It’s important to note that what I am about to say is all my personal opinion based on my experiences of gendered approaches to learning.
It was a Thursday morning in the middle of winter and we were in a gruelling math lesson. Our teacher had written a problem on the whiteboard and announced, “Shout out when an idea comes to you.” And then…nothing. Despite being surrounded by some truly talented young women, not a single word was uttered by my classmates. After an increasingly angry silence from my teacher – punctuated only by her irritated huffing—she finally exploded. “Why can’t you all be more like the boys I used to teach?” Having excitedly discovered feminism a few years earlier, we immediately jumped on this, insisting that she “can’t say that” and that “we are just as good if not better than them.” But slowly it began to creep up on me: those boys had something important that we didn’t – unwavering confidence.
The issue here is that we were too concerned with giving the wrong answer. Being wrong isn’t something to shy away from, it simply gives the opportunity of a new path to learning. Giving the right answer instils confidence, especially when that answer comes from a successful gamble. So boys win either way because they are confident and willing to gamble.
Girls on the other hand tend to fear failure, which affects the way they approach learning. That feeling. You might recognise it, that mixture of the knowledge that you are right, overwhelmed 100:1 by your own uncertainty. As you read this, I imagine roughly half of you will instantly identify with this phenomenon. For those of you who don’t, it may just be that you don’t even realise you’re doubting yourself. I went to a competitive girls’ school for 7 years where we were encouraged to be assertive, to act with confidence and to smash through the restrictions placed on us. Such was the force of our empowerment in this environment, that it wasn’t until my final year, in that disheartening lesson, that I became aware of any limitations to my potential.
I now read Physics at university, and have been disappointed, but sadly unsurprised, by the total suppression of the female voice in the classroom and my field of study. Discussions – a crucial part of any science degree – are entirely monopolised by men talking at each other. I have found that men talk to assert themselves whilst women talk to have a conversation and engage with the topic and each other. In my experience, when women work together exclusively, it is a progressive learning experience. The problems occur for us when we are placed into a mixed gender group and assume that we will be listened to without fighting for dominance first. Any unwillingness to shout the loudest results in defeated silence.
The institution makes half-hearted attempts to include us; I have seen small posters for “Women in STEM!” lunches, for International Women’s Day and for the “Celebration of Diversity” in our department. We walk past them every day on our way to lectures, In looking away, we become part of the problem so, next year I’ll be going to every single meeting I can find. Although more women than ever are graduating from STEM degrees, the proportion compared to men is actually decreasing – in 2016-17 the percentage of women dropped from 25% to 24%. Once we decide to study STEM subjects we must get together and support one another, especially since we can feel excluded from class discussions. We can’t forget that sitting in a room with sad sandwiches and weak tea, talking about “Women in STEM!” is better than not being in that room.
Now that I recognise gendered behaviour in the classroom, I am slowly learning to “Lean In” on discussions and have become better at shaking that uncertain feeling inside of me. I’m beginning to use my mistakes to my advantage. In short, I am learning to be a male Physicist. However, with every day that passes, I find myself wondering if this adaptation—one that feels so necessary for survival—is leading to a much larger compromise. By all means, teach girls to speak up. Tell them to make mistakes; that they are not perfect and that that is an asset. But it is just as vital to teach boys to listen, to absorb and to adapt. It isn’t enough to simply close the percentage of men and women in science. Science needs to accept women as partners rather than men-in-the-making.
Written by Gloria Hamlyn