My female friends and I have had an ongoing conversation about the experience of being a woman in the classroom. We tell our stories, compare and inevitably realize how much we share in our respective experiences. Our initial inclination before engaging in these discussions is to question whether our experiences are singular — anomalies reflective of personal idiosyncrasies, rather than a pernicious phenomenon outside our own control. These conversations have helped us all to understand that our shared frustrations are ultimately the product of a classroom culture where gender bias persists.
Look around the classroom, listen to those speaking and you will typically find that the students being called on have something in common — they’re male. A large body of research, including Catherine Krupnick’s Harvard study, indicates that gender bias within the classroom manifests in a myriad of forms. For example, male instructors call on male students more frequently than female students. A Columbia University study found that most professors are more likely to use male students’ names when calling on students, and when attributing ideas carried on in classroom discussions, they ask males more abstract questions deemed more difficult than the factual ones more often posed to females. Male students, of their own volition, speak more often and for longer periods of time during discussions and are more likely to blurt out a response without raising their hands or waiting for the instructor to call on them.
Meanwhile, female students are more likely to be interrupted while speaking (sometimes by other female students), speak less loudly and for a shorter duration of time and often employ a mode of speaking known as “linguistic hedging,” whereby the respondent will use phrases such as “I feel like” or “I guess.” The convergence of these gender inequalities results in an environment in which women feel both alienated and inextricably bound to a system of power that favors men.
If a correlation between power and speaking exists, perhaps you are thinking that this festering issue would eventually go away if women simply raised their hands and spoke more often in the classroom. Beyond the aforementioned barriers to this simple antidote, women subconsciously learn over time that a host of negative consequences exist in response to any initiative to assert themselves. Women who actively assert their voices not only experience interruption more often than men but also become targets of criticism, judged for being “too aggressive” or “too talkative.” This bias continues even past university — according to one Yale University study of male and female U.S. senators, while men are readily rewarded with an affirming nod for speaking, women anticipate backlash for high volubility. Linguistic hedging, the subject of recent debate, is undoubtedly, in part, the result of such backlash. It is an endless feedback loop.
Last May, Molly Worthen, an author and assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, argued in The New York Times that linguistic hedging represents the degradation of rational thought and the ascendance of a kind of relativism that muddles reason and emotion and restricts debate on college campuses. In the article, Antonio Damasio, a professor at USC, affirmed Worthen’s claims, as he referred to the phrase “I feel like” as “a sign of laziness in thinking.” Certainly, there are times when people use “I feel like” when they are not prepared or unwilling to commit to an argument. However, for women, the use of this phrase and other forms of linguistic hedging are acts of professional survival, rather than indicators of “laziness.”
Women are more likely to couch their statements with “I feel like” or turn their statements into a question, because their experiences in the classroom and the workplace have taught them that their success largely depends upon these unconscious survival tactics. These strategies give one a sense of security in an environment where, as research shows, women are punished with greater criticism for asserting themselves, especially if their ideas are perceived to be incorrect.
Linguistic hedging is the direct result of a society where women feel compelled to make their speech more palatable to the gatekeepers of influence: Men. Rationality, defined in this context as cognizance of social consequences, is precisely what compels women to employ supposedly “irrational” modes of speech.
In response, professors should be conscious of gender bias in the classroom and actively take steps to mitigate the barriers that keep women from enjoying the same education as their male peers.
Bailee Ahern is a senior majoring in political science and international relations. “’Lend a Hand” runs every Monday.