The gendered nature of discourse in many public settings has become so normal that it often goes unnoticed. It is not until someone sits down and empirically observes and documents participation in public discussions that we realize how gendered this participation seems to be. By referring to public discussions as “gendered” I simply mean that gender seems to play a significant role in people’s participation in public discussions.
In a study done by Rosenthal et. al they observed participants of the Model United Nations and found that men took twice as many speaking turns as women and made more challenging comments. They also found that the nature of the issues being discussed affected the amount of male and female participation. Cultural perceptions of areas in which men and women excel predicted how often males and females spoke when the group was discussing supposedly gendered subjects. They also found that women are more likely to attempt to create group discussion and harmony while men focus on accomplishing the task at hand.
In a more recent study, Christopher Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg had similar findings. They also found that women speak up less and lose influence when they are in the minority but men do not. It seems that women need to be in the majority before they will start talking about the gendered issues that are typically seen as important to them. Men, however, seem to speak up regardless of the amount of men in the group.
In light of these findings I decided to perform a series of observations in my Sunday School class at church. While the Rosenthal and Karpowitz studies were both performed in places of political discussion, I was curious to see if these same findings would hold true in religious settings. As the LDS culture tends to be male-dominated, I hypothesized that my findings would be similar to the findings of the previous research. In a series of four observations, I watched to see if men would make more comments than women. I also watched to see if the number of men and women in the class would affect the amount of participation between the genders. I also hypothesized that people would speak up on topics that were considered masculine or feminine depending on their gender. I also observed the types of comments made by the different genders to see if men made more challenging comments.
In three out of the four observations I found that men spoke much more often than women in the hour-long Sunday School class. During the first observation, men made 42 comments while women only made 26. The second observation had similar but less dramatic results, with men making 40 of the comments and women 32. During the third observation, however, men only made 18 of the comments while women made 21. This may be because the meeting before Sunday School took longer than usual, leaving less time for the class and less time for comments. It is interesting to note that even though women made more comments during this class, there was still only a difference of three comments (as opposed to the difference of 18 comments by which men dominated during the first observation). In the last observation, men returned to domination with 42 of the comments while women commented 27 times. In three out of the four observations, men made about 60% of the comments. This confirms the hypothesis that men participate more often than women in public discussions.
On their own, these findings might not seem significant. When you take into account how many men and women there were in these classes, however, it becomes much more interesting. In the first observation, in which men made 18 more comments than women, there were 18 men and 21 women in the class. In the second observation there were 22 men and 22 women in the class. In the third observation, there were 16 men and 18 women. In the fourth observation there were 15 men and 22 women. There were clearly an equal amount or more women than men in each of the observations, yet men made more of the comments. During the last observation, 15 men were able to make 15 more comments than 22 women. This confirms the Karpowitz and Mendelberg finding that women may lose influence when in the minority but men do not. Regardless of their number, men tended to make more comments than the women in their class.
It was also interesting to note the participation of the genders when the discussions were about topics that are considered to be gendered. During the last observation a substantial amount of time at the beginning of class was devoted to an analogy dealing with boats. As the class was discussing boat parts and their symbolic applications to our lives, I noticed that there were about ten men carrying the conversation. One women spoke up and mentioned an anchor, but other than that the boating analogy was carried completely by men. When asked what they would take on a boating trip, a woman said she would take her family while men talked about the practical objects they would need to repair their boats in case of an emergency. Women seemed to bring motherhood and families into most of the conversations, regardless of the topic being discussed, while men tended to focus on practical answers and doctrinal facts. This confirmed the hypothesis that people would speak about masculine or feminine topics depending on their gender.
The types of comments made by the different genders were also interesting to note. My observations confirmed the hypothesis that men would make more challenging comments than women. By this I mean that men tended to give more opinionated statements as facts, while women shied away from making these kinds of statements. When women made comments they tended to give one or two-word answers to factual questions, while men tended to give their opinions and attempted to advise and persuade with their comments. Many of the comments made by women were in the form of simple scripture reading. Scripture reading is the safest way to participate without actually offering your opinions. Women ended up reading 62% of the scriptures while men only read 38% of them. Men’s comments tended to be more challenging in nature while women tended to play it safe.
When you sit down and count the number and observe the types of comments made in Sunday School it opens your eyes to the gendered nature of public discourse that has become so common that we do not notice it otherwise. In my observations of four consecutive Sunday School classes, men typically spoke more than women even though there were usually more women than men in the class. Men’s comments also tended to be more opinionated and practical while women tended to speak more about their families and answer simple fact questions that did not require risking their relationships. My observations proved to be consistent with the previous research that has been done on this topic.