Women versus Men in Higher Education: My Pedagogical Experiences Highlighted

By: Rhonda Nemri

Education is around us everywhere. We become educated through the many stages of our lives. Some have attended pre-school or day care all the way through their elementary education of 8th grade. Then we move along to four years of high school, and students become part of a different pedagogical way of learning. Students attending classes for 8 hours a day, forming long-term friendships (or not), sports, lunch, student body activities that bond the high school together and finally faculty and staff that are there. Then these students graduate and move along to higher education: college. College becomes a new experience for these students. For some it is a way to party and meet new people, and others solely believe that the college education is a key component in their success, with some slight partying and meeting new people. College becomes part of your new identity. These students elementary and high school days are over and are becoming a new person or still holding on to their high school years. However, as students become acclimated in their new classrooms, the classroom climate is different from the average high school classroom. You are now left alone, and possibly know no one around you. This tends to be one of the scarier moments when first attending as a freshmen college student. Nonetheless, the first day of classes is an experience that one wouldn’t forget. All the clicks you were once part of in high school is gone, and you are now on your own.

As an educator in higher education, teaching college students in the communication field has struck a very interesting nerve in my body. I notice many different things when lecturing, doing group activities, assignments, and class discussions. Getting a college degree has been and I am sure will always be one accomplishment in one’s life that is very dear to them. Including myself, when I first received my bachelor’s degree a few years ago, I felt it was something that I worked hard for and had many sleepless nights. However, that accomplishment was something I can still remember being a great step and pushed me forward to attend graduate school and become a college instructor. Being a teacher was something that I always wanted to become. At a young age I used to pretend with my younger sisters to play school. I was the teacher often, and they were my students. It felt great to feel as if I were in charge, and actually gave out assignments that they’ve done. Of course it was silly assignments, and from what I remember assignments pertained rewriting sentences from a book, and spelling words. At times pretend teaching seemed real for me, and the authoritative figure that I was to my sisters as their play teacher is what made me feel good.

As I compare my pretend teaching “position” to my now teaching position, being an authoritative figure and just that is not on my agenda as an educator. However, holding the authoritative position in the classroom is something that one must pertain, but to not only use your legitimate power to get attention. I have been teaching now for almost 2 years, and I just can’t seem to stop thinking about women in the classroom versus men in the classroom.  I will be discussing my experience being a young woman educator to college students, women and men in the classroom through my experiences, and how it has opened my eyes constructing new pedagogical ways of teaching.

My Teaching Experience and Image

A couple of years ago, I was just finishing up my Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations. My ability to communicate and become open-minded has been very much influenced by my peers and professors at the university. Standing in front of the class room was not an issue for me; however the thought roaming through my head was “are they going to even listen to me?” Being in the communication field has also pushed me to want to learn more. Therefore teaching a hybrid communication course is very much something I always wanted to do. This course consists of interpersonal communication theories, small group communication, persuasion, and how to research and construct an informative and persuasive speech. I constantly dreamed about my teaching position, and of course my sub-conscious tends to show me a vision in my dreams that doesn’t necessarily make sense or even true, however it did let me see what could potentially be a classroom. Being a young woman I believe has been hard trying to be heard and known for what I believe in. Being young and an educator to students whose ages range from 18-45 is one of the difficult tasks as an educator. Number one, the young students will look at me as their friend, and second the older student may tend to first stereotypically judge me as very young and uneducated, or someone who can’t possibly teach them more than what they already know because of my age. But it is interesting to point out that I never ever revealed my age to students. I kept that a mystery to them. Every semester when the first day of classes begins, my students tend to see two different people from the first day to the last day. My authoritative persona is definitely out. As much as I don’t like to intimidate students, I tend to come off that way because of my straightforwardness on the first day. Reading my policies out loud to them they tend to give me blank stares or are really scared because they are freshmen. I like to add a little sarcasm and humor on the first day. Humor tends to give them an ease, but at the same time the legitimate power is definitely there to establish a sense of stability in the classroom so that they don’t think I am just a young woman who doesn’t care for them. I find that my techniques for the first day have worked for me in my teaching career. I believe that as they view me as a woman and educated they tend to believe in my ability to help them with their college career. Although teaching is not all peaches and cream. Being a woman educator is not always positive because I do come across those “Wow I can’t believe they just said that to me” moments. Male and female students can look at me in different ways. I can definitely see the difference in the two, especially when they approach me. My philosophy in teaching is fairness. I try to be as fair as possible when it comes to both sexes. However not everyone is the same, and some come off as aggressive towards me when they don’t like what they hear.

I had many unusual and great experiences throughout the semesters that I have taught. One specific memory that stuck to me was from a male student who asked me a question that made me really think. As I was handing back their group projects, he asked me “How do you feel being a young woman teacher and handing back bad grades?… wouldn’t that make people hate you because you are a young woman?” At first I just didn’t think I could respond without seeming too aggressive, but of course I tried to handle it and made him understand that I grade everyone whether young or old the same way, everyone is treated fair, and me being a young woman shouldn’t  affect the way people perceive me in the class. From that moment I believe I put him in a place that allowed him to think about his question and my response. Of course I didn’t say everything I wanted to say to him, and I hated that feeling because there was so much I wanted to say. I don’t think students understand how much they impact teachers. I always tell them I am just like you: human. I am not a robot and yes I enjoy music, shopping, dining out, etc. The way they impact me in the classroom helps with my teaching and how I handle situations.

I am not sure how students really deep down feel about me, however student evaluations have helped me see their point of view. I get a lot of good ones, some are okay, and others are angry at me because of the grades they are receiving in the class. You can’t win them all, and this is something I had trouble figuring out because I wanted to at first win them all. I want them to all be successful, however that is ultimately their choice and how much effort they put in. My students do know I am into feminism, and that I am a feminist. It’s interesting to see that some of them are actually interested in feminism, and think that they offend me when they say something to me face-to-face that deal with women. I appreciate comments and suggestions. I don’t get offended or insulted unless they blatantly want to offend me on purpose or are just purely ignorant. Fortunately I haven’t come across a student who has insulted me. I am sure they might talk about me behind my back but that’s their choice. However, with all the great feelings I have comes with bad feelings. My image is a key component to how students view me. I have long dark hair, curvy, and petite, 5’4, and do have exotic features.

I dress professional most the time, unless it is an off day, and this is something that I believe has helped with how students view me. There is a small activity I do for perception and students have to guess and answer questions about me to see how they perceive me. This leads into my lecture of perception, since we tend to stereotype and judge others before we know them. I ask a question that’s states, “list the jobs you think I used to have”. The amounts of responses are funny at times, however they only viewed me in jobs that women tend to be a part of. They put careers such as, nurse, teacher, librarian, secretary, retail, and cashier. These responses were anonymous, so some felt like putting jobs that were definitely demeaning and sexist. But that’s just what I expect because it’s the phase of being funny, cool, and wanted to get a reaction from me. I tell them I will read off some of the responses, so they think I will mention the bad ones too, but I don’t give them that satisfaction.

Being a woman in the classroom has also struck some interesting thoughts. Male students will look at women teachers as either a sex object or motherly. But because women are often seen as either those two then this then occurs in the classroom. I find that if a woman is an older teacher, students will view her as more motherly than sexy, because the older woman teacher is symbolically representing a motherly figure to them, and is possibly the same age as their mother. When looking at older teachers (40-60s), students will have their own perceptions of who she is. She is not looked at the same way as a younger teacher.  But ultimately they create their own judgments and perceptions of women teachers. As women teachers, we have to have this image and unfortunately we have to meet some of the expectations of how we should look. If a male teacher is dressed down with jeans and a T-shirt or polo, students’ questioning his credibility is rare or not even questioned. But because they already view a male teacher as an expert and holds power, they don’t look at his image as a key factor in his abilities to teach. Our attire is very much part of our nonverbal. Our appearance projects a message to our students. Because we are educators we have to look presentable. I am not stating that male teachers don’t get judged because of how they dress, because they do. However, it is less likely in comparison to a woman teacher. I remember on a day I didn’t feel like wearing heels, I wore flats. I wanted to be comfortable because on that particular day students were presenting their projects. A female student gazed at me up and down and stated, “So you aren’t wearing heels today?” As if I am only supposed to wear heels. I kind of chuckled and said “Yes, I wanted to be comfortable”. I am sure male students look at my image and how I dress. But I feel sometimes the clothes I wear I am considered a “fashionable teacher.” Yes I love clothes and looking nice, but I don’t want to be solely known for my clothes. I usually get comments about my clothes from student evaluations, which should evaluate my teaching, and the course. But I get those evaluations that state “I loved the way you dressed up”, “I never seen you wear the same outfit more than once, you looked amazing”, or “Sometimes you dressed inappropriate”. I didn’t understand how I dressed inappropriate and wasn’t sure what they meant by that because I always dressed professionally, or dressed down on certain days because of the comfort level that called for those days of teaching. These students that comment on my clothes just seen me as a manikin advertising the newest trends. Then I question is it the age and the maturity level of these students? It is quite possible that it is, however I am convinced that my clothes and how I look has a big impact on my credibility and abilities to teach as a woman.

 

Women versus Men in the Classroom

I want to now move on to discussing male versus female students through my teaching experience. The ratio of male student versus female students in my course is interestingly low. In my courses it is predominantly women. This is not surprising since more women attend college than men.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “between 1999 and 2009, overall college enrollment increased by 38 percent, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million. But, over that time span, the number of enrolled females climbed by 40 percent, versus 35 percent for men” (as seen in International Business Times). But from what I have observed in my classes, I tend to see female students different from men in how they react or respond in the classroom. In my classes I try to build a positive climate. Therefore, I allow questions to be asked, interactions with me during class and office hours, and students to get to know each other (sometimes end up best friends because of my course). I encourage students to speak up and express their selves in my class. It is not straight lecture which is always great because not only am I educating them, they educate me too during class discussion on certain topics.

During my lectures I tend to ask questions to the entire class. But what I noticed is that female students tend to mumble their answers or barely speak up. They sound unsure of what they are answering. At times when they mumble their words, I ask them to speak up. Usually they answer vaguely and don’t expand on their answers. My job in that situation is to help them expand and answer without being vague. When comparing a male student in that situation, they are very talkative and expand on their answers. Even when they answer the question wrong, they still feel confident about their answer. Male students tend to dominate discussions, whether there are more males or fewer males in the class. At times while a female is answering the question, but not accurately, a male student will jump to answer the question. This then causes women to not speak up again because she got shut down by the male student. When women speak in class they feel they must have impression management. Women have been taught to become silent when a man is present. By being taught this way, doesn’t help when she is either in the workplace or at school. Even though some women are very outspoken in their personal lives, by being a student they still feel the need to not speak up because they believe they are silly, vulnerable, and will be judged.

I also notice when a female students answers a question quietly and I ask them to repeat it they are afraid to answer it again. They believe that they are wrong, or make it seem that they didn’t even answer the question. They get easily embarrassed and shy. However, when female students turn in their assignments, their writing is absolutely amazing. They elaborate and have numerous pages of worthy analysis/discussion of theory/concepts from the course. Male students tend to be short in their writing, they are vague, and do not really expand on their thoughts. Some male students are also intelligent and share a lot with me too in their writing, but those male students are the ones who hardly speak up in class. But when they do answer questions, they don’t quite answer how a female does. They expand, and have provided good examples. Not saying female students are all like this, however, this is how they are the majority of the time. During class activities, I put students in groups together. It is random all the time, so this means it could be all male students together, all female students together, or mixed. What I notice is when all female students are together; they are talkative and manage to do the activity great. Conversely, when you stick a male student in that equation, female students are very quiet, and hardly speak up. Also one must think about the beginning of a semester. When you generally have students who always participate in the beginning of the course, the students who don’t normally speak up feel the need to not ever speak up since the talkative students will do that for them. However, I tend to pick students to respond when there is silence. If a student has talked too much I say, “Thank you for your willingness to answer, let’s give someone else a chance”.  The one thing that I am willing to do is help a student figure out the answer, and wait for them to answer. I don’t rush them and seem impatient. When a female student is chosen to answer, she seems flustered and begins to panic. Starts with an “umm” and pauses a few times, and then gives her two-word answer. When I ask her to elaborate she begins the whole cycle again, but this time I have given her a better opportunity to show her competence in the class by providing better examples.

When female students talk to me privately they are very open, and speak up. But still have tendencies to be shy and unsure of how they speak. Male students hardly ever see me during my office hours, and if they do it is to ask questions about their grades. I tend to get female students ask about assignments and how they can improve. This is great and what I want them to do. I believe that when I put myself in these women’s situation, I was the same exact way when I was an undergraduate student. I hardly ever spoke up, and if I did I was completely shy because I was afraid of what people would think of me. I barely participated and was always observing the course. Anytime there was a question asked I always formulated the answer in my head, and when no one would answer it, I still wouldn’t answer it even if I knew it was correct. I hated myself for it because I didn’t show my competence during class discussions, but only through my writing. I see myself in these woman students, and I do not get angry when they don’t speak up, because I’ve gone through with it too. Nonetheless, seeing woman student’s shut down because of males in the classroom is what makes me passionate about changing that kind of atmosphere in the classroom.

My Pedagogical Ways

Being an educator was something I always wanted to be as I mentioned. However, the reasons of being an educator when I was younger are definitely for different reasons now. I had an imagination turned into a passion.  I had no idea how I was going to be as a college teacher, but I believe this is my niche. I will always have great and bad moments when teaching, but I believe that’s what makes me want to be great at my job. I learn from each bad moment, and make it a learning experience for me. Even though I can get frustrated at times, I still see myself being an educator. I hope to encourage female students to want to be strong and open-minded and have a voice in the classroom and outside of the classroom. I feel the person I was as an undergraduate student has changed because I was encouraged by my professors to have a voice and to be heard even if I answer wrong. I know that men will always try to dominate the classroom with their side comments, answers, try to be cool and fit in, however I know that they feel they have to be that way because they believe it is their nature to be this way. Every class is different, and every person is different. I learned that I cannot be the same exact person in every class and that I have to be what I feel suits the class. Some classes are overly talkative, and others are very quiet. The moment those students leave my course at the end of the semester, my heart sinks, because I do tend to have the “motherly” actions of wanting to hold their hand throughout the way. Even though I believe I am not trying to mother them on purpose, it’s just my tendencies of wanting them to be successful and close to perfect.  But then again, I am happy that the semester is over and a new group of students come in to teach me something new. I love the comments at the end that state “You seemed intimidating in the beginning, but after I got to know you, I knew that wasn’t the case and I could talk to you anytime”. These comments I am grateful for and hope to reach out and make a difference, whether they tell me or not. The fact that women attend college more than men is amazing to me, but still we shouldn’t forget that women no matter what degree they obtain, women still get paid less than men. This is something that women have dealt with, and probably will deal with if change is not done. Being a woman and an educator has taught me to be a strong individual and has helped me through understanding people better because of the diversity in the classroom. Incoming freshmen students are not used to the college experience, so they think they have to sit in the classroom and follow policies, raise their hand, and only speak when told to. Then there is returning students who are afraid they are doing things wrong because they haven’t been in school for a while.

Teaching is not about dominating someone and showing them whose boss, it is allowing a student to become something more than what is expected from them. I will always have students who are ready for college, not ready for college, undecided about their destiny, or just there because they think it is the right thing to do after high school. With all types of ways students are I have learned that I can’t save all of them, however I can try. Understanding how the classroom works is something that educators need to know in order to successfully enlighten students. I know I am not an expert, and I need to learn more about teaching, and I am willing to. Some women whether young or older, will always feel the need to not speak up or be confident in what they say. I hope that one day this is not the case for them and that they express themselves with or without men present in the room. Even though I teach communication, I do understand that other fields have similar ways of how men and women are in the classroom or workplace. This definitely occurs in the male dominated careers such as engineering or mathematics. Everyone will find their way in this long journey. Some find it sooner than others and some find it later. I believe that everyone has a journey they are on, it just depends how bad they want to accomplish their wants and needs. I am definitely still on my journey, and once that journey finishes, another one will definitely come. So far teaching has become one of my journeys that I cherish deeply.

References

International Business Times. Why Are More Woman Than Men Going to College? Web. http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/262161/20111206/women-men-gender-gap-college-university-degrees.htm?page=all

8 Comments

  1. June 1, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Your experiences echo mine almost exactly. My students also wonder my age, and because I am short (5’2″) and female, they test my authority. Each semester I have to establish that right off or things go wrong very quickly. In my classes, I actually have more men than women, but like you described, the women tend to speak more softly and less often. And yes, teachers are human, not robots. We have feelings too!

    • feministtalk said,

      June 1, 2012 at 8:17 pm

      Yes I find that height also plays a role in this too. I remember one time when I didnt wear heels in one class I felt my authority went down, and students weren’t really listening as much compared to when I am in heels. They have expectations from us, and when we dont meet them 100% they judge us as weird, or different. But I love teaching, and I am glad you added your input 🙂

  2. June 29, 2012 at 5:51 am

    Not to leave so many comments on your blog…but very incidentally, I had the opportunity to substitute teach calculus this week. It was a lot of fun. I’m even holding a tutoring session tomorrow with the students. Anyway, this post is very interesting observation and feedback. The dynamic is somewhat fascinating how it works, although I regret the drawbacks and negative parts that women instructors seem to often have to go through more than men. But most all of the best teachers I ever had at every level were women.

    • feministtalk said,

      June 29, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      All comments are welcomed! Thank you for providing feedback on my writing. I am glad you thought this was interesting. This is something I am passionate about, and when I teach I cant help but notice these things that strongly affect my teaching style and perception of students. I think each student I meet, they teach me something, and I dont think they realize how much they inspire me. I get some bad ones that just think college is a breeze. I finally get to see what I havent seen when I was an undergrad student, and it amazes me that I can actually see it and experience it. Sadly, I do go through some days when students look at me as just a woman who is pretty and dresses nice. I just recently got my student evaluations for this past Spring semester. Just as I was reading them I got about 4 evaluations that stated how nice I dressed and how fashionable I was. Which is interesting because It just gave me validation that what I wrote in this post is true. 🙂 Thanks again

      • June 29, 2012 at 7:51 pm

        Your replies are making it very interesting to dialogue on these things. You seem to make comments that resonate with my experience. Of course, not that I was a woman who dressed pretty, haha, but being a teacher in different arenas, and being a keen observer of perception, reaction, nuance, etc, it’s a little organic and fluid in certain ways when teaching. I also believe there’s a point where you maintain certain lines of inflexibility, not for the sake of being staunch and non-understanding, but rather in ways to create an atmosphere of stability and respect, a structure that makes the students feel secure, even the ones that may be resistant.

        Whenever I have had ladies seemingly connect to me in a way that makes me feel like it has something to do with my looks and demeanor as a man, beyond the professionality of my teaching, I try to handle it in a way that deflects that attention and tries to gently steer things towards the subject matter. Ah, you know how it is, I’m sure. You do the best with it that you can, and take the rest with a grain of salt, so to speak.

  3. July 18, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    This was very interesting. I’ve finished my first year at uni in the UK this year and I can say that I’m definitely one of the female students who never puts up their hand and only answers questions when forced. Yet, I’m pretty confident in my writing and get good grades. I’m not sure why but I’ve always been like that, prefering to let others do the talking. I read a post on analyfe’s blog the other day about introversion, very interesting – http://analyfe.com/2012/07/15/courageous-introversion/ which considers the advantages of being shy, especially in public.
    As for lecturers/teachers appearences in a way it are important (as it is in many jobs) as it helps students to take them seriously. Dressing nicely and professionally suggests you’re confident and know what you’re talking about. Also I find that looking nice gives me confidence. I’m not sure about others but I’m much more likely to pay attention to a lecturer who looks alert, and I suppose clothes are part of that image.

    • feministtalk said,

      July 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm

      Yes, I used to be the student that didn’t speak, but Ibelieve teaching has taught me to do otherwise. I think image plays a huge rule in how we project ourselves, and adds to our credibility. What really intrigues me is that some students evaluate my clothing more than my actually teaching methods or evaluations of the course. So it is interesting to observe these things, and I constantly have new experiences that I question. Thank you for your comment.

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