Conversation dominance and gender

When I was teaching my internship course on feminisms and technical rhetorics, I asked my supervisor to come watch a class meeting. I don’t remember now if I asked him to to do this or if he was just that savvy, but he kept track of how much discussion time was spent with males talking and how much time was spent with females talking. He also noted how often I called on students of each sex. Since I’m a feminist teacher and I was teaching about feminism, I was pretty certain the women talked the most and that I called on women more often.

Neither was true.

The discrepancy was significant. I definitely called on men more often AND those men ultimately spent more time talking. Given that this was in a feminist-led classroom, on the topic of feminism, AND in a class where there were significantly more women than men, I found this pretty astonishing. After that incident, I realized that my own sense of how rhetorical space was divided is deeply influenced by a culture that tells us men should speak and women should listen. The only way to be sure I was calling on female and male students equally was to actually keep a tally sheet.

So, I was both pleased (not to be alone) and saddened (that this is so widespread) to discover this recent post on Gender, Conversation Dominance, and Listener Bias. It has some really awesome links/references, and the author offers some great advice for how to avoid gender-based conversation dominance. I’m copying and pasting those below, but you should read the whole post here:

1) Examine your implicit biases; Stop interrupting women and girls. Parents and teachers (both males and females) interrupt girls twice as often as boys. This teaches girls that their words and thoughts are not as important or valued.  If you don’t believe you are doing this in your classroombe scientific about ithave someone come in and observe you or tape your classroom. The most powerful illustration of the effects of gender on perceptions of importance, competence and speech are the experiences of people who undergo sex changes. Scientist Ben Barres wrote publicly about his female-to-male transition experience. After transitioning, he gave a well-received scientific speech and overheard a member of the audience explain that “his work is much better than his sister’s,” referring to when he was Barbara Barres. Notably, he concluded that one of the major benefits of being male was that he could now “even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”
2) Stop telling girls to be “little ladies” and “good girls” who help with chores, wait their turns, do not display pride, express anger or be demanding.  Politeness and taking turns, two highly-ranked lessons we teach girls in particular, are not virtues in the public sphere. Conversely, nip American male “boys will be boys” entitlements in the bud by holding boys and girls to the same standards of self-regulation as children.
3) Stop promoting the idea that masculinized expression is superior and that women have to emulate it to be successful. The expectation that women be gender bi-lingual, or code switch, is a function of being part of a muted group. The kind of confidence that many people advocate just means a woman has to work very hard to overcome sexist gender incongruities in order to succeed.  Telling women to operate more like men in the public sphere: change their speech, change their hair, change their clothes and change their style of expression will only amplify androcentric norms. If we want to close the confidence gap, of course it helps to talk to women about self-doubt, but really closing this gap, as with all the otherspay, safety, rightsrequires structural changes in every institution within which we live.
4) Create spaces for those who have trouble being heard or breaking into conversations.  Structure meetings so that everyone is given a chance to speak, and limit durations so that everyone gets a fair representation in the meeting.  If you notice a member of your team is not participating or not being heard, discuss the issue with them privately and try to come up with a solution that feels comfortable to this person.
5) When you notice that someone is interrupting or talking over someone else, say “Excuse me, XXX was speaking, please let him/her finish before you continue your thought.”  This is especially important if you are in a more powerful position (because of status, age, race, gender, or seniority) and the person being interrupted is in a less powerful position.
6) When you notice someone repeating an idea that you had already brought up say: “I am glad that XXX agrees with my previous suggestion … ” If you notice this happening to someone else, try to find a way to attribute the idea to the original speaker: “XXX said that 10 minutes ago!” may not be as effective as something like, “Yes, as XXX previously suggested … “
7) Create classroom and workplace environments which are conscious of these gender dynamics and put in place methods which help you overcome the unconscious biases (we all have) towards allowing white men to disproportionately dominate the discussion.




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