Thursday, June 30, 2005


This morning I was in a meeting with some students and a (male) colleague. The meeting was about a project we are all working on together. Throughout the entire meeting, one of the students (also male) spent almost the entire time addressing my colleague. The only time he made any sort of acknowledgement in my direction was when I asked him a direct question---and even then, he'd usually go back to directly addressing my colleague after a few seconds.

Now, I don't believe that this was malicious at all. In fact, the student's behavior could (theoretically) be justified, in the sense that my colleague was asking most of the questions. But it's still uncomfortable as hell for me, and I'd bet for the other students who were being ignored as well.

This phenomenon is something that I've unfortunately grown used to. I wish I could say incidents like this were uncommon, but that would be pretty far from the truth. The way I typically choose to deal with it is through more subtle means: when someone asks me a question in a group, I address my answer to the entire group; I shift my focus frequently, making sure to directly address everyone in the group at some point; etc. My hope is that others will catch the hint and realize that they are excluding others in the group, and modify their behavior accordingly. Unfortunately, this does not usually work. Yet, I am hesitant to be less subtle about drawing attention to it, because I don't want to make the offender (or anyone else in the group) feel uncomfortable and hyper-focus on the situation.

In this case, I'm not sure if bringing it up to my colleague (or to the student) is the way to go. I'm afraid my colleague will think I'm unnecessarily playing the Gender Card here, and I'm not sure what I'd say to the student that would have any sort of impact. But it's been irking me all afternoon.

Anyone have any suggestions? Could I have dealt with this better, and if so, how?


Michelle said...

Hey Jane...I do know the feeling - I've been in such meetings (from the time I was a grad student). I agree that confrontation is not likely to lead to either improved behavior or good relations. One strategy I think about now is where I sit - if I want to be a strong participant I sit where the person leading the meeting can clearly see me. (Times when I want to slide under the radar, I just use the reverse!) Note that some people are "sided" in a classroom or meeting setting, they look first and more often at one side than the other. You can also be aggressive about asking questions, or about saying after an exchange that has excluded you (but that you wanted to particpate in) -- "Wait! I'd like to bring us back to...I think...."

Keep it up...and don't get too tired!

Anonymous said...

Hmm. My boss (an old-fashioned kind of guy) surprised me once by grabbing the bull by the horns, so to speak. We had a student employee who left to take a real job, and came around to ask each of us who had worked with him if we could tell him anything about his work or his personality that might hurt him at his new job with a major financial firm. He was specifically asking about his English skills, which were great, but my boss took it in a different direction.

The boss came right out and told him that he had noticed in meetings that the student did not address the women in the room and that he always used "he" as the personal pronoun when talking about some theoretical user, and that those kinds of things would hurt him in the business world.

Your focus-shifting technique is good, but possibly too subtle, as you say. Perhaps you could bring up the subject in the context of the work world, but maybe not make it specific to the student, since yours hasn't asked, like ours did. :-) After all, it's true that unless they go to work in an all-male department, the male students are eventually going to have to learn to give the women in the room the same attention they give the men.

Jane said...

Thanks, Michelle---I like the idea of thinking about where one sits during a meeting as a way of drawing focus. In this meeting, which was more informal, I also could have gotten up and paced around the room, which would have accomplished the same thing. I'm usually pretty aggressive with questions already, but I'll remember to keep that up. :)

Anonymous, that is a great story! I've done the same sort of thing with my TAs (I like to do midsemester/midterm reviews with them, especially if they're new) when I see communication issues. I'll look for an opening with this student and keep plugging away at it.

Great advice, everyone! Thanks!

Turtle said...

Thank goodness for anonymous' story. So great to hear about that!!

I've run into a similar problem, although more generalized -- not saying gender isn't the salient factor here, because I *do* think it is, just that I tend to teach in more gender-balanced, and/or female-predominant situations -- and have found that students often are not used to discussion sections and so at the beginning of a term I frequently mention the importance of addressing everyone in the room. So I could conceive of you bringing up the importance of interacting with everyone in the group in general and then add on some mention of subtle ways that various groups get excluded -- gender, race/ethnicity, international students, etc. -- when we aren't consciously making a point to make eye contact with everyone in our work groups.

Wanna Be PhD said...

I have experienced dominant men as you described them, too. But my only chance to get involved was to ask some question (really no matter what) to draw the attention to my existence.
I think that women quite often sit and wait quietly while being ignored whereas men more often are loud and dominant.

Jane said...

WBP, you raise a very good point. It's so ingrained in us to be polite and to "wait your turn" to speak...but often if you do that, you never get to speak. Being a tad more aggressive doesn't always come naturally, but sometimes it is necessary.