Chilly Classrooms – No we’re not talking about energy bills

How can I get women to speak up in my class?  

How can I create an inclusive training environment?  

How can I stop feeling like an imposter at uni?  

I was asked these three questions from three different people on three separate occasions this month. All three people, whether they realised it or not, were talking about a ‘chilly climate’ for women in classrooms…and no we are not talking about energy bills.  

In the United States, Lee and McCabe conducted research across 95 hours of classroom observation into the ‘chilly climate’ for women in classrooms. Conveniently for me they also captured a response to all three questions and occasions I had this month:  

“Too many women students today blame themselves for their lack of quick wit or self-confidence in classroom settings. But this study explains how gendered interactional patterns and classroom structures work together to create a chilly classroom climate for women.” 

Their research found that men students frequently occupy the classroom sonic space (the sounds or vocal space people occupy) speaking 1.6 times more then women students. Men also tended to use assertive language in comparison to women who wait their turn and use hesitant language. Active participation in classrooms contributes to increased student learning and development – so it matters that women students are relatively silent  

Should women just be more assertive? Well, although we do run assertive communication courses recognising that women do want to upskill in this area. The onus should not be on our women students to warm up the classroom. Lee and McCabe used their research to give us helpful tools for educators to warm up the chilly climate that may be causing women to be less active in the sonic sphere.  

  • Ask your women students follow up questions. The research found that women engaged in prolonged conversations when the professor asked them to elaborate or asked follow up questions. 
  • Enforce classroom rules. Men spoke three times as much as women when the teacher did not facilitate a discussion or call on raised hands. It might sound strict, but by allowing interruptions we undercut women students’ ability to participate.  
  • Women were more comfortable occupying sonic space when there are fewer men. This is a difficult one as the demographic of the classroom may be fixed. However, when creating working/discussion groups, the facilitator could consider creating women only groups where appropriate. At a minimum, it’s worth considering the implications of dividing the minority women across groups every time as this means they are always in the minority and therefore less likely to participate in the sonic space.  
  • Be consistent with how you address your students and don’t infantilise women. For example, addressing men as ‘Mr.X’ and women as ‘young lady’ or ‘girls’ but never calling men ‘young men’ or ‘boys’. While it is hard to get out of the habit, it will make a difference in creating an inclusive environment  

Lee and McCabe’s research give us a positive message that the teacher or facilitator can intervene with classroom norms and support the transformation of social norms. The start is recognising men and women students are arriving in the classroom with different social experiences and gendered expectations, and then making some small tweaks to facilitation.  

What tips do you have for creating inclusive education environments? Is there any other research and ideas we should investigate? Let us know at or tag us on social media @equatescotland

The full research can be read here:  

Lee, J. J., & Mccabe, J. M. (2021). Who Speaks and Who Listens: Revisiting the Chilly Climate in College Classrooms. Gender & Society, 35(1), 32–60.