Numerous studies show that women speak up less in meetings than men, and are often interrupted by their male colleagues. They also speak less at professional conferences and in university seminars and tutorials – and this pattern starts in school. The good news? As a teacher, you’re in a position to make a difference. Let’s take a look at this disparity in participation, and how you can encourage girls to speak up in your classroom.
Why do girls speak up less than boys in the classroom?
Troubling research shows time and time again that girls contribute less in classrooms than their male counterparts. The cause of this classroom participation disparity? The everyday messaging and actions that many of us don’t think to question.
From a young age, girls are taught to associate talking a lot with being “obnoxious” or “assertive” while boys are labelled as “confident” and “outgoing.” Meanwhile, some men, who have been taught to compete with one another, often speak over women who have learned to appease others and be quiet. So, how can we unlearn these harmful stereotypes and address these inequalities?
How to encourage girls to participate in classroom discussions
Teachers set the classroom culture. It’s up to you to actively create a culture where everyone feels empowered to speak. Here are five concrete tips to help you build this inclusive classroom culture and empower your female students to find their voices!
1. Foster a psychologically safe atmosphere
Psychological safety is the belief that says “I won’t be punished for presenting my ideas or making mistakes.” It’s an essential feature of any healthy classroom environment. Girls in particular need to know that their ideas will be listened to and met with encouragement in order to feel comfortable to speak up.
Here are some ways you can foster this positive culture:
- Encourage risk-taking even where the outcome is not perfect.
- Explain why mistakes are an important part of the learning journey when students do make them.
- Emphasise the importance of a growth mindset, where intelligence and abilities can be developed through effort and learning, by using real-life examples.
2. Prevent interruption and negative feedback
Without bad intentions, boys commonly talk over girls. So, one of the most significant steps you can take to address gender equality in the classroom is to keep a keen eye on these interruptions.
Discussions on active participation in the classroom should come with an exploration of how active listening works. Then, if a disruption occurs, you should make clear that it is not OK. Take over to let the previous student finish what they were saying.
As a result of increased sensitivity, girls can also be more impacted by negative feedback on their class contributions. So it’s also important to intervene if you overhear students criticising an answer someone gives.
3. Provide students with “think time”
When students have time to consider their opinions and ideas, classroom participation becomes less daunting. Holding space for students to process and absorb new information can make them feel more confident in offering considered insights or reflections.
But, as Fabienne Doucet, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools describes, “Thinking and processing are not necessarily quiet activities.” You can experiment with splitting students into groups to allow them to reflect without the pressure of responding to a teacher. From here, offer a prompt or encourage free discussion around a topic. If you want to encourage higher levels of retention, ask them to make notes too.
4. Create opportunities for varied classroom participation
It’s important to remember that classroom participation doesn’t always have to mean giving an answer to a question. Here is a reminder of some other types of participation you can encourage as a stepping stone, helping to build student confidence:
- Nonverbal responses: a first step in encouraging classroom participation is asking students to share their opinions with nonverbal responses such as raised hands, or thumbs up or down.
- Reading aloud: asking students to read aloud is a good way to get them to practise using their voice, without the additional pressure of coming up with their own original ideas.
- Writing on a whiteboard: this can work well for students who feel shy about speaking up.
- Role-playing activities: role play can help students to shed their inhibitions about participating.
- Peer-to-peer teaching: students often feel more confident about sharing their knowledge in one-to-one conversations with a classmate.
- Pro-tip: You can use AI-based tools such as interactive polls and quizzes to enhance engagement further. These can be great for students who prefer to stay quiet during class.
5. Bring in female speakers
One of the most powerful ways to encourage young girls to speak with confidence is to show them how this looks in practice. By bringing in female speakers to give talks, you can break down unconscious attitudes about the ways women should act, and offer great examples of active participation and contribution.
What’s more, when girls see women from diverse backgrounds excelling in their fields, it expands their perception of what they can achieve. A talk with someone from a prominent engineering firm to speak about an exciting STEM project, for example, could potentially instil a sense of self-assurance and build a sense of what’s possible for girls in STEM subjects.
How to promote active participation in the classroom
The question of how to promote equality and diversity in the classroom is a big one, but it starts with the question of how to promote active participation.
If you are able to prevent girls from being interrupted, encourage their ideas when they talk and keep them inspired with great role models, you’re likely to notice them speaking similar amounts to the boys in your lessons. And with luck, your impact will stretch beyond the classroom, into a more equal future where women speak up, don’t tolerate interruptions, and achieve equality in both work and education.
Ready to learn more about tackling misogyny in schools? Discover our five-step guide here.
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