In this classroom activity, the instructor divides students into small groups and gives each group some pages with dialogue between a female and male. There are two versions of this dialogue, although the instructor does not disclose this information at first. One version contains the dialogue as it was originally published, and the other reverses the gender of the speakers.
When I carried out this activity in my class, I used two versions of excerpted dialogue from Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" (from his 1927 book Men Without Women). I used a literary text because I was working with an interdisciplinary group of advanced college students, but this activity would work equally well with other types of dialogue, including dialogue written by the instructor. In the excerpt I used, a man and a woman are having a conversation about something that appears to be important to them:
After handing out dialogue excerpts to each group, I give students 10 minutes or so to read the dialogue and discuss their impressions of the two characters. Most groups choose to read the dialogue out loud, assigning the speaking roles to different group members. Once the groups have finished this part of the activity, I ask all students to write down their impressions of the dialogue characters (this written record prevents students from changing their impressions in response to their peers during later class discussions).
Next, I ask each group to tell me something about the characters. This discussion typically reveals very different impressions depending on which of the two dialogues students read. For instance, a group with the original version might view the man in the dialogue "calm and rational" and the woman as "emotional yet strong," but a group with the reversed dialogue might view the man as "whiney, clingy, and manipulative" and the woman as "cold and uninterested in him."
Once a few students have offered their impressions, I reveal that there are two versions of the dialogue. At this point, I invite students to take another 10 minutes with their group and discuss whether their impressions of the characters would be different if the genders were reversed from what the group read earlier.
In the last phase of the activity, I hold a class discussion in which students talk about any gender biases they encountered or displayed, where these biases come from, whether the biases are harmful, and how best to reduce biases if indeed they are harmful.
Tips on Implementation
My advice is to introduce this activity within the first month of the academic term, so that students can get into the habit of applying course material to their daily lives. I would not, however, recommend carrying out the activity during the first two weeks, before instructors have established a safe classroom environment in which students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest pitfall to avoid is conducting the activity without sensitivity. Because students will often be discovering and sharing their own biases, instructors should do their best to create a supportive atmosphere that safeguards the welfare of students who may be feeling vulnerable. Here are some specific recommendations to help achieve this goal:
- On the first day of class and in the course syllabus, make sure students know that you welcome their genuine thoughts and feelings, and that you regard respectful dialogue as being of paramount importance.
- Choose a dialogue with subtle content and characters expressing emotion but not behaving in extreme ways (e.g., committing acts of physical violence). The activity works best if students form impressions based on expressive aspects of the dialogue rather than behaviors that are highly unusual or gender-typed.
- Put the activity's results in context so that students realize that everyone harbors gender biases to some extent, and point out that most people don't notice them or think about them in daily life (which is one reason why the activity is worth doing).
- Be sure that several students share their impressions of each character with the class so that one or two individuals aren't singled out as the only ones with biases. If students are shy, the instructor might get the ball rolling by saying something like, "When I first read this dialogue, I thought the woman was sort of cold!"
This activity is appropriate for a wide variety of educational levels and environments, as long as the participants feel comfortable with one another. I would not recommend the activity for very large groups, however, simply because it requires intimacy for reflective conversation and nonthreatening interaction.
Variations and Conclusion
This activity is easy to adapt for specific settings and age groups. For instance, if a workshop leader wanted to use it with business professionals to expose gender biases in hiring, the dialogue might be between an employer and a job interviewee. Similarly, the activity can readily be adapted to highlight assumptions about race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or ablebodiedness. For example, to highlight assumptions about sexual orientation, one dialogue might be between a gay character and a heterosexual character, and a second dialogue might reverse the sexual orientation of the characters.
In addition to varying the dialogue, instructors may wish to modify how the class discussion is conducted. One such modification is to reveal that there are original and reversed dialogues before holding the class discussion, and to ask for impressions of the characters in the original published dialogue followed by characters in the reversed dialogue. Likewise, instructors might call for impressions of the female character in one or both dialogues, and then turn the discussion to the male in one or both dialogues.
Regardless of the details, my students and I have found this activity to be illuminating and engaging, and I hope that other students and instructors do as well.