The right to be believed and the right to be wrong

I recently read Rebbeca Solnit’s excellent article “Men Explain Things to Me”. In it she makes the case that women have to fight to be believed, while we automatically  assume men have whatever expertise they claim. It’s a powerful article and I highly recommend that you read it. Here I want to talk about a consequence of this disbelief in women’s voices.

I’m talking about the confirmation bias which means when a woman is wrong it “proves” she didn’t belong, we should never have listened to her and she’d better get back to the kitchen. Of course when a man is wrong we hear “nobody is perfect”, “it’s not important anyway” or “it’s too complicated to explain, but he’s not actually wrong”. What we rarely hear is “I’m sorry I was wrong”. What we almost never hear is “I apologise to the woman who was right all along, they are more of an expert than me”.

We all need the right to make mistakes. Especially in a classroom, our students need the right to try problems that are hard, to fail and try again. They also deserve to be able to stick their hands up and say “I didn’t understand what you just said” or just “why”. That won’t happen if every time a female student admits they don’t know something they risk a barrage of comments telling them that they are inherently stupid and don’t belong.

These comments destroy most girls motivation and so they become self fulfilling. These comments are a way of silencing women and denying them the right to participate in the classroom. They are most common in traditionally male dominated fields like maths. As teachers we have a responsibility to ensure that these comments have no place in our classrooms.

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