voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit

Putting Numbers to Feelings: Quantifying the Gender Disparity in Class Participation





Until 6 months ago, I was a woman in science. For the purposes of this article that means two things. First, I am no stranger to the underrepresentation of women, trans and non-binary people in academia. I was fortunate to do my research in a lab dominated by women, but outside that bubble, the gender disparity was clear. The hallways where I worked were lined with pictures of older men wearing lab coats the colour of which matched their skin. On scientific papers, authors who are men outnumber women 10 to 3. And seeing more than one woman’s name on a list of conference speakers was a rare treat; even rarer was seeing the name of a woman of colour.


When I entered the McGill Faculty of Law, it was a different story. At first glance, I saw a spectrum of genders around me, with what I estimated to be a relatively even split between men and women. Within my first couple of weeks, however, I found that although the book covers looked very different between science and law, the stories inside were closer than I had expected. Unlike the physical space, the auditory space felt overpowered by men and I wasn’t alone in this observation. I would hear other non-male people denounce the phenomenon that has been salient to many of us for as long as we can remember: men taking up space. Though I believed my instincts and the experiences of others, self-gaslighting and a scientifically ingrained affinity for facts nagged at me to get evidence. I needed to quantify.


This brings me to the second thing my background in science has ensured: a long-term and intimate relationship with the scientific method. Ask a question, do background research, form a hypothesis, collect data, analyze the data, draw a conclusion. I had a question—do men participate more than other folks in class? Living in a systemically sexist society my entire life gave me background research dating back to 1993. I had a hypothesis: men take up more space. Now, I needed the data.


When I could, which is far more infrequently than I would have liked, I tracked who was speaking in class, how many times men participated, and how many times women and non-binary people participated. I also documented the population of each group by measuring the total attendance for a given class, as well the proportion that was men. Among the discussions about federalism, good faith, and the reasonable person, I took notes for class while simultaneously swiveling my head around to measure class demographics. 


            Next step: Analyze the data. Using the data I collected, I was able to determine how often it would be proportionate for men to be speaking during class and compare that to what I observed. If the class was 50% men, then men would be expected to make up about 50% of the remarks. I combined the data I had across different classes and courses, finding that despite making up on average 40% of the class, men spoke 55% of the time. For my fellow scientists out there, this 15% difference is statistically significant (p = 0.034). Thus, my findings showed that a group comprising less than half the class was speaking the majority of the time.


            To get a better idea of what was going on, I broke down the data and analyzed it per course (Table 1). In Constitutional Law, men comprised 40% of the class, yet spoke 60% of the time (p = 0.005) while, in Contractual Obligations, men comprised 36% of the class, but spoke 61% of the time—a 25% difference (p = 0.0004).  Criminal Justice saw an average class make up of 40% men who spoke 52% of the time (not statistically significant) and, in the opposite direction, Extra-Contractual Obligations was made up of 44% men who spoke 39% of the time (not statistically significant).


What conclusions can we draw from this? First, to all the women and non-binary people who feel like men take up a lot of space in their classes: your experiences are valid and can be supported by science! Second, representation is not enough. Having adequate representation is an invaluable first step, but that’s all it is: a first step. A cultural and academic shift is necessary to help women and non-binary people take up the space that we deserve. 


            Unfortunately, like any question in science, finding the answer only leads to more questions—do men realize this trend? How do other demographic factors like age and race contribute? Will these trends change over time? Why do different courses encourage different levels of participation? I have continued to form hypotheses, with the impact of other demographic factors, and variation among courses being my new interest. My preliminary observations hint that a sizeable portion of the men who participate more frequently are younger and many have entered law directly from Cégep. My only foray, so far, into assessing the relationship between race and class participation came from a Criminal Justice class on carding and racial profiling in which 70% of the contributions were made by white or white-passing students. In terms of variations across courses, there’s a little more guesswork involved. Each of my courses is instructed by women, eliminating one potential variable. However, there are still any number of factors which either independently or combined may contribute to the difference, including subject matter, style of teaching, the particular individuals in each class, etc. My current hypothesis is that the type of questions asked in class, in part, reflects the type of participation. While Contracts can breed “straight-to-the-point” questions with an objectively right or wrong answer (“what is the equivalent in civil law?”), my experience in ECOs and Criminal Justice has included more open-ended questions (“what did you think about the conclusion?”). For women and non-binary people, inserting ourselves into a conversation dominated by men can be risky. That risk is multiplied when there’s a chance of being wrong. Ultimately, only more data will answer these questions.   


            To end, I have to be transparent. Every scientific study has its sources of error, and this one is no exception. My sample set was low, I was multitasking while collecting the data, and, importantly, this system works as a binary (men, not-men) with me assuming others’ gender identities by merely seeing them from across the classroom. Even so, the gender disparity is clear and with hard data or not, my experiences, and the experiences of those around, tell me that our instincts are right.  



Table 1. Participation per class.


Constitutional Law



Criminal Justice

Extra-Contractual Obligation

Classes combined

Expected % of men’s participation






Actual % of men’s participation







Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 11.07.45 AM.png

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

Powered by Squarespace