Women’s voices matter

To begin: I am a woman teacher of introductory computer sciences. My two sections this semester have 150 students each. When I say there’s a “pretty good” gender balance, I mean it doesn’t take me too long to find women to make eye contact with while I’m lecturing. It’s definitely nowhere near 50-50, though.

I had a student come into my office hours on Monday and mention, in passing, how intimidating it was that whenever I’d ask a question there were a bunch of male hands that would immediately jump into the air. “The guys already know all this,” she told me. The thing is – they don’t. Most of the time their answers are incomplete or straight up wrong, but the hands are there. The hands always go up. Clearly they know.

I make an absolute point of calling on a woman if she raises her hand, because it’s important for other women – and men – to hear a female voice answering a question. But am I self-sabotaging? Are women afraid to raise their hands now because they know they’ll be called on? I don’t know. What I do know is that right now, the class is falling back into that depressing rut of “programming is for white and east Asian men”, and I feel like I’m already defeated.

3 thoughts on “Women’s voices matter

  1. To put your mind at ease, I wouldn’t worry too much about the students feeling targeted if they put their hand up; in theory they do so because they want to answer. But I agree that it can lead to just one confident woman raising her hand, which isn’t fair to the other students if you want to increase their engagement and role in the class.

    So possibly the problem is with the “hands up” part.

    In my classes I made a principle out of random sampling of students, and it worked well. The method of calling on students by name works best in a smaller venue than the auditorium, so you invent clever ways that you can arrange for more representative answer sampling. One approach is to designate a part of the room as the answer section for that day and everyone gets a turn. If they complain you can point out that this is part of how you run the class, you want to hear from everyone because that is how you know how well you are doing as a teacher, and that there is no shame in saying that you don’t know.

    Actually, I say those three things a lot in my classes. It can take a while for it to sink in, but the results are worth it.

    Good luck, and if you find a solution, please let us know.

  2. Generate a shuffled list of student names and just work your way down the list, one per question. Let the students know what you’re doing, that they know they could be called on at any time, and that they will at some point get their chance to shine.

  3. Alger has a good point that maybe the problem is the “hands up” part. You could take that idea a step further and think about how changing the way questions are asked could encourage participation from different students in the class. One example would be to present an exercise or question, give students time to consider, give the correct answer, and then solicit participation in explaining the answer. This approach would give any student that is coming into class with an idea of others knowing more a bit of a confidence boost before responding because she will know that she has the right answer.

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