Gender Dynamics in the Classroom, and on Dorf on Law

by Neil H. Buchanan

I grew up during the so-called Second-Wave of Feminism in the 1960's and 1970's.  By the time I went to college in 1977, calling myself a feminist was as natural as calling myself a biped.  It was simply an obvious fact.  (I do know, of course, that there is resistance in some quarters to the idea that a man can be a feminist.  I disagree, but I understand the argument.)  My undergraduate years at Vassar were unique, because they spanned the period in which the college went from being merely nominally coeducational (having formally admitted men beginning in 1969, but enrolling only about one male student for every nine female students through 1975) to approaching a 55-45 female-to-male ratio by the Eighties.

The entering class before mine was the first to reflect the new reality.  This meant that, when I was a Freshman (yes, we did use that term), the Junior and Senior classes were 90% female, while only a bit more than half of the Freshman and Sophomore classes were women.  Although I did not realize it at the time, this provided a unique (and essentially impossible to replicate at other places and times) environment in which to learn.  The older students had never been in a college classroom where they did not feel comfortable joining in the conversation.  These women certainly were not going to change their ways merely because a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old males had suddenly arrived on campus.  The women in the Freshman and Sophomore classes were thus provided with strong role models.

The somewhat counterintuitive result of this classroom dynamic was that I never had to stop and think about whether I was falling into standard male-dominance behavior, simply because the atmosphere did not give way to male bluster.  I could try to be as much of a yammering, not-as-smart-as-I-thought-I-was late adolescent tool as I wanted to be (and I often was, I'm sorry to say), but that merely meant that I was frequently insufferable -- immature, but not an impediment to gender equality in the classroom.  There were insufferably arrogant women, too.  Equality!  And the conversations overall were generally quite good, because confident and appropriately aggressive women and men outnumbered the problem children.

During graduate school, when I started teaching undergraduate sections at Harvard College, the dynamics were very different.  Yes, there were smart and assertive young women in every class, but the classroom dynamics were notably male-centered, with the guys engaging in the usual blowhard preening, and far too few of the women participating in the discussions.  This might also, I suspect, have reflected the rather dramatic national backlash against feminism that had already begun by the early 1980's, with women even at places like Harvard saying defensive things like, "Well, I'm not a feminist, but I do believe in equality."  (When I asked some of these women why they refused to call themselves feminists, they were hardly shy about the reason.  As one put it bluntly: "I want to have a social life.")

The problem with the standard-issue classroom male blowhard, of course, is that he is (except in very unusual circumstances, like those that I described above) likely to ruin the classroom experience for everyone.  Most obviously, there is a finite amount of time for discussion.  Given that people who have something useful to say are often especially polite about giving other people a chance to talk, the likelihood of hearing the best comments is reduced not just by the pure air time taken up by the immature young men, but by their setting an atmosphere in which the next-most-oblivious student speaks next, and so on, until class ends.  In the case of non-discussion classes, this is even worse, because the professor will need to cut short Q-and-A regularly, in order to get back to the lesson plan.

What I have written above admittedly overstates the case.  It is clearly not true that every classroom in every college at all times is ruined by testosterone-addled young men.  But as an identifiable dynamic, both casual observation and multiple studies have shown that the overall picture that I have drawn here is sadly accurate.  Men talk much more than women, and women (by all accounts) feel some combination of intimidation and disgust, ultimately pulling back and being passive.  Studies of law school classrooms have found these dysfunctions to be, if anything, even more intense than at the undergraduate level.

No one was surprised, therefore, when newfangled online discussion lists and comment boards quickly became infamous for descending into dude-driven shouting matches.  With an unlimited amount of space to write, the blowhards went at it, and the people with something thoughtful to say had to decide whether it was all worth it.  Among those more insightful people, gendered social training resulted in even the good comments being generally authored by men, because the insightful women were less inclined even to bother to fight that fight.  That some of these online discussions would quickly descend into blatantly sexist comments did not help, of course.

And I am not talking here only about the most infamous mosh pits, such as the disgusting harassment of women that recently came to light among "gamers."  Especially in the early days of listservs, but continuing to this day, a shockingly high percentage of comments on blogs has been little more than mindless, flame-throwing rants.  This was (and, as far as I can tell, still is) true of the non-academic political discussion lists that were dominated by lefties, as much as for those on the right.  (Here, in fact, there is real equivalence between the left and right: The biggest jerks are the same, even though the politics are different.  The relative proportion of jerks, however, is a different story.)  Even when the original post itself is thoughtful and carefully written, the discussion can quickly get out of hand, and the gender dynamics that I have described above make the ultimate male-female skew even worse, with women essentially disappearing from many comment boards and discussion lists.

It is precisely because of the mud-slinging nature of comment boards across the internet -- with every discussion seemingly only moments away from bringing forth a Nazi-themed denunciation -- that Professor Dorf and I have so frequently expressed our delight that the Dorf on Law comment board has been such a positive and productive place.  With very few exceptions, the commenters engage with our posts in good faith, and even when disagreements are expressed, there have been only occasional instances in which we have seen anything resembling nasty behavior.  For this, we continue to thank our commenters.

All of which makes it especially interesting that our comment board is nevertheless so completely dominated by men.  Although some commenters use online aliases that are not gender-specific, nearly every commenter whose gender can be inferred is male.  In the almost nine years of this blog's existence, I can think of very few women who have posted comments.  I wonder why that is so.

If our readership were all male, of course, then the comment board would simply reflect that reality.  Based on the information that we have available to us, however, the readership of Dorf on Law appears to be about 65-35 male-to-female.  That, in itself, is worth its own discussion, but I will set that aside for today.  I am interested here in asking why a readership that is roughly two-thirds male generates comments more than 95% of which are written by men.

One possible explanation, I suppose, is that the blog posts themselves are mostly written by men.  In a typical two-week period, the standard rotation has Professor Dorf writing five posts and Professor Colb writing one post, while I write the other four.  Ninety percent male.  Our most frequent occasional bloggers include one woman (Professor McElroy), but again, the percentage of guests posts written by men is quite high.  Nonetheless, although I could probably describe a dynamic in which the gender of the writer drives the male-female ratio on the comment board, that explanation seems implausible.  Or, at least, I should think that there would be other explanations.

We might, however, be simply looking at a small numbers problem.  Based on the data that are available to us, it appears that between 1000 and 2000 people read our posts each day.  The number of comments on our posts runs between zero and, very occasionally, 20 or so.  The median is probably 4.  Thus, on a low-readership day, if 650 men and 350 women are reading a post, and the four comments on the post are all written by men, that means that  0.62% of male readers are writing comments, as opposed to 0.00% of female readers.  This becomes a little less absurd, however, when we note that the occasional post that draws twenty or more comments also seems nearly always to be a males-only discussion.    In any event, even though the numbers are small, such an extreme deviation from something approximating 2-to-1 strikes me as worth wondering (and maybe worrying) about.

The most plausible story, at least as far as I can imagine at this point, is that the generally male-dominated nature of so many forums for discussion in our world, from the classroom to the internet generally, has made commenting on blogs and social media essentially "a guy thing."  That is, it might well be that the overwhelming number of our typical readers (male and female) would never consider posting a comment, but while some of our male readers will occasionally write comments, the gendered norms in school and on the more Wild West-ish internet sites have made commenting on a blog something that women simply do not think about doing.

These are obviously preliminary thoughts.  Surely, there are other hypotheses that might better explain what is going on here.  Comments from everyone are invited.