Discussion Groups and Gender

One of my favorite things to do in the classroom is to have small discussions with students. Norwegian students tend to be reserved, so these smaller discussions allow for them to talk to me in a safer setting and also make it easier for me to evaluate their language skills.

This semester I’ve added another International English class to my schedule, my second one. So far it’s been fun to work with the two different classes and to see how each teacher runs the class differently. The most obvious difference is how they cover the subject material. Both teachers work from the same textbook, but each has prioritized different chapters. In my newer International English class they have been working more with the “Living and Studying Abroad” chapter. Because I’ve done both of these things, I’m a fairly obvious resource, and that’s what initially got me invited to regularly follow the class.

The first time I visited, I more or less held a question and answer session with each discussion group. I’ve often found that Norwegian students don’t usually ask me much beyond a few generic questions:

  • How do you like Norway? (It’s great although the weather could be better. You have the most beautiful scenery that I’ve ever seen)
  • What’s Los Angeles like? (Warm, sunny, with lots of cars and people. I really miss good Mexican food)
  • Why did you want to come here? (I wanted to work with students who have a high proficiency in English. For a longer answer see this old post)
  • How long are you here for? (For a year)
  • Have you visited places in Norway other than Trondheim? (They are usually impressed to know that I have been to Longyearbyen, Tromsø, the Lofoten Islands, Røros, Halden, Lillehammer, Bergen, and Oslo)

but before long their questions peter out, and it’s my turn to take the lead and ask a few questions:

  • Have you ever been to the US? (Most students answer yes)
  • Would you like to go there and where would you like to go? (Standard answers generally include New York, Los Angeles, and Florida. Texas occasionally makes an appearance)
  • What are some American stereotypes that you have? (Americans all own guns, are racist, and fat)
  • What are some Norwegian stereotypes? (Norwegians are quiet, rude, and everyone skis)

Of course I did my best to try and break down some of these stereotypes, both Norwegian and American, and I like to think that by the end both I and the students had learned a bit more about each other.

While I really enjoyed these discussions, my second visit to this International English class actually proved to be more interesting. Part of this same chapter has a passage on gender roles. The students were asked to read a fictional story written by an Indian woman detailing her struggles with her family. The woman primarily writes about how she finds it difficult to get her family to support her career, something that she cherishes. Unfortunately, her family thinks that her career is unworthy of attention and wants her to get married as quickly as possible. Frustrated that her goals are being pushed aside and her accomplishments ignored, the author goes on to talk about how she considers her situation to be even more unfair because her younger brother is doted on, even though he has yet to accomplish anything.

The passage is clearly written to spark a dialogue on gender, so off I went to the corner of the classroom to talk to my students. My discussion groups naturally divided up into three different types of groups:

  • All boy groups
  • All girl groups
  • Mixed groups

To get things started I’d begin with the following questions:

  • What did you think about the passage?
  • What did you think about the way gender is portrayed in the passage?
  • Do you think things are the same in Norway?
  • Do you think that there is gender inequality in Norway?

Now the last question was by far the most interesting. Somewhat predictably, the answers I got depended on the group composition. All boy groups tended to say that there was no gender inequality, or very little. All girl groups would state that gender inequality exists in Norway, although not to the same extent as in the passage. Mixed groups would either 1) have the boys try and claim that there was no gender inequality, and rapidly get shut down by the girls or 2) the boys would wait for the girls to speak up and then support their statements.

The biggest cited gender inequality amongst my Norwegian students? The pay gap. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows the current Norwegian pay gap at 7.01%, certainly better than the United State’s 17.91% (OECD). The other big inequality? A lack of female executives. While a few countries have talked about installing a mandatory gender quota in business, this is something that has existed for quite a long time in Norway. In 2003, Norway required that business boards be at least 40% female or else be shut down. And while this seems like it might solve gender discrepancies at an executive level, this doesn’t turn out to be the case. In 2014, none of Norway’s 32 largest companies had a female CEO, and more broadly speaking, less than 6% of general managers were female (WSJ). Gender disparity also extends beyond the realm of business. Academia proves to be another excellent example where gender quotas might earn women a seat at the table, but might not translate to high ranking positions.

While Norway has certainly taken steps to minimize gender inequality, the flip side is that this can sometimes be used to stifle debate. Instead of taking more steps to continue improving gender equality, sometimes the response can be “We’ve already implemented policies, what more do you want?”

But gender inequality works two ways. I was absolutely blown away by one male student, who in his mixed discussion group, was the first one to talk about gender inequality. To my surprise, his first comment was to talk about male inequality. His example was in education, where he’s seen firsthand that women dominate in primary and lower secondary education. He proceeded to tell me that in Norway it’s a requirement that primary schools have a teaching staff that is at least 20% male, something that most schools struggle to meet, and something that he’s heard about firsthand through his father, a kindergarten teacher. I was absolutely floored by his comments and incredibly proud of him for talking about male inequality. It definitely helped elevate the level of discussion, and I like to think that it gave the girls in his group something to think about.

Although gender inequality does exist in Norway, it’s still been wonderful to live in a much more equal society than the one that I’m used to. It’s incredible how much safer I feel in Norway, and part of that has to deal with the fact that I haven’t experienced any sort of gender related harassment. I actually feel reasonably safe walking alone at night (whether night starts at 3pm or 12am), and that’s been a welcome change.

It’s also great to see how relationships and parenting are much more equal here. I think I’ve seen as many dads out with their kids as I have moms, and it’s great to see that parenthood is something that is respected and celebrated by both genders. One Norwegian that I work with loves to talk about his son and advertise him on Facebook with a #funwithdad hashtag. It’s really wonderful to see. So while Norway still has a ways to go, I still raise my non-alcoholic (because alcohol is too expensive) glass to Norway for what they’ve done so far.

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