When classrooms become a boys’ club


Graphic by Charlotte Alden.

By Hannah Feuer

Walk into a Whitman classroom, and most students will appear similar. Students sit at identical desks, use identical Chromebooks and complete identical worksheets. But ask them a question, and a disparity will emerge: the students raising their hands are overwhelmingly male.

Since elementary school, I’ve observed this imbalance, but peers assured me the disparity was all in my head. So, last month, I finally set out to confirm my perception empirically. For one day, I tallied the number of female versus male participants in four of my classes, including AP Calculus BC and AP Comparative Politics, where participation is both frequent and voluntary.

The results were startling: overall, boys participated 3.1 times more than girls, even though the total ratio of boys to girls is essentially equal.

Academic studies yield parallel results: in western classrooms, boys talk five times as much as girls, finds Allyson Jule, professor of education at Trinity Western University. So what accounts for this difference?

The root of the problem may lie in a phenomenon known as the confidence gap. Between elementary and high school, girls’ self esteem drops 3.5 times more than that of boys, the American Association of University Women found in a survey of 3000 students. Girls are told from a young age that being “well-behaved” means being quiet and polite, while for boys, being assertive is deemed more acceptable. The result: while males hold up their hands, females fall into the background.

Males are also more likely than females to be overconfident about an incorrect answer, according to a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology. Admittedly, I’m complicit in perpetuating this disparity. Too often, I think I know the correct answer, but self-doubt weighs down my hand. When I do participate, my face turns red, and my voice comes out croaky.

This is not to say that males shouldn’t participate or that females should be forced to. Frankly, there is no obvious solution to this disparity. But at the very least, we should acknowledge that it exists and promote practices that target the root of why girls aren’t raising their hands, like discouraging teachers from ridiculing students’ contributions.

Interestingly, despite all evidence that says otherwise, a Black & White informal lunchtime survey of 15 females and 15 males found that 77 percent perceive that both genders participate equally, 16 percent perceive females participate more, and just two percent perceive males participate more. Although, it should be noted that all respondents who said females participate more identified as male.

This clash between perception and reality may possibly be attributed to variations in the number of males and females in a class. For example, in my four classes, three of them had dramatically higher male participation. The only exception was my AP English class, where twice as many girls participated than boys. The caveat? There are only seven boys in my class, meaning proportionally, males still participated about nine percent more than females.

The result of the gender gap in participation is a lack of appreciation for girls’ intelligence. Classmates and teachers assume students who don’t participate don’t know the answer, which is troublesome when boys are participating at dramatically higher rates than girls. A study of 1700 college students found that, on average, male students over-rank their male peers by more than three-quarters of a GPA point, and—even when their female classmates earn better grades—assume their male classmates know more about the subject, the Washington Post reports.

It’s time we become more cognizant of how gender plays a role in our everyday class discussions. Unfortunately, gender disparities enter the classroom alongside students—but let’s not perpetuate them.