Nancy's Columns

Gender Bias

Under topic: uniqueness-self_esteem

Gender bias in the classroom is beginning to be acknowledged as a problem for the education of girls.

Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury is making it an important topic of his comic strip. It begins in elementary school when young girls notice that most of the teachers are female while most of the administrators are male. It continues when the female teacher treats the boys in the class differently from the girls.

Studies also show that topics introduced by women are more often ignored whereas those introduced by men are picked up and developed.

According to the American Association of University Women, the female teacher unconsciously calls on the boys more than the girls, expects the boys to be creative and the girls to be neat, waits for the boys to solve problems by themselves but "helps" the girls by giving them the answers. The boys are expected to be assertive and the girls silent. Nancy Goldberger of The Fielding Institute reports on research that indicates that boys and girls have different understandings about the role of peers in the classroom.

Girls tend to see the role of peers as supports and have a desire to understand where others are coming from. Boys tend to see the role of peers as competitors in argument.

They speak to show what they know and argue to sharpen their position. These differences carry over into adulthood. Men interrupt more often, ignore preceding comments, gain and keep the floor, give directions or act as experts whereas women tend to try to keep the conversation going by sharing experiences, giving reassurances and introducing topics. Studies also show that topics introduced by women are more often ignored whereas those introduced by men are picked up and developed. Girls learn early that their words, opinions and perspectives are not valued. They feel unheard, even when they have something to say.

Researchers Myra and David Sadker point out that there is a "classroom chivalry" whereby teachers and male students often answer for female students. The curricular materials used by schools are also biased. They contain language bias, neglect scholarship of women, omit discussions of women's' contributions to technology and to their place and contributions to the history of this country. When discussed at all, accomplishments by women are treated as remarkable exceptions. Gender bias has its biggest impact on women as future mathematicians and scientists. They do not chose these careers. Yet by the year 2010 we are told we will need more than 700,000 scientists and engineers. We need women to fill these roles. Boys and girls have the same aptitude for mathematics in grade school, but by the time they are in high school very few girls choose math.

Susan Geller, a mathematics professor at Texas A&M says it starts in grade school. The boys are helped by the teacher when they have difficulty in arithmetic and the teacher tells them they could do better. The girls are told "That's okay. I couldn't do math either." Studies have also shown that teachers tend to ask boys math questions that require thought, while they ask girls questions that require only rote memorization. Dr. Geller also feels that it is not perceived as feminine to be a mathematician. Parents of daughters need to be aware of these attitudes and, like the parent in the Doonesbury cartoon, go to school and challenge these practices. Female teachers need to be made aware of their unconscious bias and males need to be helped to change their attitudes toward female scholarship. Physicist Ruth Daly recently reported on a study in which the same paper was sent out for evaluation, a man's name on some and a woman's on others. In all cases, the paper with the man's name on it received higher ratings in all areas: scientific importance, potential, and grammar and presentation.

It is time to challenge and change these erroneous perceptions.

First published in 1992