Examining gender disparities in academics


Sophie Rukin, Staff Writer

In the late 1980s, history teacher Barry Bienstock and former English teacher David Schiller conducted an experiment in their Interdisciplinary Seminar elective to address the gender divide in class participation. They banned male students from speaking in some class periods to help female students feel supported in the classroom. “There was certainly a heightened level of frustration during that 45 minute period,” Bienstock said.

Gender dynamics have been a part of classroom experiences since the school’s start. Founded in 1887 as a “coeducational experimental and developmental unit” of Teachers College at Columbia University, the school operated as an all-boys independent school from 1947 until 1975, when girls began to formally enroll in the high school.

When Patrick Ciriello ‘83 was a student at the school, he noticed a significantly greater proportion of female teachers and students at the school, he said. “[The gender ratio] was skewed more towards boys and there were some teachers who were sexist and chauvinistic towards girls,” Ciriello said.

Bienstock also saw a heavily male-dominated environment when he first started teaching at the school 40 years ago in 1982, he said. By the late 1980s and early 90s, attitudes toward gender in the classroom had grown more positive as faculty began amending the curriculum, Bienstock said. “There was an effort to create more diversity in terms of what books we were reading, especially in the English department,” he said. “By the end of the [90s], there was much more diversity in terms of the types of books and the gender of the authors.” Prior to this effort, teachers did not teach any books by female authors in classes.

Thirty years later, gender disparities continue to pervade school classrooms. In the five core subjects of math, science, English, history, and world languages, gender ratios fluctuate among students and faculty. STEM classes continue to skew towards higher male student enrollment and participation, while humanities classes tend towards female students. These disparities influence classroom participation, shaping who feels empowered to speak and who doesn’t. 


Gender dynamics in STEM classes

The prevalent narrative that boys take more high-level math and science classes has held true over the past 10 years. Over this time frame, Physics with Calculus, a 400 level science course, has had an average gender ratio of 72% male to 28% female. Calculus with Theory, a high level math course, has had an average of 61% male to 39% female students over the past 10 years. The disparity shows up in annual departmental awards — while the Robert J. Cairo science awards since 2013 have a near-even split between 45% male and 55% female winners, Joseph Chase and Joan Brady Bowen math award winners have been 70% male and 30% female. 

While gender is not the only factor in scheduling, grade deans and the administration make a conscious effort to have as balanced of a gender ratio as possible in each class section, Registrar Chris Garrison ‘04 said. “We realize it is probably not ideal to have one female-identifying student in a class filled with all male-identifying students or vice versa.”

Divya Ponda (12) has noticed a gender imbalance in class participation in many of her higher-level STEM classes, she said. Although sometimes unintentional, this disparity may be related to boys undervaluing female perspectives in the classroom setting, Ponda said. “Sometimes it feels like I have to work thrice as hard to even have my ideas be considered.” This is only more common when girls are a minority in a class, she said.

Even so, the school’s first priority is ensuring that students can take any class that they are eligible for, regardless of gender, Garrison said. “If there’s a course with a pretty massive gender imbalance in the one section that exists for that class, the deans are not going to prevent a student from taking that class to adjust the gender dynamic.”

While gender disparities can exist anywhere, Ponda has noticed the most prevalence in her higher-level STEM classes like Calculus with Theory Honors, she said. Generally, this is because fewer female students choose to enroll in higher-level STEM classes, she said. “I’m not sure what exactly causes this, but I know that many girls don’t want to take the classes because of how male-dominated they are.”

Determining the cause of the gender disparity in physics is hard since there are so many factors at play, Science Department Chair Dr. Lisa Rosenblum said. She has noticed that fewer girls tend to request Physics With Calculus than other courses.

However, the observed gender disparity in Physics is not present in every science class, and gender dynamics can look very different in other science classes, Rosenblum said. For example, in her Molecular Genetics classes, she has seen an inverse ratio, with more girls than boys, she said. In those situations, Rosenblum makes an effort to make sure every voice is heard.

Miller Harris (12) noticed a skew toward female students in both of the higher level science classes that he took in the Upper Division, Organic Chemistry and Molecular Genetics: Cells and Physiology. On the other hand, however, Harris’s honors math classes have always leaned toward having more male students, he said. “Last year, there were only around four girls in my class and this year, there are only three or four.”

While Math Department Chair Brianne Gzik does not have an exact explanation for gender disparity in high-level math classes, she would be interested in exploring the topic more deeply, she said. Regardless of what factors determine gender ratios, the department makes an active effort to create inclusive classroom environments for all students, she said.

Gzik does not think that math is a gendered discipline, but through research for her master’s thesis, she found data suggesting that gender based stereotypes work against women in STEM, she said. “[Societal perception] definitely plays a role in student views,” she said. “Subconsciously, female students might internalize that a bit.”

Female students’ apprehension with taking high-level math classes has been a problem since the 90s and there have been many efforts to fix it, Bienstock said. “At one point, the head of the math department taught an all-female math class to try to generate a greater level of comfort in the classroom,” he said.

The lack of female representation in STEM and the narrative surrounding it often influences Naomi Gelfer’s (11) behavior, she said. “There’s this intrinsic feeling that I have as a girl that if I want to say something in class, I have to be right. That stops me from raising my hand a lot, especially in STEM classes,” she said.

That lack of confidence for class participation is not as common for male identifying students, Harris said. “There’s more confidence amongst boys, but I do think a lot of that could be unearned confidence,” he said. He has often seen moments where boys in a class try to talk over girls in class and assert their ideas to be smarter. “I don’t think their ideas are necessarily ‘smarter,’” he said. “It’s just a confidence thing.”

The experience of participating as a male student likely feels different than it does for female students, Harris said. “At least for me, I don’t care if I’m wrong,” he said. “I’ll try to answer your question, and if the teacher says ‘you’re wrong’ I’m like, okay, great, what’s the right answer then.” However, he is still impacted by the students in the class and if he is surrounded by less supportive classmates, he is less likely to speak up, he said.

The strict gender binary in STEM classes can be isolating for gender non-conforming students, Etta Singer (11) said. Last year, they still identified as nonbinary but went by she/they pronouns, they said. When learning about sets in math, the teacher proposed that students split into a set. “One girl in the class kept asking to split based off gender, and even though we ended up dividing based on the language we took, I remember being so freaked out,” they said. “I just knew I was going to be put in the girl set and I would have to raise my hand and single myself out.”

There are problems with only acknowledging two genders in the classroom, Singer said. “There definitely needs to be more collective consciousness of gender noncomforming students,” they said. “Literally today I got misgendered in my math class and just sort of hard to sit there awkwardly.”


Gender dynamics in humanities classes

Humanities classes have had their own trends in gender dynamics and ratios in the past 10 years. Higher level English classes tend to be more female-dominated with an average ratio of 32% males to 68% females, while history classes have more even ratios of 45% male to 55% female.

Gender dynamics in humanities subjects also show up in the distribution of departmental awards over the years. Female students have dominated English and history awards in the past 10 years: Paul Block, Edward H. Simpson, Alan Breckenridge, Randal Castleman English award winners since 2013 have been 70% female, 30% male; Newcombe-Lewerth, Anthony Lewis, and Robert Caro history award winners were 65% female, 30% male.

Humanities classes have the opposite gender divide from STEM classes. “In my Calculus with Theory Honors, there’s four girls in a class of about 19 people, which is crazy — in comparison to my Man’s Search for Meaning class where maybe 70 percent of the people are girls,” Divya Ponda (12) said. Talking and voicing her opinion is much easier for her in her humanities classes than in her STEM classes, largely due to gender ratios, she said. 

Gender ratios in a classroom can play a large role in how comfortable some students are when expressing themselves, Sofia Kim (11) said. Last year, Kim felt much more comfortable participating in her English class with a female majority, as opposed to her history class, which had a male majority. “It was especially hard to participate in things that I wasn’t 100% sure about,” Kim said. “Even if I was 85 percent sure, I would not raise my hand because it can be intimidating when boys answer the question in a way that implies everyone else is stupid.” Speaking can be hard if boys who act as if they are smarter than others seem more sure of the answer.

However, despite common stereotypes, Kim finds it easier to participate in STEM classes than humanity classes mostly due to judgment from male students, she said. “If I answer something right in math, no one can argue with me,” she said. “However, when I give my own opinion in English or history, it’s subject to judgment from people who think their answer is the only right one.”

In Jiyon Chatterjee’s (12) experience, humanities classes tend to be more balanced in numbers than STEM classes, he said. Both his Global Environmental History class and Man’s Search for Meaning English class have a relatively equal number of boys and girls, he said.

Talking in humanities classes is often much easier than talking in STEM classes, Gelfer said. “In STEM there are right and wrong answers as opposed to in humanities, where it’s more gray,” she said. “There’s less pressure to be perfect and right all the time.”

There has always seemed to be a relatively equal gender balance of students in history electives, with the only exception being AP Economics when that class was offered, History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link said. “AP Econ always remained the exception because there was a perception amongst students that the class was ‘for boys’ even when the department tried to make it clear that was not the case.”

While class discussions in humanities classes tend to be more balanced in gender participation, than STEM classes, men can still often take over, Chatterjee said. “I’ve heard that sometimes when there are debates in humanities classes, boys may talk over girls because they don’t value their opinions as much,” he said. “Because guys don’t often have to experience being silenced or feeling like they can’t speak, they never learn to listen.”

However, a lot of participation relies on the specific students within the class, Link said. “If I have noticed anything, it’s that generally, boys seem more confident in speaking in class,” he said. “If teachers ask a question, boys’ hands will often be in the air whereas it’s not always the case with girls.”

Labeling certain actions as exclusive to one gender is a very hard task, English Department Chair Vernon Wilson, said. “Across all disciplines, I believe girls are more likely on average, to feel the need, real or not, to ‘grind’ and work very hard to achieve high grades,” he said.

However, being conscientious of gender is relatively new to the school and it was not covered in the curriculum when he first arrived at the school, Bienstock said. “When I first introduced women’s history into my 10th grade survey, I would have students shut their books,” Bienstock said. “I didn’t take that very well, so we had to have some conversation about the importance of gender throughout history.”

While language is not generally thought of as gendered on a general level, there is a trend of gender divides between different languages. For example, Studies in French has a large female majority with 35% male and 65% female students in the last 10 years, whereas Studies in Spanish is relatively even with a slight male majority of 53%.

After taking Spanish in middle school and French in high school, Kim has noticed a large difference between the two. “There are definitely more girls in my French class than there were in my Spanish classes,” she said. The larger female population can often make it easier to participate, she said.

One reason French may skew female is that it is associated with stereotypical female things, Kim said. “When I think of French, I think of Paris and love and croissants, and shopping,” she said. “All things that society assumes to be for females.”

However, discussions within language classes have always felt less divided by gender than other classes, Gelfer said. “Everyone is equally embarrassed by their poor accents,” she said. It is a class where students can realize that everyone is a teenager and get their daily humbling, she said.

Despite the data, Clio Rao (12) has observed a significant divide in gender in Spanish classes, she said. In fact, Rao was one of just three girls in her Studies in Spanish class, which she took during her junior year. “It was definitely an interesting experience because I’ve never been in such a male dominated class,” she said. “Often when there’s a lot of guys in a class the environment can be judgemental so it was really intimidating walking into that class and there being only two other girls.”

Although she was one of the other two female students in Rao’s Studies in Spanish class, Nitika Subramanian (12) did not experience sexism in the class, she said. “Spanish is one of the only classes where I can honestly say I haven’t felt shortchanged.”





Teachers play a large role in moderating class discussions and can mediate gender divides, should they exist in the class. Every department except English has more female than male teachers this year, the first time that has been the case in the 30 years between now and 1995. 

For example, in Ponda’s Global Environmental History Class, history teacher Dr. Ellen Bales makes an effort to ensure that every student has an opportunity to voice their opinion, she said.

Like Ponda, Braden Queen (12) has noticed teachers encourage a more equal gender dynamic, he said. For example, his freshman year English teacher mandated a “gender integration” policy in regards to seating where boys and girls would sit interspersed. “In most classes, guys and girls tend to sit apart from each other, making an awkward setting where one side is all guys and one side is all girls,” he said. The policy created a more cohesive classroom environment, Queen said.

The support of teachers and mentors at the school helped Ambika Acharya ‘12 handle gender in the workplace, she said. “As a woman in tech, I can confirm that It is unfortunately very much true that I’m often the only woman in the room,” she said. “But the teachers who surrounded me and encouraged me gave me the confidence to continue working hard despite the gender disparities that existed.”

STEM teachers have also implemented policies to encourage all voices to be heard in the classroom. For example, Science teacher George Epstein often tells students to turn and talk to a neighbor or consciously creates gender-diverse groups for lab work, he said.

To make sure that students are well represented, it is important to have teachers of all different genders, Gzik said. “We always want a very diverse faculty because we want to represent our student body as best as we can,” she said. “Learning from people with different perspectives and experiences can be super helpful and encouraging to students, in my opinion.”

The representation of female STEM teachers is beneficial for Gelfer, she said. “I see that women are more into STEM and pursuing STEM degrees, and I see a ton of female science teachers which is just more representation,” she said.

The female faculty representation is also really strong in the Spanish department, Subramanian said. “There’s a lot of female teachers and leadership who are all staunch feminists as well as all the male teachers who are also stanch feminists,” she said. “Because it’s such a rigorous class they’ve learned to recognize the signs of sexism and lead by example.”

In the language department, faculty have worked to create a more even gender dynamic, Valencia said. “When I was hired, it was very much female dominated — which was shocking because where I came from, language was definitely not a female dominated field.”

Current gender ratios of faculty are much more equal, Bienstock said. In the 80s there were multiple years where there were not any female history teachers. Since then, that imbalance has changed dramatically, as the Upper Division history department currently has eight female teachers and five male teachers.


Continuing to grapple with gender dynamics 

It is hard to figure out how to handle gender, Valencia said. “When there happens to be a gender disparity in a class that is out of our control, we are given an important opportunity to teach how to respect other voices,” she said. “It is something that you’re constantly learning to improve at.” As a teacher it is difficult when there is no exact answer but it helps to teach kids and prepare them for their futures, she said.

It is vital to break down gender stereotypes around all disciplines, Gelfer said. “I don’t think that men benefit from the stereotype that all guys have to be loud and talkative and confident because it’s not true,” she said. Gender equality goes far beyond just fixing problems for women. “The more perspectives you have in a room, the more intellectually stimulating it is.”

When Valencia was job-searching years ago, a co-ed school was non negotiable, she said. “I was looking for a balance in perspective because a diversity of takes is what makes education possible.” That doesn’t mean there will be a different perspective every moment, but rather that there will be a wide variety of views and experiences, she said. “Richness in education comes from our ability to appreciate people as they present to us.”

The solution to creating a more inclusive environment when it comes to gender is not binary, Gelfer said. “There is a ton of intersectionality,” she said. “As a white woman, I don’t have the same experiences as [non-white women]” It is important to listen to other perspectives and learn, she said. “Everyone needs to do their part and pay attention to what others are saying.”


Editors’ note: The impetus behind our deep dive into the gender divide

As female students, we have experienced firsthand how unbalanced gender ratios can negatively influence a classroom environment. We often wondered about the origins of gender stereotypes — for example, how girls are assumed to be weaker at STEM subjects or should focus on the humanities — as well as if our school’s history as an all-boys’ institution has had any influence on perceptions of gender in academics today.

With this feature, we explored the nuances of gender dynamics within the classroom, which primarily involved examining the extent to which gender disparities exist and have existed over time. Which classes tend to exhibit gender disparities, and why? What are the implications of skewed gender ratios on factors such as class participation? 

We also aimed to examine actions taken to address gender disparities — have they presented any viable solutions, or were such efforts fruitless? In what ways can an attempt to address a gender disparity inherently perpetuate gender stereotypes?

To answer these questions, we drew upon a wide pool of data: we sent out a poll to the student body with 166 responses, combed through rosters for 400L classes since 2013 with help from Registrar Mr. Chris Garrison, tallied faculty gender ratios from the five major academic departments every five years since 1995, and counted the annual recipients of department awards since 2013 with help from department chairs and Administrative Assistant Ms. Diana Gonzalez. We have compiled this data into graphs alongside the article. 

However, we also acknowledge that our data is mostly organized around a gender binary — with the exception of our poll, which includes input from nonbinary students, our graphs only consider ratios of female to male students and faculty. Consequently, our analysis of the data primarily unpacks the experiences of female and male students and faculty.

Ultimately, we hope this article provides insight into how students and faculty currently perceive classroom gender dynamics, as well as how gender dynamics have shifted over time. 

Thank you for reading, and we hope you enjoy the piece.

– Ayesha Sen and Vidhatrie Keetha (Features Editors)