Gender in the classroom

Zoe Sokatch, Staff Writer

I’m sitting (virtually) with Nora Onek ‘23 on a Wednesday afternoon exactly two weeks after the Month of Understanding forum, Gender in the Classroom, hosted by Students for Women’s Equality and Rights (SWEAR), Young Men’s Group (YMG), and Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) when she tells me that “Urban needs to practice what it preaches.” This sentiment encapsulates many frustrations of the female identifying community at Urban.
After listening to the stories shared during the gender in the classroom forum and the discussions that followed in the breakout room section of the event, it was clear to me that this conversation had to go way beyond our one hour lunch period. “I feel like we’re a self described woke school” says Onek, “and maybe sometimes we are,” but Onek along with many other female identifying students and even some staff members agreed that we have a lot of growing to do as a school, particularly around gender in the classroom.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations similar to that event in SWEAR meetings in the past,” said Molly Bradley ‘21 co-leader of SWEAR and one of the brains behind the MOU forum. “It became clear to us that it was something people have been thinking about a lot.” Bradley worried the forum would become an “uncomfortable call out meeting” or “a complaining festival about how annoying male students in classrooms can be at times.” However, the forum turned out to be anything but that.
Charisse Wu, 11th Grade Dean and history teacher described the forum as a “really important event to showcase a lot of student frustrations.” As the teacher of Urban’s only Women’s history course (WUSH) Wu offered a unique perspective on gender dynamics within Urban classrooms. “It’s so interesting to have male identifying students be like, I’m terrified to talk in this [WUSH] class” said Wu. Experiencing discomfort speaking in class is not a foreign concept to the female population of Urban. In an anonymous Urban survey sent to 60 female-identifying students, 78.3% reported feeling uncomfortable speaking in class and sharing their opinions because of their gender identity.
“It’s really difficult,” says Naya Woods ‘24. “I’ve had experiences where I feel like I’m not really being heard or it felt like when I contributed there was no response.” As a Black female-identifying student, Woods has felt like her contributions to class discussions came off as “aggressive or overly emotional” but when her white counterparts say things in a similar tone, Woods feels they are just seen as passionate. These experiences have led Woods to “prefer to stay quieter.”
“There’s a lot of interruption that goes on,” said Onek. “I think sometimes male identifying students act like they have some sort of superiority over my opinion.” Similar experiences were voiced by the majority of female identifying students I spoke to, in particular, a plethora of stories from within the STEM department.
“I think that in STEM, overall, women aren’t taken seriously” says Onek. “As someone who has definitely considered going into a STEM career, it’s kind of frustrating that we as a school don’t acknowledge biases against women.” When asked in the same anonymous survey which Urban departments they felt had most negatively impacted their learning based on their gender, 33% chose science and 20% chose math.
“There are these classes that are just so heavily male dominated” said Bradley. “In my advanced physics class there were 16 students, 14 boys, two girls, and a male teacher.” Bradley described this as something she “noticed immediately” but that was never addressed by the teacher. “There was some level of it being taboo to talk about or no one wanting to say it out loud.” With women only taking up 28% of the STEM workforce in 2018, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, it is no surprise that STEM at Urban seems to favor male students. A more surprising pattern found was the amount of female identifying students who felt the humanities and arts departments favored the male identifying student body as well. In particular, some noted that female identifying teachers in these departments favored the male identifying students.
“I feel that a lot of female-identifying teachers in the arts/humanities expect more from female identifying students and praise guys who meet the standard” said one anonymous Urban student. “Women in the arts are praised only for excellence, while men get praise and are liked for average/minimum effort.”
Another anonymous Urban student shared that she felt certain female teachers at Urban favor “popular” male upperclassman students over female identifying students also noting that “these students interrupt female students and are rude to the rest of the class.”
A different student had a similar experience saying that female teachers sometimes give “unfair treatment” to male students “if boys are yelling and being distracting or disruptive female teachers often joke about it or laugh with them.”
“The bar feels a lot lower,” said another student. “If boys raise their hands once, it becomes a huge deal, versus girls speaking is not as idealized.”
These experiences in the classroom can damage female students’ confidence and view of themselves in and out of the classroom. Some female identifying students feel self conscious about their performance level in their classes and tend to assume their answers are wrong. “I think something that is a potential solution to some of these issues is just giving girls more confidence in classes to be able to speak up for themselves” said Bradley. “If I did this problem and I got the answer and I think I did it right, I’m going to talk to you about it as if I’m correct until you show me I’m wrong.” Bradley said this “mental shift” in her confidence “was really helpful.”
“Girls just need to – I know this is so much easier said than done – have more confidence in the classroom,” said Onek.
“Try to remember that your voice can be so impactful,” said Woods. Besides building more confidence within female students, Woods thought “recognition is the first step” to making change in the classroom. “Being able to acknowledge that gender plays a big part in our classroom and open dialogues like this where you can share experiences is so pivotal in being able to really create a safe space for people,” she said.
Onek also thinks that the first step is acknowledgement suggesting that “having brief conversations at the beginning of classes, and acknowledging that male students have an advantage” would help Urban become a better and safer space for female identifying students.
“Prioritize yourself, prioritize your learning,” said Wu. When I asked Wu specifically what advice she would give a female identifying student who is feeling uncomfortable in the classroom she shared some of her wisdom with me. “It is not your job to babysit the feelings of your teacher, that teacher is a professional, that teacher’s job is to handle their business and to make sure that everyone in their classroom is getting their education.”