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.

#HeForShe

I love the above video for a number of reasons, but right now it’s because I think it highlights something that I didn’t talk about in my last post. What is the role of men when it comes to gender equality? You may not have noticed this, but I only mentioned one man in Britain’s feminist movement, John Stuart Mill. One. That is not to say that there weren’t other men who promoted women’s rights, but it is important to note that there was only one man who prominently featured in it. I think it’s time that that changed, and I wanted to take a moment to talk about Emma Watson’s #HeForShe campaign.

I was pleasantly surprised when I woke up to news that Emma Watson had launched a campaign at the UN called #HeForShe. Now I admit, I wasn’t crazy about the hashtag grammar, but I decided that it was probably something worth looking into. I’m so glad I did. If you haven’t seen the speech, I’ve included it below and you can find the full transcript at the end of this article.

Watson’s speech resonated with me in a lot of ways. Similar to Watson, I have always identified as a feminist, and this has never seemed like a complicated decision for me. Why shouldn’t I want to be treated as an equal to my male friends and counterparts? And while a desire for equal rights has always seemed like a no-brainer to me, I can’t emphasize enough how isolating both the idea of equal rights and the term feminist can be. Watson is absolutely right, many of the men I have met consider gender equality as “synonymous with man-hating.” I don’t think that feminism, or a push for equal rights, has to be viewed in that light. For me, asking for equal rights does not mean that I hate men. It means that I support women. It means that I want to level the playing field. It means that I think that women should be paid the same as men. It means that not only do I want a seat at the table, but I also want my voice to be encouraged and heard with the same weight as any man’s voice. In short, when Judi Dench ends the above video, I want a world in which those statistics are a thing of the past and Daniel Craig can honestly answer “Yes, we are equal.”

I think Emma Watson has started a great campaign. I also think that the most important thing she has done is aim the messaging at men. I hope that it encourages men to speak up for their female friends, mothers, sisters, and wives. I hope that when people make sexist comments that it encourages them to take a stand. That it encourages them to support the women in their lives. To be active and to refuse to silently let things continue the way they are.

Although Watson does focus the campaign on women’s rights, I also think it’s significant that she looks at male inequality. To quote Watson directly:

Men, I would like to give this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too. Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 to 49, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and heart disease. I’ve seen men fragile and insecure by what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.

Watson is right. Gender inequality works both ways.

I know that having conversations on gender equality is often a hard thing to do. The conversations can be awkward, difficult, and complex. More often than not, it’s easier to let a comment slide than it is to pause and having a meaningful discussion on equality. But I think it’s more important that we take the time to struggle through these hard conversations. That we take the time to acknowledge that gender inequality is a global and a pervasive problem, rather than pretending that gender inequality does not exist. Ultimately I hope that #HeForShe helps promote a stronger dialogue on this issue, and that it helps both men and women stand up and support each other.