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My school reports are full of comments from teachers saying that I should contribute more to classroom discussions. When I was 11, the headmaster at my new secondary school held weekly discussion lessons with every class. I used to get so worried that I was going to be asked to say something I told my mother. She asked what the next discussion subject was – testing on animals - and we researched it together and planned something for me to contribute. I repeated it, word for word in the lesson. It wasn’t earth-shattering or particularly profound, but I left that lesson on such a high.
Many studies have concluded that it is common for girls and women to remain silent – in the classroom, lectures and the workplace. It has been suggested that if a female student does not speak up in the first couple of weeks on her university course she will never do it. There are many reasons cited as to what causes this unwillingness to speak up. Most studies conclude that it is simply a result of years of conditioning in a society that expects women to behave in a certain way.
Rather than dwell on the causes here, I want to offer a few tips to girls and women on how to make this easier for themselves:
It is easier to speak up if you have something ready to say, like my cruelty-free make-up comment in that lesson when I was 11. Yes, my heart was beating so loud I am surprised anybody could hear me, but I just went into auto-pilot because I knew what I was going to say. I didn’t have to worry about the subject or the sentence composition.
There is no harm in saying ‘I agree with Lesley when she said that animal testing should be banned and ….’. Many women do not speak up because somebody else (usually a male colleague) has already said what they wanted to say. Whilst I hate people repeating themselves, making people aware of your opinion is great, and if you can elaborate a bit too all the better. Just because you took time to think about the subject before making your comment does not mean that it is not worth saying.
Ask for support from each other. There is a perceived ‘safety in numbers’ thing going on. It has been proved that women contribute more to discussions when they are in small groups. By saying something like ‘Sarah, I remember you said earlier, when we were talking that you always buy your makeup from a special shop because they have a cruelty free policy …’. That makes it feel more like a conversation between the two of you, that you are inviting the rest of the room to.
Lecturers are only human – their instinct is to keep the lecture moving and interesting. This means that they are more likely to accept the answers from the students who rush to raise their hands, or even just shout out. They will not necessarily seek input from the more reserved members of the class. Speak to the lecturer in private and let them get to know you. You could even explain how you need encouragement to get involved in discussions. Give them permission to call your name out in lectures. Speaking up will be easier if you know them a bit better and they know you.
It is common for girls to get interrupted by boys. If you see that happening in a lecture, try to bring the discussion back round to what they were saying like this ‘I think Hannah still has something to say …’ or ‘As Hannah was saying earlier ...’. Hopefully they will return the favour in the future if necessary.
Outspoken female students are often teased or regarded with contempt by other women. This often stems from one’s own fear of being unable to compete. This only encourages other females to remain silent. Remember the outspoken ones are probably conquering the same concerns you have. Watch them, learn from them, support them.
It is common for lecturers (even female ones) to give more attention to the male students. If you see that happening point it out to them after the lecture. They will probably not know that they are doing it – they have been subjected to the same societal influences as the rest of us. Encourage them to wait a little longer for responses to their questions in lectures.
Going back to that discussion at school when I was 11, it is not an approach I used much in my school career, something I regret today. I spent my university career not talking in lectures, and avoiding seminars where I knew I was expected to speak. I know I missed out on a lot, and that I didn’t get the best of my time at university. I found my voice much later, but the longer you leave it the harder it becomes to speak-up.
I want all those girls starting out on their university careers over the next few weeks to recognise that they do have something worthwhile to add to the discussions, and to force themselves to speak up. They will not regret it.
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