The Common Good
July-August 1999

Sex Matters

by Kari Jo Verhulst | July-August 1999

Why we can't ignore gender bias in the classroom.

In May the U.S. Supreme Court declared that sexual harassment is a significant impediment to education. While this is an important acknowledgment, we can’t lose sight of the deeper, systematic factors that shape how our girls and boys are educated.

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In 1991, the American Association of University Women did a nationwide poll of students ages 9 to 15 which "confirmed a growing body of research that indicates girls are systematically, if unintentionally, discouraged from a wide range of academic pursuits." The study also found that as girls reach adolescence, they experience a significantly greater drop in self-esteem than boys experience, and that the gender gap shows up most dramatically in fields such as science and math.

The AAUW recently released a follow-up report titled "Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children," a synthesis of more than 1,000 research studies on gender equity in our schools. The organization doesn’t recommend single-gender classrooms—and its studies show that efforts to deal with these realities shouldn’t wait until the college level. By then most girls have long developed their beliefs about who they are and what they can accomplish. It’s clear that girls develop within a society and an education system that has yet to be freed from sexism, and that’s a reality that needs to be addressed head on.

Since the passing of Title IX, the gap between boys’ and girls’ education has narrowed, and there are many wonderful programs that encourage girls to enter into historically male-dominated fields including math, science, and technology. One such initiative has been to encourage girls to make big mistakes in experimenting with science. Science is based on trial and error, yet often girls who learn young to please as a means of survival fear failure, so they won’t even try.

Many girls show interest and affinity for math and science when they are younger, but in the years between fifth and nineth grade such interest decreases dramatically. I recently heard a 13-year-old girl say that she decided not to take the algebra placement test since she knew she’d fare poorly, and she didn’t want to wind up in a class in which she might fail. On some level she knew that she might have done well enough to place in the advanced class, yet her fear of failing or of appearing to have overestimated herself prevented her from even taking the test, and so she slid easily into the remedial math class.

THE HEART OF OUR SCHOOLS, like the heart of our society, is not yet free from sexism. In some of the discussion on these issues, I can still hear the hidden suspicion that women-only classes are academically suspect, little more than support groups. Yet any perspective, including that found in the traditional halls of academia, is as finite and limited as any other vantage point.

There are still far fewer female than male students studying technology, which is problematic especially in that it will directly affect our daughters’ capacity to survive economically. Technology remains the primary growth sector of our economy, a field both dominated by men and requiring a high level of very particular skill. Not only are women ill-represented in this sector, but so are African Americans, Latinos, and the under-educated—reflecting a frightening rift that is only increasing. It is crucial that we work to transform our schools so they encourage many ways of thinking and approaching the world, and that we address groups whose language and self-assumptions are different from the dominant culture’s. By doing so we help to equip all of society’s children for a changing future.

As important as curriculum and teaching methods are, the power of social pressures and expectations also have a great impact on who our children become. The shootings in Littleton, the rise in eating disorders and suicide, and the increasing number of violent incidents involving girls demand that we take into consideration the very real, very potent images young people carry into the classroom.

In such a world as ours, drawing attention to race and class and gender may well make people uncomfortable, but it continues to be necessary. Because until the roots of inequality are addressed, we are all destined to live into a skewed version of ourselves.—Kari Jo Verhulst

KARI JO VERHULST is marketing manager at Sojourners.

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