Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's a Female Thing (?)

Many of us in certain fields of science teach Science courses in which male students outnumber female students. When we teach large introductory courses for non-majors, however, we see a gender ratio that is more typical of universities today; i.e., in these classes, female students outnumber male students.

I am not the first to mention that in these settings, female students ask the most questions, have the best attendance, send the most e-mail to faculty, and attend office hours more often than their male classmates. I am not qualified to comment on the consequences of this disparate behavior for the academic success of female students vs. male students, but I am wondering what the effects of this are for the classroom environment.

Maybe there isn't any effect, but a colleague recently wondered whether asking questions in class has become a 'female' thing to do, inhibiting the inclination of male students to ask questions. This is most certainly not the case in science major classes, but in the large classes for non-majors, women rule.

A male colleague of mine who is teaching a giga-class recently commented to me about the number of female students who ask questions. I had the same experience last spring, so it clearly does not relate to the gender of the professor.

I am pleased that these (mostly) young women are being assertive and involved in their courses, even large lecture courses that can be quite impersonal, but of course I don't want to teach a class with interactive female students and alienated male students.

The challenge is (always) to help as many students as possible to become engaged in a class, however large. I like to think that projecting a combination of Awesome Scientific Knowledge and Approachability will help all students be interested and involved in a course. This is my goal -- not yet attained -- but other ideas and hypotheses are welcome for different approaches.

My other goal -- also not yet attained -- is that the large numbers of female students who take intro science classes to fill a graduate requirement will find that they actually love science and want to take more science classes.. and then even more.. etc.


Susan B. Anthony said...

I wonder at what point this trend reverses. In my field of Science, at least, it seems that men are more confident and willing to ask questions in upper-division and graduate courses. Is it simply that the gender ratio changes, or are there other socializing factors at work?

Tangentially related: did you see this study finding that female students do better in introductory science courses taught by female professors?

Anonymous said...

One possibility: from the perspective of male students...

what is the point of taking an intro science class (or go to class and/or ask questions) when you can read the textbook yourself and learn or google for the answers to your questions/wikipedia....

What is the point of a teacher lecturing when he/she just reads from textbook company provided powerpoint slides?

For example: intro to oceanography, intro to astronomy, intro to geology, intro to biology for non-majors

(Why ask for directions when you have a map)

Perhaps some students don't want to burden busy Professors with emails....

Are there self-paced sci intro classes?

Ms.PhD said...

I don't see why you have to worry about male students being quiet. Women were shut out for hundreds of years. It's about time we turn the tables.

Maybe the most equitable way to worry about class participation is to worry about it equitably- to pay attention to whether ALL students are participating, or whether a select few are dominating. Taking steps to counteract that should also help balance the scales in terms of encouraging everyone to participate, regardless of minority status.

Kea said...

Yes, well in Theoretical Physics the situation is unfortunately still all too clear. The only woman in the room will find it difficult to ask questions. When she does ask a question, it will often be treated as a stupid question, and as such not answered reasonably.

Hypatia said...

Susan B:
It seems to me that starting in high school, this links to expectations.
Boys are (academically or socially) rewarded for either a) doing well with seemingly little effort or b) blowing off school entirely; girls, on the other hand, are expected to toil diligently and methodically.
I've seen this dynamic at play in both high school and undergraduate college courses, and I don't have an answer for why it exists except to say that, as usual, I blame the patriarchy.

Janka said...

Ms. PhD: "I don't see why you have to worry about male students being quiet. Women were shut out for hundreds of years. It's about time we turn the tables."

I should think it slightly unfair of us (women now) take revenge on them (the men now) for something that some other people (the men then) did to some yet another people (the women then).

We don't need to turn the table, we need to get rid of the genger-based seating.

Amanda said...

I think part of it is pride-- a lot of young men seem to value looking like they know a lot-- if its not a topic they truly care about, why bother asking, when all they need is a decent grade to fulfill their well-rounded requirement?

I've noticed in law school, which is sliiightly more male than female, that both genders seem to be pretty equal in asking questions-- and in having gunners. Well, unless my roommate is taking the class-- then the proportion of questions coming from a woman skyrocket.

lost academic said...

I am actually pleased at the level of interaction with the material you are seeing from your (female) students, whom we can assume are not as a majority going on to specifically major in your course area. Perhaps they are majoring in some related field, perhaps they are majoring in Sanskrit, but what I take from this as well as a variety of other things is that you are seeing students who are engaging significantly with material they may not actually 'need' in the future, and in my opinion and experience that is going to make them a lot better at a LOT of things they'll do in life, no matter what they are.

I know it's a common belief that when you have limited time and other resources, you should focus most of your energy on the important areas or the areas that will do you the most good in whatever aspect you are measuring, but (most) college is about learning, not just about training. Books, papers, Wikipedia, they aren't going to give you as much as an interactive environment with others if you apply the same amount of effort at each. There's just so much more potential in interaction.

I would like to see some data on the retention of that material in later years, if possible, between people who are more engaged and people who are not. I doubt it exists or would be easy to acquire, but I'm interested to know if my assumption might be right.

Random said...

Ah, so maybe what Anonymous at 1:17 really means is that males for some reason don't understand that there is a broader field out there than the specific details covered by their textbook manufacturer, and that the course can be made more interesting and relevant by asking questions about other directions the information might go in? And, they also might not understand that being able to have a coherent conversation about concepts they read about in the book is an important aspect of both learning and of demonstrating your grasp of the class material (not to mention that if you can't even think of one question about something you're learning the likelihood of you becoming a very good scientist is pretty small?).

Anonymous said...

The fact that students might be out there looking for things to do and not to do in the classroom based on gender is very sad.

These are the old structures of a racist/sexist society preserved in novel forms. Before we separated students by race, now we do it by jocks/nerd/goths or by Asians, Latinos, WASPS or by what-males/females do.

Ms. PhD, while well intentioned, is not suggesting empowerment of women, she's advocating the continuation of sexist structures.

Enough with that already. Each person is his or her own unique combination of traits, some ask lots of questions, some do not. Nothing more to it.

CJ said...

I TAed a "honors" introductory chem course twice and with about an even number of males and females. As far as I could tell both genders were equally likely to ask questions. I was however the review TA so it's possible that just the students who bother to come to the review/problem sessions at the end of the week are more likely to ask questions no matter what the gender.

Anonymous said...

This post makes me wonder if there isn't some wisdom to separate boys' schools and girls' schools. I've always thought the idea was antiquated (and I never attended or even visited one of either) but to hear that the gender ratio in a room can have such a profound impact on the ability of students to learn/interact is pretty striking. It's like a gender uncertainty principle.

Wanna Be Mother said...

Hmmm. Interesting. I wonder why the guys don't speak up in the intro science classes? I really don't think they are intimidated by the women, but maybe I am wrong?

Still, in the male-dominated world of physics, that involves egos the size of planets, asking questions is still scary. Lately I'm not afraid to ask questions in friendly settings (my group), but in a large colloquium or at a conference, I'm still afraid. Why? Because it's not about learning from each other but about showing off and seeing who is the smartest. I hate that.

I miss the fun of thinking out loud, not caring if I said something totally stupid because that's how you (and the whole class) learn. That is the kind of environment all of science should be, but sadly that ends when you go to grad school. We are supposed to be infallible after that. And competitive. No more fun.

yolio said...

One possibility: several studies have shown that when men and women in groups speak in equal proportion to their numbers, women are perceived as speaking more. I.e., when conversations are well balanced, women are perceived as being too dominant. Maybe having the numerical advantage leaves the female students feeling free to speak in proportion to their numbers. Perhaps they are merely being perceived as being over-represented. I apologize for questioning your perceptions, but perhaps you should try to formally verify that female questions are actually over-represented, rather than merely seeming over-represented.

Personally, I think there is a difference in the quality of male and female student that show up for these classes. Many of these female students who are in your non-majors class are bright and science-y enough that they probably should be in your majors class---but for various reasons they aren't. Not so for the boys.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's an intimidation by women thing. I've noticed that the larger the class, the less men ask questions. One of the classes I took had 60 students, three of which were women. Men almost never asked questions there, either.

I actually think this is because the stakes are higher for men: they are less likely to ask questions because they are more afraid of looking stupid in front of other people. In really large classes that are mostly men, the ones who do ask questions are often doing so as a way to show up other students or stand out to the professor. In other words, there's still a pecking order that they're trying to establish, and it's best not to look stupid and fall to the bottom.

(I have also noticed in these situations that men are more unwilling to collaborate on homeworks as well.)

Anonymous said...

As a male Math Prof and former male science student I am with Amanda and mareserinitatis on this. Boys feel the need to seem on top of things -- they will not ask questions but will answer them. Boys seem much more concerned with impressing their peer group without ever feeling the need to ask if that is worthwhile.

(As a point of reference, our survey type classes have just more than 50% women, senior undergrad classes are mostly boys/men and grad classes are about 30% women in pure math and 60% women in applied math.)

EliRabett said...

Since about 2000 almost precisely 50% of chemistry undergraduate degrees have gone to women (it varies by year from 49 to 51%). The same is probably true for biology. No one would be surprised if it were higher but there is no easy place to get the figures such as ACS for chemistry.

Methinks you are a few years behind here.

Helen Huntingdon said...

From what I've been able to gather from asking other students, it comes down to the rigid conformity very young men drill into each other. Insufficient conformity = the other guys beat you up and stuff you in a locker. Asking questions means standing out.

Part of what made being a girl in engineering school a surreal experience is how bizarrely uniform your male classmates can be. Their wardrobes are interchangeable, their haircuts are interchangeable, their conversation is interchangeable, and what they say when they ask you on a date is so identical you can't tell them apart.

Doctor Pion said...

My observation is that a lot of them look terrified. Having been conditioned to believe that guys are "good at science or math", they don't dare ask what they fear might be a dumb question when they don't understand something in a low level science class ... particularly in front of women they might want to date.

You saw hints of that act play out in the pilot episode of Community.

Anonymous said...

Your observation assumes the inherent goodness of asking questions in class, sending e-mails and having perfect attendance. But that cannot be assumed. It ignores qualitative values. Women simply could be more chatty and obedient, not more curious or insightful. Perhaps if you explicitly defined "engagement" and what values you see in it, you would perceive the nature of such differences, whether they matter, and what you might do to rectify it if necessary.

Anonymous said...

As a former science student in a course where 10% of students were female, I actually learned very quickly to not to ask questions. Students were expected to be ask only "intelligent" questions, and if a woman got it wrong, it would stand out much more than a men. Like driving.

With time, I actually started to hate any woman who would insist in make "stupid" questions, because the stigma would stick to the whole gender. By the way, the best students in the class were two girls that would never open ask questions.

Adam said...

Having two young boys, in elementary and middle school, I wonder at what point the perceived and/or real pro-male biases in education, science or otherwise, that we sometimes hear about come into play. Definitely not yet at my kids' age.

For smaller kids, actually, I think our educational system is very pro-female biased, perhaps because nearly all the teachers are women (and probably don't even realize it). Organization, for example, of a sort that comes much more easily to girls than boys (e.g., enthusiastically doing lots of homework and keeping all the assignments in the correct colored folder), is valued very highly relative to actual learning of content.

I have discussed this with other parents, including those who have daughters, and no one has disagreed yet. The daughters are indeed all happily doing all the homework, according to my unscientific survey.

Kevin said...

perhaps because nearly all the teachers are women (and probably don't even realize it).

Adam, I suspect that the teachers do realize that they are women.

Actually the theory of pro-girl primary education has been heavily discussed by teachers. The remedies that have been proposed do not seem usually to improve education for anyone. The better teachers are already teaching in a fairly unbiased way, and the poorer teachers usually end up making things worse with each reform.