let the class unintentionally give credit to a guy for something that a woman said first

  3. In addition to everything that has been said, I also find the following two strategies helpful:

    1. When female students (in general, but in particular the ones who don’t speak up in class) come to my office hours, I try to be incredibly encouraging in response to their questions or comments and then ask them bluntly: “Why don’t you ever ask these kinds of questions or make these kinds of comments in class?” I usually get responses like: “I’m shy,” or, “I just feel like it’s a stupid comment,” or, “I don’t like speaking in class,” but then I simply dispel them of these feelings (or try to) and ask them to please make these kinds of contributions in class. I reassure them that it does not matter what the other students may or may not think of the comment, and that I am being honest in saying that that the comment/question is a really good one and that everyone would benefit from hearing it in class.

    2. When a shy student does speak up in class (and in particular when you can see that it was really difficult for her or him), I make an effort to be very encouraging of the comment, and often to repeat it in my own words to show them how good/relevant it was. Even when it is not a great comment, I always try to take a kernel of it and reformulate it in a way that is more appropriate, relevant, or helpful. I find that this allows students to see that they are really making important contributions to class and it fosters an environment wherein students tend to participate more, especially female students who otherwise would be more quiet.

  4. It’s such a small class that a ’round-robin’ check-in where you go all the way around the room and everybody reports in is quite doable. Strategies for making sure everyone speaks should yield proportionate participation (hopefully). Assigning a homework and forewarning the students that you’ll be calling on each of them to discuss their answers in class is very helpful, too. The exercise of having everyone write some ‘value-affirmation’ works for gender as well as race, too, to diminish stereotype-threat!

  5. I’m a big fan of this blog, and thought I might finally add my two cents about something!

    All this is great, but I am not sure about at least one of these strategies. As I student, I think might be a bit put off by being made to present on a female logician (presumably the only one on the syllabus?), just because I am one of the few females in the class. I might feel as if the professor is emphasizing my being female or something, when what I’d really like is for it not to be an issue at all.

  6. I’m sorry that this is off-topic, but, to Dan Hicks: Are you teaching logic at CTY? I ask because I took CTY logic (informal and formal) many years ago and — despite being one of the only girls, especially in the formal logic class — I had a really fantastic time. (It might have helped that we had a female TA for one of those sessions, who was just about to start philosophy grad school.) Thanks for making an effort to make your classes inclusive of the girls. I wish more girls experienced a class like that at those ages.

  7. MM – It’s a reasonable worry, but none of my students have ever complained or given any indication that they feel tokenized, etc. Usually it’s used as an opportunity to boast: this WOMAN wrote the FIRST computer program A LONG TIME BEFORE most of YOUR guys were even born, so HA. That reaction is probably due to the age range (again, 13-16); I can imagine that traditional-age college students would be more likely to feel tokenized, and I certainly wouldn’t take this same approach for grad students.

    Elizabeth – It is CTY! I’m glad you enjoyed your logic classes there. All of my students — both boys and girls — seem to really enjoy my classes.

  8. I agree, MM’s worry is reasonable, and one way I’ve dealt with it more indirectly is to simply provide a list of all the authors to be presented upon and had students apply to sign up for presentations, and identify their first, second and third choices of topic/subject. Having women on the syllabus really does add to the entire class’s appreciation of women in philosophy, and the applications to present on the female scholars are usually disproportionately likely to be my female students’ first choices. That way, if it’s their preference, then the women present on women. Sometimes it’s a man’s first preference, especially if he’s, e.g., read Andrea Nye before and really dug her work and wanted to dig into it again! It all works out pretty well.

  9. I taught a course last year that had a notable gender imbalance. I dealt with it this way:
    On the second day of class, I walked into the room of 55 students and said, “Look around. Just take a minute and look around. Do you know that professors in philosophy worry about gender imbalance in upper year philosophy classes? Let’s take part of today’s class and talk about some of the reasons this might be the case ”
    What followed was a thoughtful and productive discussion, much like what we find amongst good colleagues in the profession, with the very students themselves. Many remembered this class throughout the term and came to talk to me about it as an issue of concern.

  10. I have a soft spot for shy students of either sex, and some of these ideas are great. As a general matter, I would not differentiate the treatment of students based on their sex, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t favour approaches that, while applied without regard to sex, nonetheless indirectly encourage the participation of the minority (and mitigate stereotype threat, etc.). Pace Dan Hicks, I don’t know that I would try to deactivate a stereotype about girls by proffering an offsetting negative generalisation about boys.

    A lecturer I know in women’s studies perennially deals with this issue (with the imbalance reversed, but still). I’d be interested to know the approaches she and her departmental colleagues have developed to deal with it.

  11. Like Nemo’s colleague, I’m in the reverse situation at the moment: teaching a women in literature course with 39 women and one man, and I want very much neither to single out (nor alienate) him. For now, I’m sort of playing it by ear, emphasizing that patriarchy is institutional and that all generalizations (“many men of this time period believed” type things) are oversimplifications. To his credit, this young man seems eager to participate in discussion without dominating it or seeming defensive or uncomfortable.

    I’m very young to teaching, though, and will certainly encounter this situation many times in the future, so I’d love to hear others’ strategies for this kind of situation.

  12. One thing I was taught by people doing “learning science” was that the hardest part is getting the girls to say something for the first time. After that, it becomes easier for that girl and the other girls not to supress their urge to say something. My guess is, that just helps to deactivate the stereotype threat, and destroy the vicious circle “I am not smart enough” => “I should not speak” => “Smart people speak in class” => “Indeed I am not smart enough” etc.

    Given that, I found it useful to employ cold call in the beginning. But in order not to make it feel like I’m attacking the girls and putting them on the spot, I usually try to come up with something which would allow me to ask every student in the class in turn, and then when I start, I start with the girls. Another thing which probably helps is to give a potential answer myself before asking the students, to make it easier for them.

    Needless to say, the teacher’s attitude can do a lot, so I’m trying to be especially careful when I’m listening and answering one of the girls in the class.

    And, as some of the commentators above note, this all applies not only to girls vs. boys – any group of people who are represented or shy for any reason needs active encouragement, and I don’t think strategies would be that different for groups based on other properties than gender. Though, of course, gender imbalance is one of the most frequent cases.

    BTW, I absolutely love this post :-) It is very interesting, and, I think, quite useful as well, to be able to read what other people think about such situations.

    Good luck with the class!

  13. All of these suggestions are great! I have only one to add, since it’s something I’ve experienced personally…
    Try to make eye contact with the female students at least as much as with the male students.

    I was once in a class of two (myself and a male student), and the professor directed his lecture to the male student about 85% of the time (the reason for this behaviour is still unclear to me – at first I thought it was outright sexism, but I now think it might have just been a strange sort of shyness/discomfort on the part of the professor). Since it was only a class of two, the problem was quite stark in my case, but I could imagine the same sort of thing happening in a gender-imbalanced classroom.

  14. I completely agree with MC above. Having an explicit conversation about the gender imbalance in the class, and in the discipline as a whole, makes it easier for people to work their way through the situation. If no one talks about it, the unexamined dynamic remains powerful in a way that’s not good for (many of) the women students.

  15. Way back in the day when I was one of the 10% male students in my Feminist Studies classes, there were two contrary problems. Men were assumed by many students not to be qualified to speak about feminism. And when the teacher asked a question many women looked at us and waited for us to answer. Then women got annoyed when mostly men answered (sometimes the same women).

    The first point was addressed firmly whenever it arose: this is an academic study of feminism, not the practice of feminist activism. Men can, and evidently do, study it.

    Requesting hand-raising helped, consciously engaging people who were reluctant to speak helped, deliberately putting in viewpoints that were un- or under-represented helped, and encouraging everyone who spoke helped.

    Having a discussion about who was speaking and why was helpful, and using an overhead video camera to put numbers on the issue was very revealing (when a question was not answered immediately 25%+ of women would turn their heads towards one of the two men present within 5 seconds. Often within 10s *everyone* would be looking at the men. Which put an interesting twist on the imbalance).

  16. I would like to add that asking students to write down their answers (or jot down notes) to questions first, then asking for people to raise their hands a few moments later can also help increase participation by women in a male dominated class. I have found that students that do not initially talk in class gain more confidence in their answers after they have worked it out on paper.

  17. I was going to suggest the same as Matt Holden–when we just cold call or ask for hands, we tend not to wait very long and it really gives a preference for people who think quick on their feet. I will also use the “think-pair-share” technique–give students a moment to think about something, then a few minutes to talk with a partner, and then call around asking for people to report on what they talked about with their partner. It reduces a lot of the fear of talking, and as someone else mentioned, once people have spoken, it’s easier to continue speaking.

  18. I’m a female philosophy major at a small university, and my beloved department has a HUGE gender imbalance. In my Phenomenology and Existentialism class, I was one of two women out of a class of about 17.

    My (male) professor made me feel comfortable by calling on me often and interpreting my comments charitably. This was also the second philosophy course I’d ever taken, so I was extra nervous.

    But the most important thing that my professor did for me was to call out the male students when they made sexist comments. At one point, one of my peers actually said that women can enjoy rape (in response to Sarte, go figure). The professor, a well-mannered gentleman, went steely and coldly informed the student that such comments were disgusting and ignorant and unacceptable in this class. He said many other things, too, but I was so shaken at this point that I cannot remember them. I have always been grateful towards this professor for what he did.

    Haha, this was kind of a long response, wasn’t it? Logic classes can bring up arguments on some controversial issues that affect women/people of color/queer folks, so please be ready to stand up for students who are too nervous to stand up for themselves.

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