Growing Up Equal: Gender Fairness in the Classroom
More than two decades have passed since Congress prohibited sex
discrimination in education by passing Title IX of the Educational
Amendments. Yet stereotyping by sex and its sister corollary -- gender
bias in education -- continue to create a 51% majority of second class
Early Gender Socialization
Gender roles are waiting for children at the instant of birth.
Studies have shown that parents' expectations shape behavior from the
earliest moments. Babies in blue diapers are often characterized by adults
as active and loud; those in pink are described as quiet and sweet; and
those in yellow so confuse the observer that many ask about the sex of a
child in order to know how to treat it.
Infant girls are usually touched and talked to more by their mothers, while
baby boys are influenced to explore and play independently. The children
learn early that the two genders have different territories -- a special
room or chair is set aside for the use of the men, while the women's places
-- the kitchen, for example -- are usually public and open to invasion.
Even as very young children, they are often unconsciously encouraged to
embrace sex-stereotyped roles through their toys and games. Boys learn
about three-dimensional structures, velocity and angles through their
action toys and building kits, math concepts which become a solid
foundation of their practical knowledge. Girls are prompted to express
themselves verbally, and learn to explain processes they cannot "see" with
words. Stereotypic storybook characters and language, different methods of
disciplining, separate treatment in activities involving risks, emphasis on
physical appearance for girls, divergent expectations regarding
assertiveness in social interactions and peer pressure to conform to
stereotypic images all contribute to the control of a girl's alternatives
and, more importantly, her motivation to choose. By the time school
begins, many children have spent five years at home where their parents and
others have telegraphed alarm if the male children haven't developed their
tendencies to "be all boy," and the girls to be feminine.
Sexism in the School
Once they enter school, the hidden curriculum -- unbalanced staffing
patterns, unequal distribution of power and authority within the school,
invisibility of women in curricular materials, disparate student-teacher
interaction patterns, deductive reward systems -- maintains and extends
this socialization pattern. There is no shortage of role models in most
schools to indicate to girls that, in many areas, education is a spectator
Girls in Math and Science
As we near the turn of the century, science and business leaders
are expressing increasing concern about the projected shortages of
scientific and technical personnel. Their anxieties are justified: our
nation's economic and political vitality is directly linked to our ability
to enlarge the talent pool of students planning careers in math, science
and technology. Since more than two-thirds of new entrants into the labor
force will be women and minorities by the year 2000, why are barriers still
erected which prevent more girls from gaining the skills they need to enter
these critical careers?
Research indicates that despite little difference in gender achievement in
math and science in the lower grades, the success levels of girls in these
areas begins a steady decline once they enter middle school. By the age of
seventeen, boys score considerably higher on tests in these subjects.
Aside from early gender socialization that denies girls experience and
skills in problem solving through the use of tools and mechanical objects,
they face other forms of discouragement that prevent them from fulfilling
their potential. Why girls find math, science and technology achievement
elusive results from a number of factors:
* Most math curricula in the early grades focus on
interactive memorization ability; many girls achieve at that
point because they arrive at school with those skills.
Boys regularly receive remediation to help them develop
and improve those capacities in the early years. In
middle school, the focus shifts to higher order, abstract
concepts that depend on spatial visualization and other
skills with which boys come to school. There is no
parallel shift in remediation. Girls are not generally
encouraged to develop their higher order math skills in
the same way that boys were assisted in the early grades.
Consequently, girls are less likely to persevere and
extend their math education, and most either take more
rudimentary courses or drop the subject altogether.
* Evidence shows that boys and girls approach learning
from different perspectives and employ different learning
styles. Most girls prefer to use a conversational style that
cultivates group accord, a process through which ideas
build on one another. Boys learn through argument,
individual activity and independent work, skills they learn
early on. Their classroom style of public debate in which
they challenge one another in order to learn is in direct
opposition to the learning style of girls in which mutual
support and the building of collaborative knowledge are
fundamental aspects. Yet the mainstream model of
education in math, science, and technology classes
supports the learning styles of boys and leaves out a
large percentage of the learning community, including
girls, whose learning styles are neither recognized or
* Sex-biased career counseling often prevents girls from
getting information about career possibilities requiring
competence in advanced mathematics or science. Nor
are they exposed to role models of women who are
engaged in successful math or science careers.
* Parents of many girls involuntarily fail to provide support
for their daughters' interest in math or science.
* Girls frequently believe that neither math or science
have any relevance in their lives.
Even computers, frequently cited as the vehicle for overcoming a wide array
of inequities, have been unequally utilized:
* Computer science is often narrowly identified with
mathematics which reinforces its stereotype as being a
discipline that is more accessible to boys.
* Limited equipment and software in schools has led, in
many cases, to scheduling patterns that limit computer
use to those students who exhibit more success in using
them rather than to the slower or more average students.
Setting difficult prerequisites for computer courses, and even
for the use of the school's computers also deprives average and
slower students of computer opportunities.
* Software that incorporates stereotypes and uses of
technology that reflect subtle biases further reinforce
girls' negative attitude toward computer science.
The importance of how children are taught is at least as important
as what they are taught. Teachers are often unaware of how aspects of
their behavior communicate expectations that can easily derail girls'
Children's success in school is related to the amount as well as the type
of attention they receive from their teachers, regardless of whether the
attention is negative or positive. Studies have found that males receive
more attention from the teacher than do females in classrooms from
preschool to the university. More attention is paid to boys by teachers
* Often expect them to work more independently, ask them
higher order questions, and criticize them more for
misbehavior, even when they are acting no worse than
* Call directly on boys more than girls;
* Recognize boys more when they volunteer in class;
* Are more inattentive when girls speak;
* Nod and gesture more in response to boys;
* Give more patronizing or impatient responses to girls;
* Allow girls to be interrupted more by other students and
physically "squeezed out" by boys in the laboratory,
computer room, in demonstration projects and on field
* Assume that assertive and direct boys are more
knowledgeable than hesitant, polite or shy girls;
* Underestimate the competence of girls, especially
* Get to know boys informally more than girls.
The surprising fact is that not only do boys demand more attention, but
that teachers of both sexes actively solicit their responses more than
those of girls!
The recent pioneering studies on gender bias in schools conducted by Myra
and David Sadker and the investigation into gender teaching by the American
Association of University Women shows that what people once assumed to be
innate gender differences are in fact produced by adults' different
behavior toward boys and girls, behavior of which most adults are unaware.
The studies show that these subtle classroom behaviors contribute to girls'
tendency to lose interest in the school and career tracks traditionally
associated with boys. They also show that the demands on women and men in
the workforce are very different than they were even a generation ago, and
that gender-stereotypic responses to boys and girls are detrimental to both.
Boys are Affected by Gender Bias, Too
What has not been acknowledged until very recently is the degree to
which gender-stereotyping and gender bias limits males as well as females.
Sex role socialization subordinates people to preconceived, limiting forms
of conduct, academic achievement and employment regardless of personal
strengths, motivation and professional or vocational dreams.
In the case of men, some of these stereotypes are actually
life-threatening. The indicators of physical and psychological trauma men
experience in order to achieve, acquire prestige and money, and prove their
manhood are becoming well known. Being a man, for many, is a high-risk
lifestyle that places extraordinary demands on their health and happiness:
* The annual death rate for cancer is nearly one and a half
times higher for men than for women;
* Death rates from heart disease are twice as high in men
as in women;
* The ratio of ulcers in men versus women is two to one;
* Within a few years of divorce, the divorced mens' death
rate is three times the death rate for divorced women;
* Men are four times more likely than women to be the
victims of murder;
* The rate of successful suicides is three times as high for
men as for women;
* Men are the victims of on-the-job accidents at a rate which
is at least six times higher than that for women;
* Men are three times more likely to be arrested for
drunkenness than women.
* Men in the United States can expect to live an average of
eight years less than women.
No one is immune to the subtle pressures of sex role socialization. As
boys and girls prepare for life in an adult world, neither are convincingly
provided the option to be and do what they want to be and do.
Another gender-related and growing problem that can undermine the
effectiveness of schooling for both boys and girls is sexual harassment.
Several factors complicate this issue including the pervasive uncertainty
about just what constitutes sexual harassment; the fact that males and
females have different perspectives on the issue; and that each case will
vary based on the facts and the relationship between the parties.
The law regarding sexual harassment is based on Title VII of the Civil
Rights act of 1964 and Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments.
Guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can
serve as a starting point in understanding this sometimes clouded issue:
Sexual harassment refers to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual
favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when (1)
submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term
or condition of one' employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such
conduct is used as a basis for employment decision, or (3) such conduct has
the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with one's work
performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work
In a landmark case, Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson (1986), the Supreme
Court said that for claims of sexual harassment based on a "hostile
environment" to be actionable, they must be sufficiently severe or
pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an
abusive working environment. Sexual harassment, however, need not involve
conduct that is explicitly sexual in nature but may include "any harassment
or unequal treatment of an employee or group of employees that would not
occur but for the sex of the employee or employees" (McKinney v. Dole
Although most sexual harassment cases occur in the general workforce, the
courts have stated that there is no substantial distinction between the
work environment at large and the school environment that would prohibit
sexual harassment in the former while abiding it in the latter. Therefore,
school personnel -- including superintendents, principals, administrators
and other supervisory staff, and teachers -- can be liable and held
responsible in sexual harassment lawsuits for their own harassing
activities and for their failure to address claims of sexual harassment by
others for whom they are responsible.
Sexual harassment, of course, is not limited to the adult population. In
fact, according to the survey conducted by the American Association of
University Women and described in their report, "Hostile Hallways -- The
AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America's Schools (June 1993), it is an
experience common to the vast majority of eighth to eleventh grade students
in America's public schools, often begins several grades earlier, and is on
the rise in both middle and high schools.
Exposure to sexual harassment can negatively effect the emotional, social
and physical sense of well-being of both girls and boys. Some victims
describe feelings similar to those identified by rape victims. Other
reactions often expressed by victims of sexual harassment are anger,
frustration, depression, anxiety and a sense of self-blame, any of which
can further cause a decrease in the ability to concentrate, high
absenteeism and a severe drop in learning potential.
Rather than view the increase in complaints and reported cases of sexual
harassment with the urgency it deserves, however, many school
administrators continue to treat the incidents as harmless, if at all. But
like any other infraction of human rights, this lack of serious attention
to a serious problem sends a clear message of tacit approval to children,
girls in particular. And along with that message comes another informal,
yet crystal clear bit of information: that school, or at least those
classes where they are most likely to be harassed, are not places for them.
The Call for Equity
Just as all aspects of the school are potential carriers of
inherently damaging race and ethnic-oriented messages, they are also
potential carriers of equally damaging, implicit or explicit
gender-oriented communication. The challenge to parents, school personnel
and community leaders is clear: we must not allow anything to threaten
equity in education for all children if we are to compete effectively in
the global marketplace of the next century. It is not sufficient to
balance the opportunities and equalize the workforce for adult women. From
the earliest ages, we must encourage a belief in equity for all children,
including girls, and prevent them from encountering the barriers that allow
them to doubt their own capabilities.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
* Examine your attitudes carefully. Do you believe females are generally
not as skilled in math and science and do you play that out in your
interactions? Do you allow male students to control the dialogue? Do you
interact with male students more than with female students? Do you
discourage autonomous behavior and risk taking in girls?
* Restrain students who dominate class discussions by not allowing
interruptions, limiting the time a person may hold the floor, or limiting
the number of times a person may speak.
* Coach those who speak hesitantly and with too many qualifications by
videotaping their participation, letting them rework their wording, and
then practicing a more assertive delivery.
* Watch your vocabulary. Children do not necessarily translate the word
"man" to mean both "man" and "woman." Nonsexist language is critical to
any change in gender teaching, as is the use of words that indicate
aggression -- "take a stab at it", "rip it apart", etc.
* Allow girls to express their feelings, including anger. Adolescent
girls become resentful if their anger is silenced, and can become defiant
for this reason.
* Really listen to the girls. Encourage them to talk and to express their
* Discourage the image of the "perfect girl" who must become the perfect
woman who never expresses anything other than good feelings for everyone.
* Be honest and don't present yourself as a superwoman. When female
teachers, administrators and principals present themselves as always being
"together," their actions indicate a personal submission and they advance
the silencing process.
* Discourage gender stereotyping by not scheduling male- and
female-preferred courses in the same time slots during the day.
* Raise the level of awareness of school boards, school councils,
superintendents and professors in schools of education about the positive
results of equity training for teachers, counselors and administrators.
Provide them copies of the AAUW report on gender teaching. Encourage
release time, sabbaticals and funding for teachers to attend seminars,
workshops or to take graduate courses in gender-fair education.
* Conduct research within your own school on teacher/student interaction.
Provide teachers assessment tools to check their own behavior in their
* Develop a list of local women with expertise in educational issues for
your elected officials to use in considering as appointees to boards of
directors and education posts. Encourage women candidates who are
supportive of gender-fair teaching to run for positions that influence
* Review the books available in school and local libraries. Make sure
that children and parents have access to gender-fair, multicultural
materials. Provide up-to-date lists of appropriate books and materials to
the librarians on a regular basis.
* Review curricula and textbooks used throughout your school district in
terms of gender fairness. When you report your findings to the committee
or board responsible for textbook and curriculum adoption, be prepared to
make recommendations for change.
* Stress the necessity for a gender-fair curriculum that is fully
integrated at your school, not an add-on.
* Find ways to teach mathematics equally to young children through play,
using situations that introduce girls and boys to a variety of career
options early. Show girls especially that math and science can have
relevance in their lives.
* Inform all students about the work of outstanding women mathematicians.
* Use hands-on activities, visual representations and physical materials
to demonstrate abstract concepts.
* Use group problem solving and collective brainstorming as part of your
daily classroom agenda.
* Create a mathematics environment that includes and supports student
examination of real life situations, such as those found in the media,
concerns about social issues, and so on.
* House the computer center away from the mathematics department.
* Institute "girls only" days in your computer lab. Invite the most
popular girls in the school to form a girls' computer committee to do
something about the problem of equity in technology.
* Have a wide variety of software available, including graphics, writing
and art programs. Limit game playing which attracts boys and tends to
* When you see a girl enjoying something on a computer, invite her to
bring her friends to try it next time. Allow them to work in pairs or in
groups. Set up the computer lab so that there can be eye and voice contact
even if they are each working on their own computer.
* Ask older girls to introduce the use of the computer to students in the
* In history classes, have students consider what women were doing during
the time period they are studying. Sometimes women were doing much the
same thing as men, as shown evidenced by their roles in the organization of
trade unions in the late nineteenth century. Or they may have done
something completely different, as during World War II when women entered
the workforce in great numbers, many for the first time.
* In literature, focus part of the time on women writers of the past and
present who actively influenced their contemporaries and descendants.
* Women artists have practiced throughout history. Include them in
chronological and stylistic surveys. Or study them as the subject matter
of art and in their role in the field of art. Discuss the importance of
their traditional creative expressions such as needlework and quilting.
Apply the same approach in the performing arts -- study the effects of
women in music, theater, dance and the institutional constraints on their
becoming "great" artists.
* Encourage the school board or local school council to provide awareness
training for teachers, counselors, administrators and students on sexual
* Help your school demonstrate their strong commitment by developing and
enforcing a clear policy on sexual harassment. Make sure the policy:
* explains what sexual harassment is;
* gives some examples of unacceptable conduct;
* clearly describes the grievance procedures and other avenues
* specifies what disciplinary action will be taken; and
* is publicly posted and publicized widely.
* Make sure all students and staff know how to detect harassment, and know
how to report it.
* Identify and train a few people in the school who can function as
complaint managers -- people who are authorized to receive confidential
complaints and begin the process of dealing with them in a sensitive manner.
NOTE: The text above is from the recent book, Teaching Peace: How to Raise Children to Live in Harmony -- Without Fear, Without Prejudice, Without Violence_ by Jan Arnow (Perigee/Berkley, © 1995 Jan Arnow, ISBN #0-399-52155-0, $12.00). In each chapter there are additional charts, quotes and sidebar sections that have not been uploaded. If you are interested in seeing these additions, please contact the author directly (email: email@example.com); (snail mail: 2025 Maryland Avenue, Louisville, KY, 40205); (telephone: 502-454-0607); or buy the book!
This is copywritten material. Please do not distribute without the author's permission.
You May Read The Entire Book Online
Chapters 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - Introduction - Bibliography
Go to Chapter 5.
Return to: Books ------Go to: Site Map
Top of Page