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Speaking out on speaking up

In her column last Thursday, Tehila Wenger argued that the reasons behind “women’s relative silence” in class are nuanced and complex. Faculty, among others, shouldn’t assume when a girl in class doesn’t speak up that it’s due to decades of women being brainwashed into timidity. I agree that it would be a mistake for faculty to unhesitatingly assume these gender stereotypes are true. However, no matter how legitimate these women’s rationales for silence are, as Wenger acknowledged, they do “speak” to how genders tend to approach class participation differently. Rightly or wrongly, class participation is important. In certain classes, it is a significant component in determining success in the course. Thus, these gender differences in behavior can create a greater problem than Wenger recognizes.

As Wenger noted, it seems that women tend to speak up more when they believe they have “something worthwhile to say” and not merely for the sake of participation itself. This sounds reasonable. But are women being too self-critical about the worthiness of their thoughts? Is this silence stifling the free flow of ideas? Preventing a synergy of inspiration?

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Of course, it is a generalization that women speak less in class. There are plenty of women who defy this assumption. But whether or not the women who fall into this category are the majority, it seems to be a legitimate problem, at least in certain situations. It is thus worthy of thoughtful discussion, so long as it is clear that these gender generalizations do not necessarily apply across the board, as that would be a gross misrepresentation of the problem.

The problem exists in coed environments from classrooms to the business conference table, when men dominate the discussion. Whether or not they have something new to add to the conversation, in general men seem more willing to participate. Once again, this varies from person to person but seems to occur often enough to create a real dichotomy between male and female participation; women speak less, therefore, it looks as though women are too timid to speak, even if that isn’t true.

If we acknowledge that women feeling that they have nothing to say is a legitimate reason not to speak up, but men indeed do speak up even when they are not adding much value to the conversation, then we either have to accept the fact that men are just going to speak up more because they feel that their comments are worthwhile, or we have to educate them to be more cautious about participation and only join in the discussion when they have something valuable to add. Wenger suggested that she disagreed that women should be encouraged to raise their hands for the mere sake of creating parity with men. As she said, “We should be discouraging men from these behaviors, not pushing women toward them.”

I, for one, agree that men don’t inherently have more to say than women. That would be just as absurd as claiming that one gender is smarter than the other. That being said, I do question which general style of participation is better. In reality, a mixture of different thinking and participation styles is probably best. I’d rather be at a discussion table where people are throwing out ideas than one where participants are weighing the value of every thought before sharing it. Better that than stifling conversation with self-censorship. Even if an idea might not initially seem to have much apparent worth, more will stem from discussing the concept than not offering it in the first place. Women shouldn’t be overcritical about the value of their comments; they should just throw them on the table as men often do.It is difficult to deny that we still live in a male-dominated world, with respect to both education and business. For example, according to a 2010 University report on diversity, less than one quarter of its associate and full professors in 2010 were women, up from just 3 percent three decades ago. And in 2013, only 22 Fortune 500 CEOs were women. Given this reality, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of “Lean In,” argues that women must make more of an effort to speak up and go for things, even if they are unsure of whether they are right, capable or have something worthwhile to say.

Unfortunately, at the moment, women must adhere to this generally male habit of speaking up in order to have the same level of success. Speaking out merely for the sake of speaking is not ideal; it would be best if everyone always had worthwhile things to add. However, since we live in a non-ideal system that rewards male behavior and is currently too firmly in place to change, women speaking out even when they are unsure whether or not what they have to add is worthwhile is a necessary evil. The fact that such unfiltered banter is valued in our current male-dominated society is yet another reason that women should speak up more.

Understanding how this trend plays out leads me to believe that there is more women can and should do regarding speaking out. And we can begin with the classroom discussions we experience weekly.

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Marni Morse is a freshman from Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mlmorse@princeton.edu.

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