When my professor asked her class if “tomboy” was considered an insult, eight voices clambered over each other, each trying to shove their opinion into the world first. All of these eight voices were distinctly male. No room was left for a woman in the class to speak up and share her opinion. As someone who was frequently called a tomboy as a kid, I would have happily shared my thoughts on the phrase had I been given the opportunity.
An adjective that is only used to describe women should be explained by a willing woman in a classroom. Men in classrooms need to recognize these moments of opportunity for historically marginalized groups of learners, be that women or minorities.
Many times I have heard a classroom described as a “safe space.” Last year, however, a graduate student at Penn told me he thinks of classrooms as “brave spaces” instead. I liked this thought better, because a professor truly can’t guarantee safety in discussion topics; everyone in the room has had emotional experiences with different things. But a "brave space" allows people to view classrooms as places for emotional and intellectual growth; a swatch of campus where you should be unencumbered by fear. But the fear of being talked over, ignored, not called on first, or shrugged off is something women face in the classroom everyday. It is an issue that men need to first recognize, and then actively push against.
Who knows if any of the men in my class even realized they were monopolizing the space? Chances are they just assumed that a question was asked that they believed they could answer—so they did. Being aware that women in the classroom aren’t necessarily conditioned to feel equally appreciated or listened to is the first battle men must fight within themselves.
The stereotype that men are more intellectually capable when it comes to math, science, engineering, and a slew of other subjects is cultivated amongst impressionable elementary schoolers. Who can relate to an early math teacher always calling on the boys even if your hand was raised? The pervasive side effects of growing into one’s own intellectual capability with the preconceived notion that you will never be as smart as your male counterparts because of biology is not only factually wrong, but also demoralizing.
In October of last year, Stephanie McKellop, a history Ph.D. at Penn tweeted about her controversial method of progressive stacking, with the intention of encouraging participation from every student. The tweet read, “ "I will always call on my Black women students first. Other POC [People of Color] get second tier priority. WW [white women] come next. And, if I have to, white men.” The crux of her method, and the progressive stacking method in general, is to allow historically marginalized populations of students the space to be heard that they have been denied in the past.
The opposite of listening is speaking, and for too long the expectation that women must be good listeners has permeated our social and educational spheres. When women are expected to be good listeners, their right to speaking and being listened to falls through the cracks of a classroom, and women’s voices are left to echo in these dark corners. All students have a responsibility to be active listeners, but at the moment, only some students feel comfortable enough in the brave space that is a classroom to openly share their opinions and ideas. Moreso, the students who have always been called on to answer questions need to recognize their position when it comes to passing these opportunities to less heard students.
Equal opportunities to participate are created when professors leading conversations actively engage women, women actively participate, and men in the classroom recognize that they need to leave room for these women.
Classrooms should not only be brave spaces, but sustainable ones. You can’t have a productive or sustainable conversation when only a select group of people monopolize the space. Everyone’s voice should be listened to and encouraged, and this happens when those fortunate enough to constantly be listened to use their ability to make space for other voices as well.
SOPHIA DUROSE is a College sophomore from Orlando, Fla. studying English. Her email is email@example.com
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