A recent study suggests approaches to encourage more class participation by female students.
‘We weren’t engaging women nearly as much as we were engaging men,’ says Nikita Dutta *21

In the fall of 2018, Nikita Dutta *21, then a Ph.D. candidate studying mechanical and aerospace engineering and materials science, was an assistant in instruction — an AI — in a class called “Structure and Properties of Materials.” In addition to leading sessions, she began jotting down notes about who spoke in class and when.

“The more I started doing that, the more I started observing that we weren’t engaging women nearly as much as we were engaging men,” she says. 

She planned to present her findings to the professor, Craig Arnold, and his research team, despite her worry that Arnold might be offended. He wasn’t. 

“I was like the opposite,” says Arnold. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the most exciting thing we’ve had in group meeting in months.’”

In fall 2019 and spring 2020, until their study was cut short by COVID, Dutta and Arnold formally observed 10 different Princeton engineering courses — half taught by men and half by women — over 89 class periods. They found that of the 1,387 comments made by students, only 20.3 percent came from women, even though 45.5 percent of observed students were female.

“The data made concrete a lot of things that I think we intuitively know, but until you see it, you don’t really stop and think [about] the extent of the problem or the extent of the impact,” says Dutta, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “It forces you to really think about it.”

The pair wrote a paper, recently published by IEEE’s Transactions on Education, to share their findings as well as to propose mechanisms to combat the imbalance. 

Dutta and Arnold found that when a woman taught class, comments by female students increased to 47.3 percent. When a female student spoke in class, other women were more likely to speak in the following minutes. As a result, the researchers suggest diversifying class voices, such as inviting a female AI to speak at the beginning of class.

“I think that, generally speaking, having a diverse group of people asking questions and interacting in the classroom helps guarantee that this is a safe place for diverse opinion, a diverse set of ideas,” says Arnold. He now routinely incorporates techniques into his classroom to do just that, and he thinks it makes a big difference. This spring, he was appointed Princeton’s vice dean of innovation and named a recipient of the Engineering Council’s Excellence in Teaching Award.

Catherine Clune-Taylor, a professor of gender and sexuality studies, thinks the study is evidence of a bigger problem. 

“We often don’t think about how these are systemic issues, and that we need to be engaging at interventions at every level, all the way up,” she says. “This is why we need to make everyone aware and cognizant of, and attentive to, those dynamics at every level.”

Clune-Taylor believes that everyone plays a role in enacting discriminatory norms, including, at times, the group that is being discriminated against. So, she says the idea to “just add more women and stir doesn’t necessarily fix the problem. We really do need to have this critical analytic lens as well.”

Dutta and Arnold hope this line of research continues. Arnold is sorting out logistics for follow-up studies. Their ideas include a study in which students can identify their own gender, as the original analysis relied on the researchers’ observations.

“I very much think that [our study] would apply to other underrepresented groups, and that there would be compounding effects if you are from two marginalized groups or more,” says Dutta. She adds that she’d like to observe environments outside of academia, such as the boardroom, to see if the problem persists. Previous studies have analyzed the impact of board gender diversity, but the Princeton researchers know of no studies that specifically examined board participation by gender.

Clune-Taylor agrees that the problem isn’t confined to academia. She argues that systemic injustice plays a major role in these outcomes. “We need to be critically thinking about how these issues, these phenomena, show up or fail to show up, insofar as they can be made invisible by privilege, in every aspect of our lives and the world.”