Is online university a feminist issue? 

Alice O’Rorke considers the classroom dynamics of online university and how it affects female participation.

Whilst online university was the reason that my university attendance skyrocketed this year (it is true that it is a lot easier to attend seminars when there are zero miles between you and your laptop), the news that many Russell group universities are staying online has frustrated me immensely, and filled me with a sense of dread. 

My experience with online seminars featured about two or three people in a group of twenty answering all of the questions. This led to a lack of debate and interesting discussion, leaving me dissatisfied and feeling bad for the poor professors working their best to engage an unengaged audience. And whilst personally my attendance was good, this cannot be said for a lot of my cohort. Logging into a seminar filled me with a nervous angst, as I dreaded turning up and being the only student in attendance whilst everyone else failed to show up (this happened several times). Online university has been largely unfulfilling and has left me questioning whether it is a feminist issue. 

I address this as an English Literature student, with an  incredibly female-heavy cohort. Across my three modules last term, within the seminars, an average of 16 per cent of students were male. Despite this, I would estimate that the male contribution within these seminars was at least 40 to 50 per cent. As quoted on timeshighereducation.com, ‘men are two and a half times more likely to ask a question in an academic seminar than women’, with ‘60 per cent of women and 47 per cent of men [believing] that there was bias towards men asking questions’. 

This online format of seminars, which feels both clinical and distanced, alienates those women who struggle to raise their voices anyway, pushing them behind their screens and limiting their ability to openly discuss topics. With the option to turn off cameras and microphones, it makes hiding in plain sight that much easier. With your face not visible, and eye contact impossible through a screen, it is hard to feel guilty, or self-conscious about a lack of contribution.

The fact that in such a female-heavy course, this contribution imbalance is so obvious, means that I can’t imagine how much more daunting this would be in a male heavy course, where the male voice is louder, and it seems easier to be muted.

Online university is not a welcoming environment. It does not lend itself to easy discussion. Sometimes, when you cannot see who intends to speak, it is easier to not speak at all. Many times, in my own seminars, an open question asked by the professor has been met mostly with silence, with only one or two girls speaking up out of fifteen. However, as soon as we’re split into break out groups, really great discussion ensues. It is not an issue of students not having done the reading, but rather, a lack of confidence to voice their observations. And in a subject where topics such as feminism, racism and injustices are often at the forefront of text themes, the lack of good, open discussion is really damaging.

This makes me question why people are uncomfortable speaking up. The fact that I take a very discussion-heavy subject, yet still many people are unable to participate online, demonstrates a shortcoming in our education system. If schools, colleges, and the A-Level system are failing to instil a confidence within their female students, then they have not adequately prepared these students for higher education. This failure extends much further within universities. As much as it is the individual’s responsibility to raise their voices, professors should be doing all they can to aid confidence within students and help those struggling to participate. They hold the space for  open questions, aid discussion, and provide reassurance and insight… But on top of this, as uncomfortable as picking on people to speak up can be, I believe this to be a very necessary measure for online university, where people who hide behind their screens are forced to participate and practice speaking up. 

If universities and professors fail to help women raise their voices confidently in small seminar groups of twenty, then they are failing on a greater scale to tackle the bigger gender injustices in our society. If women do not learn within the comfortable environment of education to confidently pitch their points and push themselves, then this will impact their abilities to rise into high powered positions where they must face abrasive characters daily. 

Whilst online university has been an unavoidable necessity, it definitely could have been tackled better, and after a whole year of it, the statistics of those speaking up have not changed, suggesting that universities have not been altering and adapting their format to help women that are struggling to raise their voices. The continuation of online university is a feminist issue, because it helps those not confident in raising valuable points, to hide away at the edges of discussion. This means debates on really valuable topics suffer; not enriched by a variation of voices and opinions. If online university is to continue, then universities’ approach towards inclusion must change.

Artwork by Amelia Elson.

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