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Caira ’22: For better classroom discussions, everyone must feel comfortable speaking

Since coming to Brown, I’ve noticed that men tend to speak more frequently in my classroom discussions. I’ve had many conversations with friends about this who have noticed the same trend across a variety of disciplines — math, international relations and philosophy, to name a few. And our experiences reflect a broader pattern — studies show that men feel more confident than others to interrupt others and express their ideas in public spaces.

But even though we know that an inequality exists in public forums — classrooms, extracurriculars and more — rarely do we consider the idea of solving this problem by creating new opportunities for women and genderqueer people to speak. And the responsibility lies — at least partly — on both professors and male students to foster classroom environments in which everyone feels comfortable speaking.

To understand the gender imbalance in classrooms, we first need to look closer at the dynamics at play in the typical Brown classroom. One of my friends recalled taking a class at Brown where the conversation always revolved around the same three men, seemingly because they were always the ones who raised their hands first. Although it is not exclusively men who can dominate class time, it is important that men seem to be disproportionality prone to taking up too much space.  From my experience, it seems that Brown’s classroom culture praises this type of immediate response; the first person to raise their hand is often the first person who gets to speak. But this system often places students with marginalized identities who feel greater pressure when speaking in class at a disadvantage. Compared to men, women and genderqueer students tend to face more obstacles to have their answers and ideas taken seriously and respectfully. These obstacles become more serious when considering the intersections of race and gender. But the bottom line is that these hurdles create environments in which certain students feel less welcome and inclined to participate and contribute to classroom conversations. I personally have caught myself overanalyzing my phrasing before speaking for fear of playing into gender stereotypes.

Indeed, a survey done by Gallup of over 5,000 recent college graduates found that on a one to five scale of how comfortable they felt expressing an unpopular idea in the classroom, men were 10 percent more likely than women to rate themselves as a four or five. This difference might not seem drastic, but it’s important to view it in association with the larger problem. Only 58 percent of recent female graduates felt comfortable expressing the full extent of their unpopular ideas in their classrooms, compared to 68 percent of men. For women, genderqueer people and men alike, that number should be equal, since, theoretically, these academic spaces exist for all of us to engage with and learn from each other and, more basically, to feel comfortable, regardless of gender. When The Herald conducted a similar survey at Brown in 2016, the results were even more disheartening. Only 29 percent of women, compared to 40 percent of men and 40 percent of gender nonconforming people, said they felt very comfortable speaking up in their classrooms. If we as members of the Brown community want to foster an environment  for genuine intellectual discourse, we must address these problems communally, rather than expect those who are marginalized to deal with it on their own.

The solution to this problem is not to say that men shouldn’t speak at all or that they don’t have valuable things to add to a conversation. Every student at Brown is a smart person with a unique set of interests to bring to the conversation. But when men — or any empowered group — are dominating the conversation, they can often unintentionally drown out marginalized voices.

Thankfully, implementing a series of small initiatives to improve learning environments can end the sidelining of women and genderqueer people in classrooms. First, professors must stop letting classroom discussions run organically. Professors should see organic discussion as the end goal, but must recognize that allowing unmoderated discussion from the get-go doesn’t work given the imbalanced gender dynamics at play. Without moderated discussions, historically privileged voices will continue to dominate discussions unchallenged and at the expense of marginalized people.

To prevent this, professors must make students feel more comfortable in the classroom by deliberately gauging comfort levels that each student brings to the class, and by making greater efforts to engage students who might not initially feel comfortable to speak up. They need to make it a practice not to call on the first student who raises a hand while also not forcing any student into speaking when they’re not ready. They must go out of their way to emphasize that everyone is welcome and encouraged to share their thoughts.

For the men reading this, try to note how often you speak in a classroom in comparison to others. If you do find yourself speaking more than your peers, try to understand that this is probably not because of a difference in intellect. Before speaking, ask yourself whether your comment will contribute constructively to the current thread of conversation. Consider whether your response to someone else’s comment is a genuine point, or whether you are just trying to hear yourself speak. While your points in a conversation are most likely valuable, it is nevertheless vital to be aware of the amount of space you’re taking up in a room to ensure that others have just as much.

If we do all of these fairly easy things, I’m sure we can have classes and other spaces where everyone feels more accepted, acknowledged and heard. While this absolutely won’t cure the larger societal problem of gender imbalances, it’s incredibly important that we work as a community to create learning spaces where every student, regardless of gender and other identities, can engage to their fullest potential.

Alisa Caira ’22 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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