This is going to be crude and quantitative, but I want to give a bit of concrete evidence bearing on a trend that, I suppose, must already be subjectively apparent to everyone who pays attention to gender in academic life: the tendency for males to speak first, or in particular, to be the first to volunteer comments in large public discussions. This obviously isn’t the case always and everywhere, and must be shaped by a large number of variables: group size, topic, distribution of interest and topical expertise, social rank and authority, and degree of acquaintanceship or shared social belonging, to name a few. For instance, I don’t notice this trend when the anthropology faculty, who are colleagues well known to each other, are responding to guest speakers at the weekly department seminar. But I did notice this trend very strongly at a public lecture by Bernie Sanders in December, where about the first ten speakers were all male, while only a very few women got to comment at all, and they were towards the very end of the line.
But to avoid making claims based purely on the hazardous results of personal experience, let me report the following.
Today I was in the first meeting of a seminar, an anthropology seminar on biopower, taught by a woman professor who’s deeply interested in Foucault and the way that social domination works through regimes of knowledge and that social orders are discursively constituted. She told us about the syllabus and then we read two articles in class, discussing each in turn, one by Habermas, one by Foucault. She led discussion quite actively, summarizing students’ comments and proposing new questions to the room at large, generally speaking herself before and after each student remark.
Struck by the initial masculine domination of the conversation, which began when we started to discuss Habermas, I began to take notes on the gender distribution of student speakers in the seminar. It was a very large seminar, 35 people or so; unfortunately I don’t know the gender ratio in the room, but my guess would be that there were somewhat more females than males. A sequence of the (apparent) genders of speakers runs as follows, in the order in which they spoke:
M (F*) M M M M F** M M F M F F F
M F M F F M M F F F F M F F F M F
* First female speaker laughed at a certain point in the discussion, and the teacher asked her if she wanted to say something, but she declined.
** The second female speaker, and the first female speaker to make a substantial comment, was responding to a question that happened to be about Habermas’s view of feminism as a social movement. It struck me as either a depressing irony, or else an even more depressing symptom of what topics women felt more empowered to address, that the first woman speaker chose to speak on a topic specifically dealing with the women’s movement.
Brief analysis: In the discussion of the first article, there are 8 male and 5 female speakers (not counting the first, declined female utterance), the male speakers entirely dominating the beginning of discussion and the female speakers only entering gradually into classroom discourse. In the second discussion, there are 6 male and 11 female speakers, and the gender distribution over time is much more even, although again the male speakers are very slightly clustered towards the beginning. However, while male speakers outnumber female speakers in the first conversation, female speakers drastically outnumber male speakers in the second instance.
So it certainly isn’t the case that this was a totally male-dominated discussion. In fact, of 30 turns at talk (ignoring F* because it was a declined turn, and some other peripheral utterances — jokes and interjections — which I didn’t record), 14 were by males, i.e., 46.6%.But it’s really unlikely that, in a conversation where males are talking about half the time, they’re going to randomly happen to make the first five consecutive comments. In fact, the probability of that happening randomly, if gender isn’t a factor, is only 2.1%.
So, voilà, debatable but suggestive statistical evidence that gender affects turn sequencing in academic seminar conversations. A friend of mine suggests that a much larger dataset for this research might be the lecture recordings for MIT’s Open Courseware. I normally have no inclination (and certainly have no training) in quantitative research, but if anyone wants to collaborate…
and I should be commenting on the gendered phenomenology and experience of these conversations, and on reasons why people talk when they talk. thoughts on that?