As much as I would love to report that “gender doesn’t matter” when it comes to education, I must say that isn’t my experience with the subject. Gender is fairly fundamental to people’s identity, and so *of course* it is going to play a role in how people learn things. Just not in the ways that most people expect. Where it seems to impact things is in the expectations that the students have for themselves, and in the (hopefully) inadvertent bias that may show up for the teacher.
There are a few cultural differences that can lead to issues in a classroom. For one thing, men tend to interrupt more and “chime in” on lectures where women tend to wait and raise their hands a bit more. Which means that you may need to be aware of how class discussions run so you can get equal-ish participation during lectures.
Something that shocked the hell out of me the first time it happened, but I’ve also had a few women (try) to flirt with me in my role as instructor when they were being pressed for answers. I didn’t reenforce the behavior (watch your body language, and back up), but it IS something that happens from time to time. (Note: to any of my female students who read this, don’t try. I have a lady in my life, and she is probably cooler than you… so please don’t bother.) I’ve also had guys try physical intimidation tricks with me before too, which was almost comical. I don’t intimidate easily.
So here is my quick and dirty method for a gender balanced class.
Step 1: Set high expectations for everyone
Expect excellence and responsibility, and expect it from everyone. I love to start off during the first day of class talking about how excel, and how to earn bonus points. I also outline that I expect responsibility. I find that some people run afoul of stereotyped expectations: Asian kids and rich white boys will do well, and women will do poorly. My experience just doesn’t back that up, and I have gone back and double checked my test scores to confirm this.
Bias hurts everyone. It is also sneaky, so if you find yourself doing something with a bias don’t beat yourself up, just stop doing it.
Mediocre performance is what will get people by in a lot of places. I find that if you actually set higher goals and TELL them that you are raising the bar, then you will get exceptional performance. This also makes me happy that I teach where I do, because I hear my fellow teachers doing the same thing.
Step 2: Don’t be an asshat.
Don’t tell gender-based jokes in class. Ask questions of both genders (and make them the same caliber of question!). Switch up genders and pronouns in your examples. (I think I may have surprised some folks by having female mad-scientist story problem examples… but only the first time). And give your praise equally.
Mostly, treat everyone well. If you screw up or recognize that you were treating people different on the basis of their sex, change your behavior.
This may be hard for some folks to realize, but gender bias works both ways.
And now for a rant.
Let me be very clear: I consider myself a feminist. I recognize that women have been treated historically (and in some venues, STILL) as second class citizens. Which sucks. And I am proud and happy to be part of changing the cultural paradigms that make this happen. But, while growing up I have also heard some fantastically horrible things about men. (In all earnestness, I heard this a few times growing up: “All men are scum… except you Colin.”) Which is also a product of poor cultural programming for men too. As a guy, there are some horrible things that you are supposed to do under the guise of “manning up” or “being a man.” My understanding of the instruction to “man up” means to never show feelings or weakness, and in basing our sense of self-worth on financial success or physical prowess. And seriously ladies, when was the last time you bought a guy a drink without knowing him?
Okay… I’ve rambled enough for one day.
I have a class to get ready for. Lets just hope they are ready for me.