New study offers solutions to unequal participation in classes

Published: Apr. 7, 2022 at 5:34 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - A new study from the University of Virginia School of Law finds that men talk more than women in law classes. The study started nine years ago when a group of UVA law students told their professors they felt like men were speaking more than the women in class.

“Molly, and I, just coincidentally and completely in parallel, had two students who approached us asking about why it was that they that fewer women seem to be speaking in class than men. And we thought that was a really good question. It’s one that we had been sort of worried about ourselves,” Law Professor J.H Verkerke said.

They started their study by listening to and analyzing past classes and the results were clear.

“That’s actually not surprising - that result has been seen in so many different contexts. So generally, in the classroom, or in congress, or in the board room, and many number of places you could observe this,” Law Professor Molly Shadel said.

When professors called on students participation was equal.

“What we could see in our data was that that gender disparity was largely driven by letting people volunteer in class. So when the professor would just say ‘does anyone have a thought about this?’ it was more likely that a male student would raise his hand and answer first. In contrast, when there was some sort of systematic way of calling on students, then the gap in participation just disappeared,” Shadel said.

Smaller class size is another solution that professors.

“When we were looking at smaller classes, so classes around 30 students, there was no significant gender disparity in participation,” Verkerke said.

The study looked at the reasons men speak more also.

“Women were more likely to report concerns about how their answers might be perceived, worried about whether they might be laughed at or indications of feeling uncomfortable if they were wrong. Men were more likely to report that they didn’t speak if they weren’t interested in the material. So, from that, we discerned that there is a different kind of social experience and again, that is not particular to only our school,” Shadel said.

Pressure to speak doesn’t fall only on the student

“I don’t think should be put just on the individual student sitting in the classroom. I think it should be something that the professor and the institution should be concerned about fixing,” Shadel said.

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