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Teaching Strength

December 17, 2015

Women in the Soil Science Lab

A few weeks ago my soil science students started their labs. There are about sixty students in the class and I have them broken into fifteen small groups. Each group meets with one of the volunteer TAs each week. Since I started teaching gender it has colored every choice I make. I felt like a hypocrite teaching about the challenges women face in agriculture education in one class while following the status quo in my other class.

I started recruiting female TAs and consciously grouping the girls together for lab and fieldwork. Both were difficult at first. The TAs, both male and female, were worried the female TAs would be challenged by the male students and face embarrassment. I knew they could do it, though, because all of them had performed very well in the course. So I shared my own story with them, of how I had never had a soil science course but here I was teaching it with confidence. “Let them challenge us. No one knows everything but anyone can learn if they want to.”

People can only embarrass you if you let them.

I started with one brave young woman last March and today I have four, with more lined up. (Yes, I also have four male TAs.)

Surprisingly, recruiting the TAs was the easy part. The students, both male and female, have pushed back against my single-sex groupings. Just last week I had a group of young women lament, “Sis RB! So so girls in here. It’s not fine.” They were six female students assigned to a female TA. I casually asked why and they just shifted on their feet and laughed nervously.

When the men are there the women know their role. They know what is his job and what is her job. They know he will measure the samples. They know she will take notes and smile encouragingly. They know he will answer the questions and she will take good notes. By removing the men I removed the roles. And that was exactly what I wanted to do: set them free.

I attended a women’s college and, at the time, I never appreciated the way it was shaping my identity. I could question, explore or excel without it being linked to my gender. I could fail without it being linked to my gender. There is a huge body of research that supports the idea that single sex education, particularly in STEM fields, improves women’s performance. I tried to explain that to the girls in the lab that day.

“When the boys are here they can act rude to you sometimes, right? They can push you out of the way, right? I put you together so you will help each other and feel free at all times.” They nodded, but I could tell they were just being polite.

Thirty minutes later I came back and found them, all six of them quiet in class, having an animated discussion about rounding and significant figures in their calculations.

I didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t take the smile from my face. I’ve never seen women participate like that in the ‘traditional’ groups that result from our 70% male and 30% female split.

My colleagues are all male with just one other female. They have all accused me of encouraging gender inequality. They say women can only get strong by competing with men. I’ve argued that you can’t ask someone to fight before you’ve taught them how. You can’t expect someone to speak freely until you’ve helped them see the value of their contributions.

Most professors’ idea of encouraging the young women is to yell, “Women speak!” Of course everyone shifts in their seat and looks away as silence falls over the room. Usually the professor then cold calls one of the quietest girls in class and she can barely find words to answer. How terrible! They have set up the unfortunate respondent to speak on behalf of all women, to represent all women… as failures. These professors are, however inadvertently, reinforcing stereotypes about women’s inability.

In my gender class I talk about stereotype threat–the very real phenomena that minorities face all day every day and that women experience particularly in math and science courses. In short, stereotype threat is what happens when you are in a minority group within a class and there is a well-known stereotype that your group is somehow deficient in that field. Women are bad at math. Black people are bad at golf. It can be anything. Basically the fear of proving a negative stereotype about your group plays on your mind and actually makes you do worse.

The great news is that it can be easy to free people from this self-fulfilling prophecy. Just tell them it isn’t true! “Men and women do equally well in this course” or “Last semester women got the three highest scores on the exam.” (True story.) I’ve had women in my gender class tell me boldly that men are better farmers than women. Women who have chosen to study agriculture! A gender study at our college reported that about 30% of female students think men are superior to women!

Change is slow but it starts with individuals taking small steps, clasping hands with their neighbors and moving out in a new direction. Once enough people start going others will follow and change will roll through the community with the unstoppable force of a wave.

Our project isn’t going to change people or communities—they will do that if and when they’re ready. We can, however, make conscious decisions to create systems and spaces where everyone is free to achieve at their highest level. For my class that has meant normalizing women’s success by mentoring female TAs to be role models. It has also meant creating opportunities for women (and men) to learn free from gender expectations, stereotypes, and roles.

It is my dream that as these young women and men see each other succeeding and achieving they will join hands and become agents of positive change in their communities. Our primary concern should be producing more food—not who is holding the beaker or the cutlass.

“Science is not a boy’s game, it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we’re going.”

Nichelle Nichols, former NASA Ambassador and actress

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