‘Progressive stacking’ leads to a wobbly form of equality


In the classic John Ford western Stagecoach, a group of travellers have to make a decision about whether to continue their journey through Apache territory. They decide to settle the issue with a vote, but with one important proviso: that the women have their say first.

This kind of chivalry may seem outdated, but the idea that women should speak first has been making a comeback. One example in education is a practice called progressive stacking. This involves giving women the chance to speak before men do – as well as giving non-whites a chance to speak before whites (with non-white men being prioritised above white women). The practice came to public notice last year, when Stephanie McKellop, a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted about her use of it.

It has honourable, democratic intentions. The underlying rationale is that women and non-whites have suffered from various kinds of systematic disadvantage, which makes them less able to contribute to discussions. Giving them priority allows them to debate issues from a position of equality.

But even if we accept those premises, the practice is open to a number of objections. One is that it is demeaning, since it seems to assume that people who aren’t white or male need extra help to take part in a conversation. A stronger objection is that it is discriminatory, openly treating people differently on the basis of gender and ethnicity.

You might not think that’s such a bad thing in itself, but it opens the door to further objections, such as that openly categorising people leads to unhealthy in-group/out-group dynamics. Or that ordering speakers by their gender or ethnicity – rather than their willingness to speak or the relevance, insight or novelty of their views – simply isn’t a rational way of conducting a discussion.

But, of course, proponents of progressive stacking know that it is discriminatory. For them, though, the discrimination is justified as a way of counteracting societal privilege. Its advocates could also point to recent studies on differences in the way men and women behave in meetings. Last year, for example, a survey of 247 departmental seminars found that if a man asked the first question, men tended to be over-represented in the rest of the Q&A, whereas if a woman spoke first, the session was more representative. Social psychology has a significant political bias, but if these studies bear up, they might well suggest that something needs to be done to help women get a fair hearing.

As it happens, that idea of a fair hearing is one that goes back to ancient Greek democrats, one of whose most important values was isēgoria, or “equality of speech”. They also had two practices – rotation and allotment – that might be able to help us fulfil the aim of granting a fair hearing to all without having to resort to the kind of discrimination involved in progressive stacking. Rotation involves granting a role to all the members of a group in turn. Allotment involves allocating it randomly by, for instance, picking names out of a hat.

Let’s take rotation first. In a seminar or meeting, it would involve going round the room, granting everybody a turn at uninterrupted speech. I’ve rarely see this simple concept put into practice, but it has become one of my standbys. I pass around a “talking pencil” and tell the students that they can only speak if they’re holding it.

That ensures that everybody gets a chance to speak, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody will speak for a similar amount of time: that would require a timer, which can be a bit awkward and cumbersome. But it may be worth the trouble in contexts where equality of speech is something participants are really concerned about.

The brilliant thing about rotation is that it ensures that everybody gets a chance to speak eventually. Even if a man speaks first, that won’t mean that fewer women will speak; the pencil will get to all of the women present anyway. At the same time, rotation is only really practicable if you don’t have many people in the seminar, or you have a lot of time. But what about, say, an undergraduate lecture?

This is where allotment is more suitable. Like rotation, determining speaking privileges randomly ensures that everyone has an equal chance of speaking without openly categorising people by ethnicity or gender. But, unlike rotation, it does so without your having to work through absolutely everyone present. One simple way of doing this is by going down an alphabetical list of names.

Of course, you may end up calling on more men during a particular session, but that will be offset by calling on more women in future sessions (that’s how randomness works). And even when you end up calling on more men, it will be completely unrelated to the fact that a man spoke first in the session because the name that comes next on an alphabetical list isn’t the sort of thing that can be influenced by unconscious prejudices, intimidation or patriarchal norms.

Progressive stacking, then, has the best of intentions, but the time-honoured democratic practices of rotation and allotment offer us the easiest discrimination-free way of making sure that everyone gets an equal chance of having their say. All we need to put them into practice is a bit of willpower – and maybe some pencils, paper and hats.

Author Bio: James Kierstead is a senior lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.