The female students manage and the male students shine: gender in group work


European, state and regional institutions make it a priority to guarantee teaching free of gender stereotypes. Despite the difficulties, progress is slowly being made , thanks to the commitment of thousands of teachers who try to incorporate the gender perspective in teaching and in the design and research process .

In some disciplines, such as Political Science and Sociology, the incorporation of the gender perspective is a formative opportunity to advance equality practices .

Collective problems and solutions

And it is that one of the objectives of teaching political science is to make students understand that politics consists of finding collective solutions to manage problems previously interpreted privately.

A good example to demonstrate this reality in our classrooms is that of feminism, whose success lies in its ability to show that gender inequalities respond to social and structural realities and not to personal or private problems. As the anthem of the feminists of Chile reminds us in the social outbreak of 2019: “The fault was not mine, nor where I was, nor how I dressed.”

Inequality in the classroom

As it could not be otherwise, gender inequalities and their consequences do not disappear in higher education classrooms. Since the pioneering work of Hall and Sandler (1982) in which they showed the “cold climate” of the classroom for women, research has deepened that analyzes gender biases in the kaleidoscopic reality of higher education.

Dozens of studies have shown that gender matters and causes biases in teacher evaluation , in feedback or treatment of students, and even in the incentives that teachers transfer to boys and girls.

Interactions in group work

However, there is an unexplored space in higher education that in many cases escapes teachers’ control: the interactions between pairs of male and female students in group work.

Sensing that inequalities can be exacerbated in these spaces, we have carried out an investigation/action in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Communication of the UPV/EHU in which some thirty female students have participated.

The logic of gender inequalities

To articulate the study we have started from the consideration that gender inequalities are articulated on the basis of a triple opposition that links productive, public and rational aspects to male socialization; and reproductive, private and emotional management logics that prefigure female socialization. The first aspects are valued positively, while the second tend to be undervalued.

As we explained in class, an everyday example can show this double distribution: men’s soccer assumes a public dimension (television broadcast), productive (contracts, expectations) and rational (soccer technique) while women’s assumes a private dimension (not socially recognized ), reproductive (playing sports with no hope of professional success) and emotional management (extloring aspects such as care, etc.).

As we have verified , this dichotomy also affects students and generates inequalities in group work. This distribution, which associates the feminine with private, reproductive and emotional management spaces, supports the practice of students in group work.

It is true that not all female students assume private, reproductive, and emotional management roles, nor do all male students assume public, productive, and rational roles. De facto, other aspects such as class, race or relational capital may be significant in the roles that are assumed. However, in general terms, this separation exists and is made explicit in our practice through gender mandates.

Gender mandates

Mandates or gender norms are unwritten rules, but internalized, to respond to what is expected of a man and a woman. These rules, which condition our behavior, come into play in the context of group work.

In our research we have identified that the work of many students is marked by the mandates of discretion, perfection, empathy and responsibility.

Private Tasks and Public Tasks

As a consequence of the mandates of empathy and responsibility, the students assume tasks in the development of group work that are not known (or valued) by the teachers: correction tasks, group management, coordination. In short, private, reproductive and emotional management responsibilities.

On the other hand, they face great difficulties in oral presentations, as a consequence of the combination of the mandates of discretion and perfection, which ends up negatively affecting their grade. In this case, the lack of security in public space is key.

This is a double problem for many female students, who assume greater responsibility in the collective management of learning, but obtain worse results.

Oral presentations

The harsh consequences of a private socialization are evidenced in the testimony of this 4th year Political Science student about her experience in an oral presentation:
“Nervous, red, my legs are shaking, my chest is tight, tremors. After the presentation, I feel guilty for not having done my best or living up to my peers. I unconsciously asked for forgiveness. I felt helpless, I tried to occupy as little space as possible”.

Team work

For its part, the effects of socialization on reproductive and emotional management end up generating an overload of work that is neither visible nor valued, as this other testimony shows.
“I feel (and not only me) that throughout my life I have assumed the role of maintaining the group, because I only get the job done. On the other hand, the colleagues (men) send the work at the last moment, but you have put in many hours and you have been worried and I think this is a repeating pattern”.

Consequences in learning

But, beyond the fact that these practices affect an overload of work and a worse evaluation, they have direct consequences on the learning process of the students. As we see in the following quote, this student has to give up any productive and rational dimension of her learning process in group work.
“In group work I have felt that I was not going to be heard. One guy said that a contribution I made was not important. After a while he said the same thing, but with more rapt words. And he was taken into account. In small groups, being with two boys, what I said was immediately discarded: I would turn red, speak in a low voice. Once my idea was ruled out, the debate between them would begin, and I would stay outside, taking notes, acting as secretary. It gave me the impression that it was as if I did not exist, because I was not given the opportunity to speak, nor was I asked. They don’t leave space to get in and give your opinion, it’s like they close it. [In a group work on Political Science] I limited myself to talking about dates. I limited myself to talking about the descriptive part of the job, dates,

All of this, as the students testify, generates security problems and a lack of confidence that can affect their professional future.

Be aware

The first step to advance equality is to make these inequalities and mandates more visible. Management mechanisms can be implemented on this watchtower.

Specifically, cooperative methodologies, which make students co-responsible for their learning, offer great opportunities. If the objective of these methodologies is for students to be an active agent in their own learning process, we can focus on achieving it from the perspective of equality.

Manage inequality

In this sense, there are tools that can help in the diagnosis and management of inequalities. Role plays, simulations or representations in the classroom can help, if the interactions are analyzed from a gender perspective, to show how the three differences are expressed.

Group contracts or travel notebooks that, in addition to productive aspects (results), consider reproductive elements (how these results were achieved) can make visible private and reproductive aspects that teachers could value.

Time and task allocation rubrics can show who does what and this can be valued. Oral presentations of written assignments may focus on explaining the process rather than the result.

Learning as a political and public process

All these elements can make learning a process of training and collective reflection that allows us to overcome a private vision of this reality.

As feminism shows, the personal is political. Interpreting “shyness” from the gender norm of discretion or the “need for control” from the mandate of responsibility is the first step to find public solutions that turn learning in equality into a political and public exercise in which What is sought, finally, is to maximize the potential of everyone.

Author Bios: Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga is Professor of Political Science and Iraide Alvarez Muguruza is a Predoctoral Researcher at the Department of Political Science and Administration both at the University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea