The first week of a sociology class is tough. One of the first things many of us teach is the Sociological Imagination, or the idea that our individual lives are affected by social forces. I’ve found that students either don’t understand what that means or they think that “only other people” are affected by social forces. To illustrate the concept and to show them that it affects them personally I have this dead simple activity.

Ask your class to break up into groups of 3–5 and answer some question (the question is irrelevant to the activity). Tell them that each group needs to identify one member to be the leader and another member to be the secretary who writes down what is said. Let them work for about 2 minutes, just long enough that every group identifies a leader and a secretary.

This is where I tell my class to stop everything and stand up (I teach 300+ students so, that many students standing is a sight to behold). With the whole class standing I say, “Ok, if your group is all male or all female sit down now.” After about a third of the students take their seats I say, “Now if you are not the leader or the secretary, sit down.” “Great, now I want all of the group leaders still standing to come up to the front here and stand on the left side of the stage. And all you secretaries still standing can stand on the right side of the stage.”

As the students file down the aisle and take their sides an awkward laughter slowly builds. “So what trends do we notice in these two groups?” I ask the class. It doesn’t take long for the students to notice that there are almost no male secretaries and only around a 1/3 of the leaders are female.

“So, like I was saying, our individual choices are guided by social forces and cultural values. Do you see what I mean now?”