Instructors Need to Listen to the Voices of All Students

Although women often outnumber men in college enrollment, male classmates frequently dominate the discussions.  As a result, instructors should be aware of male students' tendency to participate more and make a conscious effort to ensure all voices are heard equally.

A recent study found that male students speak 1.6 times as often in higher-ed classrooms as their female counterparts. The research was based on 95 hours of observation in nine classrooms across multiple disciplines at Dartmouth College, by researchers Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, and Jennifer Lee, a 2017 Dartmouth graduate whose senior thesis focused on this topic, and who now is a PhD. Candidate at Indiana University. 

The report, titles "Who Speaks and Who Listens: Revisiting the Chilly Climate in College Classrooms," found male students are more likely than female students to:

  • Speak without raising their hands
  • Interrupt others – classmate or professor, regardless of gender
  • Hold ongoing conversations
  • Use assertive language.

Men also were more likely join class discussions, 31 to 7, according to the report. Likewise, male students engaged in more conversations with faculty (28 vs. 3), the researchers said.

By comparison, women were more apt to be hesitant and apologetic in tone, the researchers said. This is true, even though women students outnumber men on average across U.S. higher-ed institutions. In Fall 2020, 11.3 million students were female and 8.5 million were male, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

"Professors’ interventions and different structures of classrooms can alter existing gender status hierarchies," according to the authors "We discuss how these gendered classroom participation patterns perpetuate gender status hierarchies. We thus argue that the chilly climate is an underexplored mechanism for the stalled gender revolution."

When faculty took steps to involve even the quietest students by using stringent rules—such as not recognizing those individuals who interrupted or calling on all the class, including those who had previously not participated in discussions—the classroom took on a more nurturing, equitable environment.

"Our results demonstrate that women's voices still may not be heard, and that gender hierarchies continue to persist. Once students and professors are cognizant of these gender dynamics in the classroom, it is easier to change them," McCabe said in a statement.

Among 2019 high school graduates (ages 16 to 24), college enrollment was split: 62% of men and 69.8% of women planned to attend higher-education institutions, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in April 2020, the most recent data available.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration estimates men with bachelor's degrees earn about $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high-school graduates. On the other hand, women who accomplish the same degree earn $630,000 more than a high-school grad, the SSA said. Men with graduate degrees earn $1.5 million more in median lifetime salaries than a high school graduate, whereas women with graduate degrees earn $1.1 million more, the agency reported.

Outside the classroom

Robert Hall and Bernice Sanders may have coined the phrase "chilly climate" in the early 1980s when they researched gender dynamics in the classroom, but the environment extends into the workplace, the home, and other places where women and men interact.

Hearing and heeding only the loudest voices hurts not just the quiet ones in a room, be that a classroom, an office, or a room within a home. Study after study demonstrates the positive impact of diversity – and that includes incorporating various viewpoints and opinions across an organization.

Businesses in the top quartile of gender diversity within their executive teams are 25% more likely to enjoy better profitability than those in the fourth quartile, McKinsey & Co. found in its May 2020 report titled “Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters”. The more diverse the executive team, the higher their revenue.

"That is, they see a higher percentage of overall revenue (45%) from products and services that have launched in the last three years. The most significant gains came from diversifying the executives’ national origin, industry backgrounds, gender, and career paths," McKinsey wrote.

Lessons learned in the classroom, however, continue in the workplace. In a Stanford University study of 31 two-part conversations, men were more prone to interrupting women. There were 10 conversations between two men; 10 between two women, and 11 between a man and a woman. Researchers found seven interruptions in the two same-gender groups combined, but 48 interruptions – 46 by the man – in the female-male talk.

"There are definite and patterned ways in which the power and dominance enjoyed by men in other contexts are exercised in their conversational interaction with women," the researchers wrote.

Men interrupted 33% more when speaking with women than when they talked to other males, found a different study by George Washington University. In a three-minute chat, men interjected 2.1 times when women spoke compared with 1.8 times when other males were speaking, the report said. On average, women interrupted men only once.