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Speak, woman!

In one of my seminars last week, all of the male students happened to leave the classroom during the break while a few women stayed behind. Our professor chatted casually with the three or four female students who felt no need to obey the call of nature (a rarity in a predominantly female three-hour seminar), and then, rising from her chair with an earnest expression, addressed us all very seriously. “Girls,” she said, “don’t be afraid to talk in class.”


These words, half encouragement and half rebuke, have become a surprisingly familiar refrain in my classes this semester. Three months ago I sat in a lecture room in Lewis Library listening to a panel of three men discuss contemporary political and religious issues related to the city of Jerusalem. Although the audience — about 10 students — had an even gender ratio, only men were asking questions. The conversation moved to Women of the Wall, a controversial Jerusalem-based prayer group, and I began to raise my hand to ask a question. I was preempted by one of the panelists who felt obliged to point out that the women in the room weren’t talking. He added that he often observed this dynamic in academic settings and wanted to make sure that women had a chance to participate.

I raised my hand — but much more self-consciously than I would have had he kept his observation to himself. All of the sudden, my act of joining the conversation was a statement about gender and equality. I became an unwilling representative of all women everywhere. My participation was the gift of the empathetic man at the front of the classroom who sensitively opened up a politically charged conversation to the overshadowed, intimidated girls. I walked out of the room feeling patronized and incensed. One of the female participants approached me and said she was puzzled by the panelist’s insistence that women speak up. She had not refrained from asking questions because of gender-related shyness. “I just didn’t have anything to say,” she explained.

I have heard speakers and teachers point out gender patterns in classroom settings three different times this year. Each time I come away with the same message: Women, speak up. Ask questions. Be confident. As a feminist, I should be celebrating this symptom of widespread awareness about classroom behavioral disparity. It’s an issue I care a lot about. Instead, I find myself oscillating between confusion, guilt and frustration: Confusion because I did not perceive a gender-equality problem where the speaker did, guilt for being part of the problem I failed to notice and frustration once I decide that the problem is, in these specific situations, more a result of the speaker’s hypersensitivity than of female academic insecurity. In the seminar described above, I had observed a general awkward restraint that day coming from most of my peers, but the lack of participation was in no way divided along X and Y chromosome lines. In a different course, a professor pointed out during her first lecture of the year that women were not asking questions. In her second lecture, only women asked questions. I half expected the professor to comment on the striking reversal, encouraging men to speak up — in the interest of gender parity, right? No such announcement was made.

There is a real problem in coed academic environments of women remaining silent because of intimidation and discomfort. I have personally experienced this phenomenon often enough to appreciate its potency. But intellectual insecurity is not the only reason women choose not to talk in lectures and precepts. In my experience, my female peers are much less likely to participate solely for the sake of participation. We tend to speak when we have something worthwhile to say, and we tend to think before we speak. Has our sensitivity toward women’s behavior led us to the point where we are demanding that they speak when they have nothing to say and ask questions that have not been carefully thought out? If anything, we should be discouraging men from these behaviors, not pushing women toward them.

Dear faculty and staff, and all feminists of either gender who are on their guard against a harmful gender divide in classrooms: Thank you for your vigilance, but please be as sensitive to the implications of your gender-based public reprimands as you are to the ratio of men and women actively participating in class. When authority figures urge women to speak up in class, they imply that female students who do not ask questions are guilty of perpetuating an academic gender gap or worse, that they are the pitiful victims of a society which programs them to fear and give ground to their male peers. In some situations, this may actually be true, but in others, women’s relative silence is a fluke or a result of much more complex factors than socialized female timidity. We deserve to be treated as individuals, not as a composite species suffering from academic disabilities. So the next time not enough women are participating, wait a minute or a day to make sure your diagnosis is correct. Better yet, ask them why they’re not speaking. You may be surprised by the answer.

Tehila Wenger is a politics major from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at