Gender-based Participation Gaps in the Classroom

How many times a day do you participate in class? (on average)
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My local issue and UN Sustainable Goal Number 5

When considering the United Nation’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal, Gender Equality, and specifically its target on ensuring women’s full and effective participation in all aspects of life, a line is easily drawn to gender disparities in classroom participation. At my own school, I have taken notice of the different ways gender inequality manifests itself in the classroom, most notably through female students’ reflexive apologies for contributing as well as unprecedented backlash towards assertive female students for speaking up in class. The aspect of gender inequality in classroom participation that concerns me most is the misplaced burden that most solutions tend to offer; women are commonly told to simply have more confidence or be more assertive as a means to equilibrate their status in the classroom or later, in the workplace, but this suggestion misrepresents the issue as one that begins and ends with women. Confidence in female students will not be beneficial to the goal of gender inequality until confidence in female students is first normalized in schools and more importantly in society. By drawing attention to the various factors that contribute to gender-based participation gaps as well as highlighting the more subtle ways gender inequality exists in the classroom, I hope to shift responsibility away from only female students, to challenge other students to reflect on how they may contribute to this issue, and to provide ideas on ways to address and overcome biases against female students, all in all encouraging gender equality and full female participation by raising awareness of the issue.

What contributes to gender-based participation gaps in the classroom and what are the most effective solutions for closing those gaps?

Recent efforts to explain gender-based participation disparities have pointed to the theory of a confidence gap. This idea argues that girls have significantly less confidence than boys, making them less likely to speak up in class, ask questions, or participate to their best abilities, let alone participate to the same extent that boys feel comfortable participating. Evidence to support this theory includes a survey conducted for The Atlantic that found that from a survey of over 1,300 girls ages 8-18 confidence dropped thirty percent between the ages of 8-14 (Shipman, Kay, Riley, The Atlantic).

However, while it is clear that a confidence gap affects girls negatively in their academic lives, the idea of the confidence gap as the boogie man for all gender inequality in the classroom grossly misrepresents the issue; not only is it misguided to blame girls for a confidence gap imposed upon them by society, but it implies that the solution to participation disparities between genders is easily solvable by girls simply being more confident, or being more like boys. For example, a Forbes article on the confidence gap suggested some tips to help women overcome the confidence gap in the workplace; the list included walking briskly, using a rich vocabulary, and projecting one’s voice, but failed to consider the fact that women and girls have been doing these things for years in the workplace and in the classroom (Zenger, Forbes). So what is really holding girls back from participation? Not a confidence gap, but a confidence reception gap.

Interviews with students from my high school — How does the quantity of participation vary based on gender?

Marisa Guerra — female identifying — junior
Michael Deschenes — male identifying — junior
Ryan Lee — male identifying — sophomore

The socialization of girls into being submissive and into fearing imperfection begins from their first days in a classroom. Young girls seem to be held to a higher standard behaviorally because of antiquated gender norms that deem girls quiet and submissive, but boys rowdy and dominant. A study conducted for UNESCO confirmed that teachers turn a blind eye to boys speaking out of turn because “boys will be boys,” but that they do not reward girls with the same permissibility (Stromquist, UNESCO). The comparatively thin margin of acceptable error for females leads girls to shy away from speaking up in class out of fear of imposing on others or breaking away from their perfect mold. Furthermore, females who express traditionally masculine characteristics such as assertiveness and self-promotion face well-documented backlash; a study conducted in the Journal of Social Issues found that women are “discouraged from advancing their interests at the expense of others” as self-promoting female job applicants were discriminated against because they were seen as “not nice,” but self-promoting male job applicants did not have their character called into question based on dominant behavior (Rudman, Glick, Journal of Social Issues). In short, an assertive female equals an unhireable female. While this study was directed towards women in the workplace, the results are easily applicable to girls in the classroom. While male confident contributors are considered focused, driven, and active, girls who try to do the same are considered bitchy and aggressive. Social dominance isn’t just associated exclusively with males; social dominance is accepted exclusively from males, so how are women supposed to participate confidently in a class when they learned in first grade that speaking up made them unlikeable?

What factors contribute to levels of comfort in the classroom?

Marisa Guerra — female identifying — junior

Whether it’s in the form of girls holding back their ideas out of fear of being seen as domineering or girls starting every contribution in class with the apologetic words “this is probably wrong” because they know that their mistakes will not be easily forgiven, the confidence gap is a smokescreen for a societal demand for female subordination. Rather than burdening girls with the responsibility of steadying participation gaps, we need to be asking ourselves how much of that gap is really within their control.

How do female students exhibit more apologetic behavior in their participation?

Ryan Lee — male identifying — sophomore
Emily Vansitters — female identifying — freshman
Marisa Guerra — female identifying — junior

Transcript of an interview with a female student:

“I used to speak up in classes a lot. I know like definitely a big part of the problem of girls not participating is feeling insecure or feeling dumb, but that wasn’t really my issue like I never felt like what I had to say was stupid or anything. I stopped speaking up as much more because of what people thought of me. I would hear people complain about how I talked too much in class, and I heard people call me domineering or whatever, but it was just confusing because there were plenty of guys in the class who talked way more than I did. My least favorite part about what you’re talking about is the fact that people automatically associate like assertive girls in class with something being wrong with them – like a quiet girl is the default. So like yeah, I could talk more and participate more like I used to and yeah, it would make a difference in classroom participation, but like there would still be the underlying issue of people not supporting confident girls in the classroom.”


My school and its connection participation gaps

One of the biggest things my school prides itself on — and something I take great pride in as well — is its inclusivity of all voices on campus. From multicultural clubs to students arts councils to class cabinets, my school strives to represent every single one of its students; however, sometimes these efforts fall short. While inclusion and representation receive a lot of focus within the context of the entire student body, they are pushed to the sidelines in the classroom. Because the issue of disparities in participation often goes unnoticed, little can be done before students are made aware of the problem. Certain groups on campus such as our student led club on feminist education help to make strides towards a more equal classroom environment through club meetings and speaker opportunities. I recently presented a speech on gender-based discrepancies in the workplace and related to the issue to socialization in schools. In these ways and others, my school has been able to spread awareness and fight for change.

What can we do?

The obvious answer is to encourage female participation in classrooms. But first, we have to normalize assertive female participation. I challenge you to actively reflect on your role in this issue: how have we been socialized to expect passivity from females in the classroom? how can we overcome these implicit biases?

  • invite students to participate in discussions!
  • learn more about the issue!
  • help your communities become more aware!
  • institute practices that normalize female participation!

*If you have time, take these implicit bias tests to reflect on your own subconscious biases on gender! (Gender-Science IAT and Gender-Career IAT)

Harvard Implicit Bias Tests

Who will you share this information with?
all of the above!
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Thank you for listening! Reach out to me on Instagram @claireegallagherr! I would love to talk more:)


Share this project
  1. April 25, 2019 by Veronica Kruschel

    The topic of this presentation is very interesting, and you managed to go in-depth into the different aspects of gender-based participation gaps in schools. I think that you did an excellent job explaining the issue and giving ideas for how people can further educate themselves and how they can help. You were thorough and covered a lot of material without being boring, and the use of videos throughout your page makes the content more easily digestible and more engaging. I also like how you included polls at the beginning and end of your presentation; they were well placed and encouraged further and more personal reflection on the topic. I think that two of the things you did a particularly impressive job explaining are why the current attitude toward gender-based participation gaps in schools isn’t helpful and why we should reconsider that approach and how this issue in schools is a microcosm which represents the macrocosm–our society and our world.

  2. April 26, 2019 by Vivian.Fong

    Hi Claire, this is definitely something I notice in my classes too! A lot of girls apologize before they speak and are afraid of messing up because of pressures from society. From personal experience, I think the gender balance of class participation is more balanced in primary schools rather than middle and high school. I think it has to do with how the individual views themselves and also how others treat them. What do you think?

  3. April 26, 2019 by Lauren.Elvrum

    Claire, you addressed the gender-based stereotype threat that many females face in the classroom in a very clear, insightful way. Well done, and great presentation!

  4. April 27, 2019 by Camille Neutz

    This is a very interesting topic that you chose to focus on! Great job with your deep dive. I loved how you used interviews from your own school as it made it more personal and more engaging for the reader.

  5. April 27, 2019 by Orly.Richter

    I really appreciated that you took the time to investigate this topic! As difficult as it is to accept the gender bias in our classrooms, it is also incredibly important if we hope to address it. I loved how you incorporated interview with people from your school; it gave great insight into perspectives of students and how they feel that they are affected. I’m glad you gave some ideas for how to proceed, because this is definitely something that I hope to learn more about and work to change.

  6. April 28, 2019 by Alex.Lepa

    Hi Claire,
    I really liked the optional gender bias test. Thanks for sharing.

  7. April 28, 2019 by Minea.Hill

    Your project is an interesting one that I feel like you handled well. By having accounts from individuals identifying as both male and female, your project does not come across as biased but continues to illuminate your thesis. I have witnessed first-hand how males and females are treated differently when it comes to speaking up. Males are seen as confident and engaged and females are seen as difficult and loud, even if they are saying the same thing. Do you think that a difference within a classroom dynamic is seen depending on if the teacher is male or female?

  8. April 29, 2019 by Emma.Sheldon

    Hey Claire, this is so well done. I really love how you explored the female tendency to exhibit more “apologetic” behavior in the classroom. It’s so relevant and important. Do you find that there is a difference in gender participation across different classes (e.g. math vs english)? In my school, the conversation is often dominated by females during English discussions, whereas complex talks about a math proof are usually held by boys.

  9. May 04, 2019 by Georgia.Farmer

    Hi Claire, I love how you investigated the confidence levels within the classroom and how you mentioned the correlation between women completing masculine actions in the classroom and the backlash they may face. Your topic is highly relevant today and sheds a light on how traditional gender roles and perspectives impact education.

  10. May 04, 2019 by Madison Bequer

    Hi Claire, this project touches on such an important topic for us girls. You did an amazing job by interviewing people to get firsthand accounts and including data to back up your claims. I saw a ted talk recently on how we teach our girls to strive for perfection rather than to just do things despite fear of failure ( What do you think of that sentiment?

  11. May 06, 2019 by Cris Pessoa

    Hi Claire, this is a very interesting topic. One thing that called my attention that you say in your analysis is that female behavior is not only determined by the classroom environment but also by the luggage students bring from outside of the class. I will be sharing your project and statistically analyzing your responses “to how often did you ask questions in class or contribute to class discussions” with my IB students. What do you think is a good way to interpret that data? Thank you for sharing this information.

  12. May 19, 2019 by Ami.Adachi

    Hi Claire! Your topic was very intriguing as it was very specific and focused on the gender gap in classrooms. I agree with you that many schools often focus on inclusivity of all voices on campus and definitely puts a lot of effort into these social issues, as my school does as well. But, based on my experiences at my own school, I agree that there definitely is a gender based participation gap in the classroom. Therefore, I also agree that in order to lessen the overall gap between genders, we should start solving this problem on a smaller scale; for example, as you said, normalizing assertive female participation. I really liked how you included interview of students of different grades and genders in your project as it provided a real life example of the experiences and viewpoints of students. Did you interview any teacher/faculty at your school? I believe, that interviewing them could contribute to your project because they are the one person in the classroom who constantly observe and assess students participating.

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