Does education belong
to the bold?

Sarah Edwards

It’s an all-too-common scenario to most of us- sitting in a tutorial, listening and learning (or trying to), only to find that any opportunity to ask questions or to provide answers is snatched up by the same person each time. Across the board in Australian educational settings where STEM subjects are taught (both in universities and schools), research shows that those people who dominate the attention of the educator and the dynamic of the classroom tend to be men. However, it is not a problem which is universally experienced in educational institutions around the world, but one that Australia struggles with in particular.

So how can we change the classroom dynamic that is such a broadly applied part of our university culture? Professor Pierre Portal of the Mathematical Sciences Institutorial has been involved in academia in both France and Australia, and he might hold some answers. “First year maths at uni in France, the men will speak first, they will speak too quickly, they have an idea, but they don’t have a full proof, and that will be met in a very unfriendly manner by the people running the tutorial. It’s a very important aspect of first-year, second-year maths, is teaching the rigour.” He says that this is in direct contrast with his experiences teaching in Australia, where tutorials are more likely to encourage students to speak when they have “a good idea of where things are going, but not a full proof. But that means that even in maths, like in many other disciplines, we value the more aggressive people, […] we value overconfidence.”
This encouragement of the already over-confident is something that pervades throughout all levels of academia, according to Dr Fiona Beck of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “We’re getting to a point now in academia where it’s getting a bit business-like in the sense that you have to really sell yourself constantly, and in general, the research shows that women are much less likely to do that. They’re more risk averse, and all of these things play against them in our current perception of what a good leader […] looks like, yet if you actually look into the research there’s no reason why these particular attributes are chosen.” It is easy to see that the gendered socialisation of women to be less aggressive in promoting their own ideas and values plays a significant role in our educational and professional lives- and we are all familiar with how this affects our learning in tutorials and labs.

International student Andrea Bedon Pineda’s experience confirms that the Australian university environment disadvantages women in particular by promoting and encouraging the voices of the most confident, which in her Engineering program have been largely men. “I believe that a majority of men feel more confident about everything they are doing, as society has kind of told them since they were a child that they are very good, and they can do whatever they want. Me, as a girl- my family never thought I was going to be an engineer, and thought that my role was in the kitchen, and taking care of family, that sort of thing,” she said, adding that she doesn’t feel that she was getting the most out of her educational experience when she first arrived in Australia.

By contrast, Andrea describes her high school experience in Ecuador as highly motivational for her, largely due to the single-sex school that she attended.  Reflecting on her choice to study a program consisting largely of physics and maths for the final three years of her schooling, she says that sharing her classes with other like-minded women made her decision easier. “It sort of motivates me even more, because I know that my peers are doing it too.”

“It sort of motivates me even more, because I know that my peers are doing it too.”


Clearly though, single-sex education at a tertiary level would be an extreme step to take in the Australian context. What then could be done to try to counteract the promotion of dominant voices in our university classrooms? Portal is hesitant to recommend the French model with any conviction-“It’s difficult [to step away from the people who are most vocal in a tutorial]. The French system manages to do that, but the French system is very disrespectful of its students.” He says that the down-sides of such a normative teaching style are so great that they would undermine the value of the change. “It’s a part of the French system that I hated, but in a sense it’s extremely levelling.”

The Centre for Teaching Excellence in Virginia USA promotes a gender-aware style of teaching- including not allowing students to answer questions for 5 seconds after they have been asked, consistently returning to the points raised by students who have been interrupted, and ensuring that teachers pay close attention to non-verbal indicators of interest or confusion in their students. What the whole thing boils down to, though, is quite simple- when teachers are aware of the unconscious bias that they show by giving a platform only to the loudest and most confident students, they become more likely to take measures to change. The more aware we are of the problem in Australian STEM institutions, the more effectively we can begin to implement real and valuable change.