In certain Berkeley High School classrooms, the number of male students far exceeds the number of non-male students. There are many historical and systemic factors that cause this issue. “From a young age, guys are told they can do a lot more and society gives them a lot more self assurance … I feel like girls underestimate their abilities a lot or underestimate how smart they are,” said BHS senior Itta Behrman, when talking about the reasons behind the gender imbalance in certain BHS classes. Behrman is currently enrolled in AP Physics C, where a whopping 83 percent of students are male. This trend throughout certain classes at BHS is unacceptable.
When non-male students are a minority in a classroom, it can make them uncomfortable in the class and therefore create a difficult learning environment. “It’s less like outward comments, and it’s more the passing things that accumulate,” said Elisa Highton, a BHS senior who is also one of the few girls taking AP Physics C.
Additionally, when non-male students know that a class is male dominated, it may deter them from picking the class in the first place when selecting their classes. This creates a vicious cycle that exacerbates the problem.
This issue can be observed in highschool classes, but the impacts reach much further. The classes that women choose to take in highschool affect the paths that they choose in higher education and their careers. “I want to go into a field where I know there will be other people that respect me and just given what I’ve heard about certain STEM fields, it’s made me not want to go into them because I know for a fact I will be facing (sexism),” said Highton. This results in women having less representation in certain career fields. According to the American Association of University Women, women only make up about one third of the STEM workforce.
Although this phenomenon is widely observed in STEM classes, it can be found in humanities subjects as well. At BHS, the class Politics and Power has a ratio of about two male students to every non-male student. “Right away, I recognized the disparity in the sign ups from the previous teacher who I inherited the class from,” said Joseph Poppas, who teaches the class. “So I tried to make a really strong effort to get the gender imbalance under control,” said Poppas.
“I think the biggest issue is that we just pretend it doesn’t exist at Berkeley High,” said Highton. When teachers and admin fail to address the issue, it creates an even more isolating environment for the few non-male students in the class.
While the issue is systemic and has been consistently present throughout history, there are actions that teachers can and should take to improve the experience of non-male students in male-dominated classes. Poppas expressed the importance of acknowledging the disparity “in an open way … with a lot of transparency” to ensure that “women are feeling like they can openly contribute”.
“I try really to go out of my way to make sure that, especially in the politics class, that we tackle things like mansplaining or the male answer syndrome head on,” said Poppas. If more teachers follow this model, non-male students could feel better supported.
Another action that the administration should take to combat this problem is to advertise classes that have been historically male-dominated specifically to non-male students. This would ensure that all non-male students who want to take those classes have been made aware of them. “Encouraging all students to take classes they want helps chip away at such a large societal issue,” said Behrman. Every year, Poppas tries to get “women to help recruit other women.” This word of mouth creates a positive reputation for these classes, which is effective in getting more women to sign up for the class.
Ultimately, teachers hold personal power to work on fixing these systemic imbalances, and by taking advantage of that, non-male students will be able to seek the same opportunities as their male counterparts.