Gender Equity in the Classroom Part II

My last blog discussed how the gap between men’s and women’s participation continues to be a problem in law school classrooms.  This is clearly a systemic problem, affected by issues ranging from women’s prior classroom experiences to law school diversity to the persistence of discrimination.  But today I want to focus on what a lone professor might do in his or her classroom to try and close this gap.  Here are a few tactics that I am trying.

First, require participation.  Given that studies show the gap is at its worst when class discussion relies on volunteers, one solution might be to require everyone to contribute as often as possible.  My policy is that everyone is on call for every class, unless they check themselves as unprepared before class starts.  I have found that forcing a student to speak at the beginning of class increases the odds that she will volunteer in that same class later.  I understand that this is anecdotal, but I’ve seen the effect repeatedly.

Second, wait a bit.  Since men seem to hesitate less, instead of calling on the first person with a hand in the air, wait a few seconds if you do seek volunteers.  Also, give students a chance to collect their thoughts when you ask them a question rather than immediately moving on to someone else.

Third, provide opportunities for small in-class group discussions.  Getting into the habit of talking about the law in the classroom, even with just a few other students, and rehearsing an argument first, hopefully makes it easier to offer it to the entire class.  I like to break students up into groups of three or four, have them debate a hypothetical before their designated “judge,” and then have the judges of each group come up to the front of the class to issue their one minute “ruling from the bench.”

Fourth, create alternate ways to participate besides speaking in class.  For example, I have students complete a series of short written exercises over the course of the semester.

A bonus of these tactics is that they should benefit all students who might be reluctant speakers.  To close, I want to ask everyone, professors and students: what are other strategies that you have found to be effective?

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9 Responses

  1. Howard Wasserman says:

    This is anecdotal, but notable. I have found that female students at my school are every bit as willing to participate in class. I don’t cold call and rely solely on volunteers, but several women are also among our most active participants every year. On the other hand, in one class last semester I was criticized on multiple evaluation sheets for favoring female students. Is this male students complaining about the loss of inequity? Am I ovecompensating?

  2. Sam Brunson says:

    My experience is, of course, also anecdotal. I try to mix things up–like you, everybody is on call every class. In BizOrg, I have the students get together in small groups on an infrequent basis. I ask for volunteers (and have a number of women, as well as a number of men, who volunteer on a regular basis). And I use clickers. I require participation, but students can get a lot of their participation points by answering the clicker questions. And I think that a lot of the students, after they’ve had a minute or two to think about the question and actually come up with an answer, are more prepared to discuss their answers in front of the class at that point.

    But I really think that using the broadest array of techniques possible allows a greater number of students to participate.

  3. anon says:

    I had someone sit in on my class and mention this problem of females not participating, and she suggested that I just always call on women when they raise their hand. I had never noticed a disparity before it was pointed out to me, but now that I am paying attention, I think purposefully calling on women has resulted in very equal levels of participation.

  4. JCJ says:

    I require a certain amount of participation each semester. In addition to in class participation, I give out of class participation opportunities mostly involving online participation on a class discussion board (TWEN) in which I propose hypotheticals, policy or practice questions. My goal is to engage the students with the material, whether it be in class or out.

  5. Mary says:

    I graduated from UCLA Law in 2000 – this does not apply to the significant majority the professors, but myself and other extroverted females definantely felt that certain male professors were far more comfortable debating in open class only with the male students – it was as if they felt they could not lower the boom on us and challenge us in the same way they would with a male. They were the old school types and they probably thought we would get offended and snap back at them like women are known to do (sorry, I don’t mean to offend anybody). In these classes I’d get frustrated with the flacid response and just keep my comments to myself.

    As to the less extroverted females, they pretty much hated the banter-style socratic approach and pretty much hated speaking in class. Its not that they can’t argue in court now, later in their careers, its just that they didn’t like debating for the sake of debating – they would refer to the actively-participating males as “roosters” and thought they were talking just to impress themselves (and hopefully others) and found the teaching style an ineffective waste of time. I didn’t agree with them on this, but heard this from a lot of female law students.

  6. Mary says:

    Remember that women are socialized to work toward group goals collaboratively, not to spar and jockey for pole position like males do – I dont’ think its all ego for males – I think they focus strongly on being “competent” and want their group activities to be conducted to the highest level of “competence” available – so the banter and socratic debate style comports with the male ideal of a good way to reach a common goal: learning the law. Women conversely are socialized to collaborate, not to try to boast or stand out above the rest of the crowd, and to very efficiently move toward resolution of the problem – women also GENERALLY don’t openly challenge one another in public as this is taken as a personal affront.

    What I’m getting at is that even female law professors are trained in the male method of teaching/learning – the environment is pretty much an affront to female socialization. Can women adjust to it? Sure. They have to want to though.

  7. jtanner says:

    My very limited experience has been that both the most frequent and least frequent willing class participants are male.

    I base a substantial part of the grade on class participation and so keep track of student comments with checks and pluses next to the students’ names as class proceeds. This allow me to make sure there’s a balance by calling on the recalcitrant — although it gets pretty messy since I make the marks without looking so as not to break focus.

    I believe that being willing and able to speak up is an important skill for most legal positions, and that students should get used to it.

  8. Stephanie says:

    It surprised me that this series of posts started out with your observation that men participate more than women in law school class discussions. That certainly wasn’t my experience at the University of Illinois. In fact, during all three of my years there, I found quite the opposite to be true.

  9. Caroline Mala Corbin says:

    Studies have shown that sometimes there is a mismatch between people’s perceptions of participation and actual participation. For example, one study found that “When we showed teachers and administrators a film of a classroom discussion and asked who was talking more, the teachers overwhelmingly said the girls were. But in reality, the boys in the film were out-talking the girls at a ratio of three to one. Even educators who are active in feminist issues were unable to spot the sex bias until they counted and coded who was talking and who was just watching.”