After reading this excellent post on The Professor is In, I thought to myself that I wished someone had told me earlier in my graduate career to stop commenting in class like a girl.  When “girls” ask a question in class, they preface their inquiry with a qualification like, “This may be a basic question but…” or “I’m not really sure, but it seems to me…” or “Maybe everyone one else got this, but…”

Girls sabotage themselves in group settings because if they say something that doesn’t sound perfectly correct or brilliant, they can make it clear to others that they never had delusions of their own intelligence in the first place.  It is effectively saying to the world, “You can’t say that I’m not great because I’ve never claimed to be great.”  Or, if you want to be a little more charitable, perhaps you could argue that girls are trying to communicate to others that their ideas are provisional and open to collaboration and critique from others (as well as their own later revisions).

After a few years of graduate school, however, it becomes clear that everyone says incorrect things from time to time and all ideas are provisional.  When you frame all your comments in a hesitating fashion, most of your really great thoughts will be overlooked.  When you frame your comments in a confident fashion, there is a greater chance your thoughts will be taken seriously.  And, of course, only those thoughts deemed serious are respectfully debated and thoughtfully critiqued.

So when you have the impulse to qualify your comments with a self-sabotaging clause, try instead to say something like, “As a point of clarification…” or “I’m not convinced that ___.  Can you say more?”  Though it would be too much to claim that women merely need to change their speech patterns and they will begin to be treated equally in the classroom, it is true that women aren’t helping to advance the (uphill) battle for equality by speaking like children.  Speak like a grown woman who claims her own authority.

9 thoughts

  1. I was never socialized to blunt my comments with “this may just be a thought” isms and thus my comments in class were always met with rolled eyes and sighs, especially in high school and then in college, especially by men. I had another friend in college who was equally confident and who equally annoyed the class and was even told once by a professor that she was “intimidating” her classmates. Of course the same attitudes among men were seen as confident and intelligent and made people smile or laugh. Thus, like almost all things women face, it is a conundrum. A young woman in college could well be discouraged from participating in a confident and bold fashion if it means alienating her classmates (and sometimes even professors), but if she says everything with “everyone else may have gotten this but…” or “I don’t know like…” people will be equally annoyed and wonder why that “dumb girl” keeps talking in class.

    If women are being silenced at the high school and college level in class discussions, it’s no wonder the same thing will happen in graduate school.

    1. Yup. I’ve seen that too. I keep thinking the gender barrier is too much to overcome. Either you’re girly and you don’t get taken seriously. OR you are assertive, and you are interpreted as domineering. I keep hoping for credible models.

      1. This conversation about domineering women in the classroom is interesting to me. I honestly can’t think of one example of a dominant, assertive female graduate student acting so in the classroom. Before hearing your comments, I would have thought that the threat of being too dominant is only in one’s head. Have you, MCY, seen or heard about this happening in grad school? Perhaps all the “assertive” women are never encouraged to continue with schooling.

      2. Julia, I never felt silenced for being assertive or aggressive in graduate school, either (except in language classes which were sometimes majority undergraduate students). It was in college, though, that I could feel classmates responding negatively to my class discussions and I saw it done to other female classmates as well. Once in an undergrad LibTheo class there was a man and woman who often dominated class time with (very good!) discussion and debates. The man was clearly a hero type to the other students who would smile and laugh at his comments and the woman could barely open her mouth without audible sighs and visible eyerolling occurring, even though her comments were just as good and definitely more informed than the man’s. In office hours the professor told her to tone it down, even though she was never more aggressive than her male counterpart. She never said another word the rest of the semester and on a perhaps unrelated note she didn’t go to graduate school (but is flourishing in other things).

        So I think it’s definitely possible that women who speak assertively or confidently at the undergraduate level feel stunted and pressured by their environments which may prevent them from seeking graduate study or may even hurt their interest in the subject matter. Or they learn how to say things in question form or less confidently and feel more supported by the classroom.

  2. This is such a fascinating topic. In the same vein, I had a professor in college who wrote a dissertation on how women throughout history have written in the passive voice because they never felt they could claim active ownership of what they were writing. After learning about her dissertation, I changed my writing style completely. I’ll also add that during my undergrad/graduate experience, I didn’t feel the need to soften my comments. On reflection though, the reason I never felt pressured to do so was because I was blessed with several wonderful mentors who encouraged my confident thinking and expression. Interestingly, I’ve discovered that outside the academic world, I find myself more frequently using qualifiers to my statements, but in the broader hope of encouraging collaborative discussion.

  3. How about “Stop talking like a prisoner?” Or “Stop talking like an idiot?” Or “Stop talking like a child?” Why is it that “girl” is the problem adjective? There is nothing inherently wrong with talking like a girl – but these subtle cues to continue carrying that message keep it out there.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out, Cindy. What I was intending to convey was “Stop talking like a girl and start talking like a grown woman.”

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