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The Only Female in the Group, Dynamic

If you’re the only girl in a group project, standing your ground and speaking your voice are no longer optional.

The Only Female in the Group, Dynamic

If you’re the only female in your group project, standing your ground and speaking your voice are no longer optional.

By Amelia Williams, City College of San Francisco

College is full of learning experiences and uncomfortable situations.

Between adjusting to the “intimacy” of life in a dorm, to learning how to engage with people at a frat party and what to say during icebreakers, we as young adults (or regular adults) must learn how to navigate a myriad of relationships that build our social skills.

None, however, does so much as the group project: the dreaded social experiment of our time. You see it on the syllabus like an impending iceberg or leopard seal. It initially slips your mind as your professor starts you out with a short paper or a PowerPoint presentation. But after the second round of midterms, you know it’s coming.

A group of students on a group project

When the prof starts reading out names, because you don’t get to choose, your eyes start darting around.

The smartest girl and guy in the class are of course, in the same group.

Then you see all the girls you get along with lumped together.

Then you hear the bro names.

They get listed one after the other in painful monotone, and you pray, pray they don’t call your name at the end of that list.

Then, they totally call your name at the end of that list.

The mental bracing begins. Will they listen? Will they give me an equal parcel of the work or will they heave it all on me or worse, erase me?

As women, in and out of academic spaces we are confronted with our inferior status regularly. We are talked down to, our opinions are undervalued if not ignored and according to a study by scientific journal PLOS One, we are even graded on a curve below our male peers. Another study at the University of California at Irvine shows that female faculty work in “quiet desperation” to be treated fairly: this includes not being addressed with overfamiliar pet names, micro aggressions about balancing work and family, and being given work that leads to tenure, not more “service work,” as the article states. This is patriarchy in a mild form. Beyond the classroom it can metastasize into something much worse.

The first month of my freshman year at school was plagued by products of patriarchy. The first class discussion my Sociology 100 lecture had was about the “rape chant” that had been overheard during an orientation event for the business school. Apparently, the chant was over 10 years old and the words alluded to having sex with an anonymous girl without consent.

There was one line that literally went “N is for no consent!”

Then, my dorm went on lockdown due to a campus rapist. He assaulted three girls in the span of two weeks between late September and early October of 2013, all within walking distance of my dorm building, and was never caught.

As a young woman in a country where I had yet to make any personal connections or secure a safe place to escape to should my campus prove itself unsafe, I was terrified. I saw the boys around me as dangerous and untrustworthy: if they didn’t respect my academic opinion, how much did they respect my humanity? Suddenly, every boy walking into my building had the power to pull me away into a nearby field and put his hand in my underwear, as had the predator to his three survivors.

I should note I have not experienced this on City College’s campus, but I attribute that to a community college being much more open, diverse and less of a social terrarium than a big name university. This is not to say I didn’t witness my schoolmates call women bitches and objectify them before 9am, but the opportunities to act on their misogyny were far fewer.

Group projects in undergrad are no different than group projects in high school except you need a bibliography and an abstract. I’d long adjusted to being talked over or having my ideas questioned and thus obligated to defend them, but the power dynamic of a collegiate male “educating” a collegiate female is quite unique.

The numbers say that white men dominate academia. So for women, either side of the teaching podium welcomes condescension or distrust. But, if you stick to your guns and go into it with a game plan and remember that it’s still your grade on the line, then you can come out the other side with your academic record and pride intact.

To do so, you must come out swinging.

Before anything is certain, define your role. Are you going to be the typist? Are you going to ringlead (go you!)? Do you want a specific angle or position for the project? Whatever the case, nail it down. Do not give anyone else the chance to take it, or make you feel like your talents are better suited elsewhere. If you know something is right and someone disagrees, male or female, they should be educated.

One of my closest friends has attended Mills College in Oakland, California, for the last three years—a women-only college. Visiting her last year was like a chiropractic adjustment I never knew I needed. The first man I saw on campus was the security guard, and he was one of four that I saw that entire day. I felt free.

Mills College

I saw women on the field running laps, women sitting in the quad, women talking and being jovial and just existing, without the male gaze. It’s crazy how you don’t think of these things until you actually experience them. I felt safe. She had felt safe for years.

In many ways, the group project is a metaphor. Really, guys acting like they know more than you is a micro-aggression. Author and woman Rebecca Solnit’s latest book is called “Men Explain Things to Me,” and it tackles just that. Why do men feel so obligated to explain things to women that we should, and most often already do, understand? Why do they feel entitled to my mind and my body?

I don’t know the date, but something happened to me, to most girls around me, at some point in school. We stopped speaking up for ourselves. We stopped challenging what we were told to believe. We are more than capable of achieving everything men have, and then some. We can’t be silent or silenced forever, and finding your voice starts with the group project.

Writer Profile

Amelia Williams

City College of San Francisco

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