Opinion » Column | Sept. 17
You know how, when you meet someone you’ve never seen before, you end up seeing her all over campus? Or when someone points out an annoying habit, you can’t stop noticing it? When you’re alerted to some stimulus, you suddenly can’t help but pick up on it.
Here it is: Women on campus are very rarely, almost never, the first people to speak up in lecture, precept or any large group of men and women they don’t know well.
This is far from a revolutionary statement. Among the findings of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership’s 2011 report is that “in many situations, men tend to speak up more quickly than women, to raise their hands and express their thoughts even before they are fully formulated, whereas women may take a bit more time to shape their comments and be more reticent about speaking up.” The COMBO III survey found that men are slightly more comfortable speaking up in precept than women and that they view themselves as stronger leaders.
I read the findings, and I forgot about them. I’m a confident, self-assured woman, aren’t I? The findings couldn’t possibly affect me, right? I didn’t think about it again until I was retraining for Outdoor Action last fall. A woman from the Fields Center came to talk about diversity and asked all of the leaders if anyone would be willing to share a story about feeling particularly valued. One male leader offered a story, then another. The same was the case for the other responses she elicited from us. Only a few women spoke up, and only when sharing involved calling out answers instead of speaking into a microphone. I stayed silent.
Once I began to notice it, I couldn’t stop. This week in my classes, it became particularly evident when professors asked the class open-ended questions or prompted people to talk. And yet, I still stayed quiet.
I used to tell myself it was a holdover from high school, where speaking up in class meant singling yourself out in way that does not happen on a campus of 5,000-plus. Or that I just didn’t want to be “that person” in lecture who asks a lot of questions. Both are wimpy excuses and revealing about the pressures in American society for women to be smart without seeming too smart.
I realize now that by not speaking up in class when I have something to say, I perpetuate a problem of which I am now acutely aware. It is a cowardice that I don’t like to admit about myself.
I’m at a stalemate. I don’t think that this female reticence is a problem stemming from men or from Princeton or from some inherent difference between men and women. And yet, this reticence, this unwillingness to take a chance or stand apart from a crowd or make people notice you, is why only 12 women took high-profile leadership positions in the 2000s compared to 58 men, according to the SCUWL. It is why women are less likely to receive fellowships, for the simple reason that fewer women apply.
I don’t have any illuminate-all answer to why women are less likely to speak up in class. I hope that by noticing it, others will be encouraged to debate the idea themselves. My own take, among many possible explanations, stems from the idea that there are different expectations of men and women on this campus.
To be a man here, for better or for worse, is to acknowledge that after graduation you are expected to find a job and contribute to society. To be a woman on campus is to question, sometimes, gently, ever so slightly, whether you’ll be working at all in 10 years, whether you’ll take time off to care for kids and lose the skills you’ve spent the first 20 years of your life acquiring.
To be completely clear, I am not saying that men must work and women belong in the house. We are far beyond those traditional roles or too politically correct to say otherwise. Nor it is to say that women are the only group on campus afraid of speaking up. Nor I am suggesting that every time a woman stays silent in lecture she is contemplating her future and whether it is even worth talking. The effect is less deliberate than that, allowing us to subconsciously devalue our contributions.
Instead, it is about bringing to the surface what can so easily slip past notice. The SCUWL recommended changing campus stereotypes about leadership roles, providing women mentor relationships and raising faculty awareness. All these are admirable steps toward balancing campus participation. The easiest thing to say and hardest to do is to get women to acknowledge the situation and make an effort to change it. If women are going to start speaking up in class, then it is time to start talking.
Because the only person holding my tongue is myself.
Rebecca Kreutter is a Wilson School major from Singapore, Singapore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.