DG Roundtable: Are Women STEM Students Silenced in Class?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This week, DG Roundtable will be discussing perspectives of women in academics at Swarthmore. We hope to cover the distinct issues that women face at Swarthmore in the classroom along with the issues particular to women in STEM majors at Swarthmore. We are joined by three guests today: Shinae Yoon ’16, Sara Brakeman ’16, and Azucena Lucatero ’16.

syoon1 (Shinae Yoon ’16) [3:34 PM]

I’m a biology major in the class of 2016. My impression is that the biology department is the least male-dominated in the sciences at Swarthmore (and I’m writing in vague language here because I have no idea about the exact numbers). My experiences in the department have definitely been more positive than those of the women featured in Nehmat’s piece. My current double credit seminar in biology has 10 students, 9 of whom identify as women.

avishwanath [3:41 PM]

I am a double major in Political Science (honors major) and Mathematics. Do you think the gender of your professors plays an important role in your experiences? I realized last night that of the 20 courses I have taken at Swarthmore, only 5 have been taught by female professors, and I think if I weren’t male, I might have been more conscious of that. Is that something that makes you feel more comfortable in class, or is it not as important to you?

sarabrakeman (Sara Brakeman ’16) [3:46 PM]

I am an Engineering major and Computer Science minor in the class of 2016. The engineering department generally has a higher ratio of women to men than most engineering schools. This varies greatly year to year. Last year, there was only one graduating woman engineer whereas there are about 10 this year. I think the lack of female professors is one of the biggest negative factors in my experience. Most of my male professors are great, but it leaves me fewer female role models within my area of interest. There is only one female professor in the engineering department here and seven full time male professors. Outside of Swarthmore, I have found many female role models in the fields I am interested in, but I don’t have these role models within Swarthmore. The computer science faculty has more female professors, but I have only been in classes taught by men.

I don’t think the gender of my professor has much impact on my ability to learn and focus but it does impact the way I think about future career paths and the visibility of women in engineering in general.

alucate1 (Alzucena Lucatero ’16) [3:50 PM]

I’m a double in Biology and Asian Studies (’16), and I would agree with Shinae that, as a woman in the Biology department, I’ve felt extremely supported by my professors, both women and men. One of my academic advisors is one of the women faculty in the Biology department, and she’s wonderful about checking in on me, encouraging me, and letting me know about resources or opportunities that I should look into. She’s definitely one of my role models, but so are the other women in the Biology department. They are all very aware of the gender disparity in the sciences and are not shy about speaking up about it.

syoon1 [3:51 PM]

I haven’t consciously noticed the gender of my professors heavily influencing my learning experiences in my classes. Personally I think the other students play a larger role in determining the class atmosphere. I think the culture of the department often gives rise to a self-selection bias and I have felt and still feel more comfortable speaking in my Biology classes than I have in classes in non-science departments.

alucate1 [3:54 PM]

Where I’ve struggled the most is in my identity as a first generation woman of color coming from a low-income Latinx community, an identity that I’ve been working on and trying to engage throughout my time at Swarthmore. The Review article mentions that Mia Ferguson felt that stepping Hicks was like making a tacit agreement not to speak about identity, race, sexuality, etc., and I definitely relate to that in the Biology Department, as socially conscious as it makes an effort to be.

avishwanath [4:04 PM]

@alucate1: That is one thing I have heard about the science departments generally – that they make less of an effort to discuss issues of race and identity than the social sciences and humanities. Of course, that’s partly a function of the subject material in those other departments, but I also think it relates to a desire by the sciences to stick to “the facts” of the material rather than discussing the experience of learning it.

syoon1 [4:05 PM]

I’d like to first follow up on what Azucena shared. I think as an Asian-identifying female student in biology, sometimes the underrepresentation of other minorities isn’t as obvious to me as it should be. I remember when I was taking a large Chemistry class, my friend made a remark about the number of Black students in the class, which I think was less than 5 in a class held in SCI101.

allisonhrabar (Allison Hrabar, Co-Editor in Chief) [4:07 PM]

I’m a double major in honors Poli Sci and Film and Media Studies, but a lot of what I read in the Review about women’s experiences in STEM resonated with my experiences in the social sciences. In particular, I agree with Shinae that other students play a larger role in my class experiences than the gender of my professors.  The vast majority of the poli sci courses I’ve taken have been male dominated, both in terms of numbers and who is speaking in class.

alucate1 [4:16 PM]

That’s also true for the large, intro Biology and Chemistry classes. It’s usually the white male students who ask questions and engage the professor during lecture in Sci 101.

sarabrakeman [4:17 PM]

I agree as well. I notice the breakdown of students in my classes way more than gender of my professors. There is one difference I’ve noticed between the STEM courses and humanities/social science courses I’ve taken at Swarthmore. Students of all genders seems to speak up equally within humanities and social sciences, sometimes women dominate certain courses. But with my STEM classes, there are very few women who speak up in class. In high school, I was always speaking in class. But in my STEM courses here, I prefer to sit back and not participate. In other classes with more women, I seem to be more comfortable participating more.

avishwanath [7:34 PM]

So what do you all think the best way to correct some of these issues concretely is? Is it just a matter of having men be more aware of these dynamics? Or do there need to be more specific programs implemented?

sarabrakeman [8:34 PM]

I don’t think there need to be any specific programs. I have felt incredibly supported at Swarthmore. As gender ratios shift nationally and more women become involved in STEM, the ratios at Swat should change as well to create a more diverse classroom. The one thing that we can control is making sure all our peers feel comfortable in the classroom and social spaces. I have experienced many men, some who are good friends, mansplaining and talking down to me when I ask a question. They often try to explain the entire topic to me instead of just clarifying my specific confusion. That is something that we ourselves can change by speaking respectfully to each other.

allisonhrabar [9:33 PM]

I agree Sara, I think a big change can come from trying to be more conscious of the way we engage with each other in class. I’m sure many men on this campus, if directly asked, wouldn’t say that they’ve silenced women in classrooms. But I’ve witnessed guys in almost all of my classes not notice how they speak without raising their hand while others are waiting, or how much time they spend speaking, or how they interrupt or speak over others. When people frame this as just an issue of women’s confidence it makes me angry, since I often do have something to say, but don’t get the chance to say it. I’d rather other classmates open the floor rather than force me to adopt their inconsiderate behaviour.

avishwanath [9:41 PM]

I have to say that I think that is something I definitely do – if I have an idea, I will jump into a conversation (especially in an academic discussion outside of the classroom). And I’ve become more aware in recent years in such conversations with men and women that I end up unconsciously talking to the other men, so it’s something I try to be aware of – especially when I interrupt a woman – by apologizing and letting her speak instead of myself.

isaacl (Isaac Lee, Assistant Opinions Editor) [10:12 PM]

But how does this affect STEM subjects more? This phenomenon of men speaking more out of turn than usual should affect discussion based classes, which often includes social sciences and humanities.

sarabrakeman [10:17 PM]

I think this affects STEM subjects more because the gender ratio is more skewed in those classes, especially engineering and computer science. Therefore, these behaviours appear more and may mean that the women in the class either don’t have the opportunity to speak, like Allison pointed out, or that they don’t feel they can contribute to the male-dominated conversation. Even though STEM classes are often lecture-based, there are still endless opportunities to interject with a question or comment. Our society definitely expects men to be better at these subjects and this plays out in classroom dynamics, regardless of the intentions of those in the room.

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  1. Be honest, don’t cheat yourself. One has to know the most important factor is not external, but internal, i.e. are you ABLE to react quickly in class? This is not easy, and this even requires more than doing well in final exam. That’s because to be able to notice the subtlety in reasoning, links between concepts, and possibly prof’s error, you have to understand the materials really well (yes, I mean to the extent that you can handle a pop-up quiz), and you have to be quick enough. Otherwise, 1) you just passively accept prof’s words, failing to notice anything, or 2) ask questions that you really should know the answer.

    I can only speak of my math classes so far, but very few (actually I can’t recall more than 3) female students can effectively participate in in-class discussion. Indeed, there is stereotype that female students can’t do well in math. I am not saying this stereotype is justified,IT’S TOTALLY WRONG, and should be changed. But why do you always spend your time blaming this world, rather than spend a little time thinking why this stereotype exists?! That’s because, IN GENERAL, female students are indeed not good at math. Realizing this, you should work harder, and harder, until you can ask valuable questions in class. I can’t imagine you will still be ignored if you can do this.

    Society is often wrong. But as an individual, just blaming everyone else will not do anything good to you. Talk is cheap. You have to work harder, and show to everyone around you that this stereotype is indeed unjustified, with your performance. People have to EARN respect. If all female students can do this, I believe this unjustified stereotype will change.

      • I mean, compared to male students. There are many great women mathematicians, but there are far more great men mathematicians. There are more girls than boys who struggle with math. This is not an opinion. This is a fact (which ought to be changed).

        • It’s true that there have been fewer great female mathematicians than male, but this does not imply that female people are any worse at math. It simply reflects how much less accessible math is as a field to female people than male people. It’s kind of a self-perpetuating cycle: the fewer female mathematicians there are, the less female people are encouraged to go into math, and the more uncomfortable female people who do go into math feel in their male-dominated classes. (This parallels for other STEM fields, or other non-STEM, male-dominated fields like philosophy.)

        • are you trolling or something?

          “There are more girls than boys who struggle with math. This is a fact”

          I seriously can’t tell if you’re just shit-posting or if you legitimately believe that wild assertion is a fact.

        • FTFY
          “There are many great women mathematicians, but there are far more great man sexists. There are more boys than girls who struggle with sexism. This is not an opinion. This is a fact(that ought to be changed)”

          Dude, you’re way off base. Check yourself.

    • “i don’t agree with the stereotype that women are bad at math BUT women are bad at math” -u

      :/ u should spend some time learning how to use logic and think logically

    • To everyone in this thread:
      What I agree: generally speaking, currently, women are less comfortable at math (this is fact)
      What I disagree: people use this to judge without evidence that a particular woman cannot to math. (this is called “stereotype”, which is wrong)
      I think this is clear enough.

      And it is interesting to watch how people react to this thread. Did I simply hit your pain? But understandably, you don’t want to acknowledge this.

      Anyways, I’m not going to post any more. I have lots of work to do, this trip to DG already took more time than I had planned. You may keep voicing your opinion, it’s your freedom. But, still water runs deep, especially in STEM. And, bye-bye!

      • ok, here are some things i continue to find frustrating about your general position:

        1. you state that (a) women are (in the status quo) generally less comfortable with math than men are and (b) the solution to this is for women to work harder so they can participate more in class/etc/etc. i don’t think you can hold both of those beliefs without believing that either (c) female students aren’t working as hard as male students, or that (d) women are inherently worse at math and need to work harder than male students in order to ‘catch up’ to their level.

        2. acknowledging that there are social forces that put women at a disadvantage, in some ways, in certain academic fields isn’t a call to give all female students a Free Pass in class. mostly, i think, it’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the ways in which Sexism Is Still A Thing, and how we can ameliorate it in the future (by not discouraging young women from being assertive and confident, by providing examples of women in STEM to female prospective majors, whatever). even being aware of some of the reasons women are less likely to participate in class (i think i read that female students are more likely to have anxiety over being wrong when answering a question?) can lead women to try to address those concerns (realizing that being wrong isnt the end of the world, etc) and participate more. but also, as allison mentioned in this article, women not participating in class isn’t always a matter of them being afraid or of them not having something to say- sometimes, our voices are just straight up shut out of the conversation. this isn’t something that a lil elbow grease can fix

        3. providing ‘work harder’ as a novel suggestion for other swat students is just plain silly. like……………

        “Did I simply hit your pain? But understandably, you don’t want to acknowledge this.”

        i am not completely sure i can parse out what this means, but yes, i think you did “hit my pain”. this thing you wrote frustrates me as someone who is a female student whose classes are generally disproportionately composed of male students. even if i’m less likely to participate in classes, that doesn’t mean i’m not Working Hard in college, and i don’t want to think that other students at swarthmore see me as someone who hasn’t yet EARNED respect

  2. This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot —

    Something that I’ve observed is that there are groups on campus for women in STEM fields (e.g. Women in Computer Science) but not groups for POC (or non-binary people??) who, as you touched on, are also underrepresented in these fields. Do you think creating parallel groups like WICS for POC would help balance some of this representation? or, even before considering this, do you think the groups for women are helpful?

    Also, in this discussion you have addressed a lot of the currently existing problems and affects of these problems on you and your fields, but I think it is also important to discuss the causes of these disparities in representation (which Sara touches on very briefly at the end of the discussion), so that we can better understand how to address and fix them. Why do (cis, white) men feel more comfortable speaking up in classes than women, or other people of less powerful demographics?

  3. Thank you for this discussion. Speaking from the POV as a woman in CS, I’ve been told I can’t be taken seriously as a computer scientist because I didn’t have “enough CS experience” or “only got a job because they needed to look diverse.” Even when I got higher grades. Even when I had more commits to assignments. Nothing is good enough to convince men I deserve to be here or deserve to speak up when I’m not treated equally. I’ve earned my damn spot in this school and this field. I just want to be taken as seriously as men are taken. Too many times, being a women in science is shitty, and it needs to be talked about.

  4. (In response to Honest)

    Honest, I see where you are coming from, but let me teach you a couple of things. I am a woman majoring in Economics and math. Every time I raise my hand in my male-dominated math classes, I feel like the room a) expects something dumb, or plain to come out of my mouth, or b) Expects a question that touches on the most elementary concepts. I am not talking about one class, or one person, I am talking about situations that have repeated themselves over and over again. I work really offing hard, and have done so to achieve everything I have ever accomplished in my life. I graduated top of my Math and Science high school class, I have a higher GPA than most people, and a stronger grasp of mathematical statistics than many. Why is it that I have to out in thrice as much effort to earn the same level of respect as you? Shouldn’t I have thrice as much respect attached to my name?

    Honestly, the problem is not in the professors. It is in asshole peers like yourself, who make the class environment hostile to those of us who are not aggressively raising our hands the moment a word hinting at a question escapes the prof’s mouth. Women are socialized to not want to take risks, to wait until called, to be mindful of others in the spaces they occupy. This means we will not cut our peers off when they are talking, and we will only answer a question when 150% we are right, even if our answer is correct. When we get something wrong, we reinforce the stereotype. When we get something right, it is individual merit and hard work, but never equal to the merit attributed to male students.

    I wish you had not posted this anonymously, because I would really like to talk to you in person. I also wish you and your friends would listen and stop thinking we are blaming society for our problems. What you don’t see is how hard we work, how much we try to achieve so that women coming after us have their potential stunted to a lesser degree. But we also need our male peers to see this and support us by changing how they act, so that we can all succeed together. This is not a zero sum game, honest.

    I’m leaving my full name so that you can reach out to me and continue this conversation. I hope you will. As you said, talk is cheap and I’d hate for you to continue to walk around in your pit of ignorance about what life is like for the other half.

  5. Hi Emma,
    About the support groups for POV in STEM: In the past, there haven’t been many groups for POV interested in STEM here, but currently there are attempts to revive Swarthmore’s National Society for Black Enginners (NSBE) chapter and a new group called ROOTS that supports black students who are interested in STEM majors. I think that these types of groups are helpful because their purpose is not to remind the students that they’re underrepresented but to build a supportive community with other people who share ir have had similar experiences.

    As for why men, particularly white men, feel more comfortable speaking up in these classes, I think (I have a background in education so some of this is found all over that literature) that it begins very early in schooling. From an early age, teachers give more attention to boys in class and they impicitly learn that their opinions are valued more than girls. There are also obvious intersections to consider such as race and class, but this is the general “hidden curriculum” of many schools.

  6. As a female Engineering major, I definitely see this sort of thing as well, ESPECIALLY outside of class in wizard (TA) sessions. I’ve noticed that people who come in for help immediately approach male wizards and only approach female wizards when male wizards are already occupied. (To the best of my knowledge, I have never had a non-binary wizard; this may be an oversight on my part, but it may also be a major flaw in the department’s wizard hiring.) I’ve noticed this behavior both in wizard sessions that I’ve attended for help and in wizard sessions that I hold.

    Furthermore, when I am working a session and someone does come to ask me a question, I have had male co-wizards interrupt my explanations and start working through the problem in my stead, as if they don’t think my explanations are adequate. It’s made me more insecure in my answers–if I don’t immediately know the solution to a problem, I am the “stupid” wizard, and I deserve to be the second choice for questions. It’s also made students come and ask me for help even less as the semester has gone by.

    I don’t have as much experience with help sessions in other STEM departments, especially not ones with more than one person working at a time, but I am sure this behavior is contributing significantly to the silencing of women in the Engineering department, and I believe there is a similar phenomenon in the other STEM departments. Help sessions are usually run by upperclassmen for underclassmen, and these upperclassmen, granted extra power and authority by their TA positions, are teaching freshmen what is and isn’t acceptable in their departments. If they continue to talk over female TAs, they reinforce that it’s okay to talk over women in their department if you think you know better than they do. If more TAs actively combatted this gender bias, rather than ignore or enforce it, we might see a noticeable improvement in STEM environments.

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