Friday, June 20, 2014

The Gender Dynamics of Female Professors in.... Yes, John, you have something to add?

This article by Soraya Chemaly about women being interrupted in the workplace and the phenomenon of "mansplaining" is fun and familiar to all women. It made me think about being interrupted in the classroom. A lot of research has been done on gender dynamics in elementary and secondary classrooms. I don't know any research on college-level gender dynamics, but this isn't my field. I'm sure it's out there.

From my personal experience, I'd make three points about classroom interruptions:

1) Not all interruptions are equal. More men than women "interrupt" me in the classroom, but most of those "interruptions" are useful. They are requests for clarification, or they bring up issues that are important and relevant. I wish all of my students -- men and women -- were willing to "interrupt" in this manner, but men are over-represented in this category, probably because women are socialized to sit quietly, lest they appear rude.

The problem is with "unproductive interruptions", where the student is showing disrespect (either overtly or subtly, by failing to recognize their relative ignorance on a subject), or trying to score points by sounding smart, or just likes to hear their own voice. My favorite recent example of an "unproductive interruption": a student stopped my lecture to tell me I was wrong to say that primates show the primitive mammalian trait of five fingers, since the thumb doesn't count as a finger.

2) While a man is more likely to interrupt than a woman, unproductive interruptions aren't a masculine trait. They are an over-confident, clueless student trait. Students who make unproductive interruptions often don't understand basic concepts, but don't realize it. A number of studies have shown that men are more likely than women to be overconfident. Since men are more likely to interrupt than women (due to socialization), and clueless men are more likely to be overconfident than clueless women, most of my unproductive interruptions come from men. As Chemaly quotes Rebecca Solnit in her article, men who make unproductive interruptions are at the “intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.” 

3) Social dynamics between students and professors don't just reflect gender. Class, race, and physical traits are also relevant. I find that students from (as far as I can tell) lower socioeconomic classes are less likely to interrupt. Students of color are less likely to interrupt. This reflects larger power dynamics in our society. Also, the physical presence of a woman can make a big difference in how she is treated. I am very tall, large-framed, and don't project a conventional feminine facade. Comparing notes with other women, I don't have as many problems with students interrupting me in class, trying to pressure me into changing their grades, or trying to intimidate me. I once co-taught a class with a petite and more feminine colleague. Although I'm a push-over and she is not, all of the students went to her to ask for deadline extensions, re-grades, and extra credit opportunities. I have twice had students try to subtly intimidate me. In both cases they were football players, and in both cases it took me days to realize what they had been trying to do. Frankly, I'm just not that intimidated by someone who is shorter than I am.

Anyone else have stories about interruptions and "mansplaining" in the classroom?


  1. Hi Rebecca,
    I found this post fascinating and it caused me to reflect on interruptions in my ESL classroom. I teach academic English to international students at upper intermediate level. Both male and female overconfident, underachievers have presented in my classes, but on the whole, men are far more likely to speak up, even taking into consideration that women are under-represented. They make jokes when they are not following, constantly question my knowledge of grammar and are more likely to muck about and disturb the class (these are young adults, by the way, usually in their mid-20s). The women in my classes need to be encouraged to speak up and this does seem to originate in their country-of-origin culture and education system. I am very conscious of giving each student time and space to speak, but the interrupters and explanation demanders do seem to be male.

  2. HI, Victoria,

    That's a good point: major differences in cultural background will also be a factor in how people relate to female professors. As our campus increases the percentage of international students, that will become more important for me, too. This is such a complex issue. We tend to simplify it by just talking about, basically, white middle-class Americans, but there are so many other things to consider.