Speak Up and Be Counted: Being a Woman in the Classroom

Dear Grad School Diary,

I used to have a hard time speaking up in class. I was that kid in elementary and middle school whose report card read: “She is very bright and does well in class. But she needs to participate more.” I’ve come a long way since then, especially since I gave myself permission to believe that I can contribute to a discussion without knowing absolutely everything. Still, I feel that anxiety-driven hyperawareness of the flow of discussion in class. This week, I noticed something strange: I wasn’t getting the opportunity to speak.

At first I thought that maybe the professors were purposefully trying to give me time to simply listen and absorb during my first quarter or year as a PhD student. After all, I’m the youngest graduate student (22) in my department. Still, it’s disappointing to work so hard to speak up, then not have the chance, and ruminate for the rest of the day on what you had wanted to say. So I kept my eyes open as I attended a paper workshop and a graduate student conference, and I began to realize that I wasn’t alone. On the whole, female graduate students–particularly young women–were receiving far fewer opportunities to ask questions and give comments.

Here are a few concrete situations that I experience/observed which reinforce casual and often unconscious biases against women in academia:

Discussants mostly call on male students.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. I kept a tally of the students who were called upon to speak, and that group was 70% male. The fact of the matter here is that female grad students are dispreferred when it comes to being chosen to contribute.

Discussants mostly call on professors.

This is a trickier situation. I understand that professors’ comments are probably most valuable to the discussant in workshop and conference settings. Moreover, in this case  the professors speaking were overwhelmingly female and listening to these astute, successful female scholars is inspiring, there are a few concerning things at play here.

First, studies have shown that women in academia perform more internal service work than their male counterparts. Academic service work can include serving on hiring and admission committees (internal service) or serving on the boards of professional organizations (external service). Service work is unpaid, and women tend to perform more the former type which is less visible/”valuable” for promotions. Female professors may find it hard to say “no” to service positions and want to be seen as “team players.” After all, internal service is what keeps the department running and helps the academic family (e.g. grad students) to grow and succeed. This phenomenon is worthy of further study and is a problem itself.

Second, the purpose of such events is to give grad students the chance to develop their skills. The workshop that I went to is part of my department’s “research focus group,” which is meant to provide grad students with the opportunity to learn from professors and for professional development. Similarly, graduate conferences allow grad students to participate at all levels of an academic conference as organizer, speaker, discussant, and audience member. But if professors are prioritized in these situations, they become little more than another spectator sport for grad students. There needs to be a balance where grad students can learn from but not be overshadowed by their mentors.

Participants make more than one comment when given the floor.

Assuming now that male grad students and professors are most often giving the chance to speak, the problem is compounded when they use the opportunity to make serial comments. Events like workshops and conferences have a finite amount time available for discussion. When people who have the floor grandstand or indulge their curiosity to the point that the group discussion becomes a one-on-one dialogue, then a few voices end up monopolizing the talk-time instead of spreading the opportunity to speak more equitably.

Male students interrupt (and female students don’t).

Several studies have supported the claim that men interrupt much more than women do. Due to socialization, not nature, women are typically disposed to be ‘listeners.’ The ability to listen, to absorb and synthesize, is a great asset. But because of this tendency, we tend to rob ourselves and to be robbed by others when we don’t speak up. It might be uncomfortable–it’s certainly uncomfortable for me–but to level the playing field we need to speak up for ourselves and our ideas. If we are going to be successful as scholars and professors ourselves, then we need to get comfortable with commanding attention and respect without fear of being “rude.”

Female students cede their opportunities.

There were a few times that a female grad student was given the floor but they told a male student or a professor, each time it was for someone who had already gotten the chance to speak) to go ahead and speak instead. For me, I think about doing this when I feel like what I have to say is not important or not a good enough question. Then later I kick myself because someone asks the same question and something good comes out of the discussion. We have to fight the urge to censure ourselves and give up opportunities, even relatively little ones likes asking a question at a conference, because we aren’t doing ourselves any favors. No one will thank or promote us for our silence.

Assumptions that younger (female) graduate students do not have the same professional experience as their peers.

I attended the first local graduate conference of the year at UCSB. It was focused on Korean studies, a field generally outside the scope of my own research but still very interesting, relevant, and certainly necessary for East Asian studies. One of the first-year PhD students in my cohort was invited to present because he had a ready-made paper to present on a topic related to Korea. During a break between talks, the head of my department and I were talking about how well the conference was going and how proud we were of my colleague. It was then that my professor made the comment: “Hopefully today you’ve gotten a taste of what it will be like when you get to present at a conference like this.” I gave an awkward, non-committal chuckle and my professor walked about to speak with someone else. I didn’t know how to tell my professor that I had already in fact presented at four such conferences. Actually, all but one of them were certainly more high-profile than the Korea conference. I felt stung. Did my professor assume that I didn’t have conference experience because of my age? Because I got my Masters at the same time as my BA? I had thought that my professors would generally know of my accomplishments since they had reviewed my application and found me competitive with older applicants. I’m still not really sure why my professor underestimated me, and it bothers me that I couldn’t tell her that I did have conference experience. That brings me to my last point.

Female graduate students do not advertise their achievements.

Why can’t we talk about our achievements? Why did I have to fight the urge to delete that sentence I just wrote above about having presented at great conferences? In a profession that is all about the CV, why can’t I talk about mine? For me, it has something to do with a sense of modesty. I don’t want people to think that I’m arrogant, and I’m very aware that I’m young and I haven’t yet accomplished all the things that my older peers have. But I have had some amazing opportunities to do great things, things to be proud of! I have presented in an international symposium. I have won awards. I am published. I have written for Chinese national television. And I am proud of all of that. It’s not crime to say it out loud.

I think that humility is important–god knows there are some big egos in academia. But sometimes I catch glimpses of this culture of humility in academia, which I think contributes to imposter syndrome, in which we devalue our own work and competency and praise others’ with a grace that we do not also afford ourselves. Female grad students should be able to proudly talk about their achievements– conference presentations,  publications, leadership roles–just as much as the problems we’re facing. I think that kind of honesty and confidence would do us all a world of good.

There is one thing that I observed which gave me hope. A more senior grad student, Lisa, noticed that a first-year PhD student Kacy had been raising her hand for several rounds of questions in the paper workshop. I saw Lisa signal to the male students around her, who had each already spoken a few times, to hang back this time and let Kacy ask her question. They didn’t get the message, and Kacy never got to speak.

I wanted to document these little moments that I witnessed this week because I hope that by improving awareness we can improve the problem. We need more people like Lisa who keep an eye out for the youngsters and the ladies, but us ladies and youngsters also need to be aware that there is often a wall between us and what we want, and we need to speak up about it. Consider this my first speech act.


Ginger Grad



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