Female Gender Bias in Schools

Sadker and Sadker (1994) reported a startling fact that few people realize. Today’s girls continue a three-hundred year-old struggle for full participation in America’s educational system. During colonial times school doors were closed for young women seeking knowledge, and the home was considered the learning place for young women. The home, serving as the girls’ classroom, was where young girls learned the practical domestic skills for their inevitable role as wife and mother.

However, in 1767 a school in Providence, Rhode Island, began advertising it would teach reading and writing to girls. At the bottom of the advertisement, in small print, was noted the inconvenient hours of instruction. The girls were being taught either before or after the boys’ regular instructional time. At this time the teachers of the boys needed additional income and opted to teach girls before and after school for an awesome fee. Thus, the idea of educating girls was formulated (Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

During the early nineteenth century, many cities began establishing separate high schools for girls. Most communities built one high school, but designated separate entrances for the sexes. The classes were on separate floors in single-sex areas where girls were taught by women and boys by men. Single-sex schools were now born! Following a considerable amount of frustration from attempting to receive an education at male-dominated colleges, men and women created a bold alternative–colleges for women. Finally, in 1972, a historic victory was achieved.

Congress enacted Title IX as part of the Education Amendments. The preamble (Valentin, 1997) to Title IX states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational programs or activity receiving federal assistance” (p. 1). Miraculously, a federal law made sex discriminations in schools illegal. Under Title IX, sex bias was outlawed in school athletics, career counseling, medical services, financial aid, admission practices, and the treatment of students.

From elementary school through the university, Title IX violators were threatened with the loss of federal funds (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Title IX legislation changed the mode of operation in our schools. Better athletic programs for girls were instituted. Teachers began to carefully analyze books and resource materials for bias. As the 1970s came to an end, high hopes for Title IX ending gender bias mounted. However, many schools simply did not take this law seriously. In many schools vocational programs remained segregated with cosmetology and secretarial courses only for women and electrical and automotive courses only for men.

In other schools, pregnancy was grounds for the expulsion of the teenage mothers, but not teenage fathers. Complaints were lodged, and paperwork was piled high (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). During the budget cuts and staff realignment of the 1980s under the Reagan-Bush administration, the heart of the equality movement was stopped. Between 1972 and 1991 not one school in the United States lost a single penny of federal funds due to gender bias. However, Valente and Valente (2001) cited two Supreme Court decisions where boards of education were held liable for the violation of Title IX provisions.

The Supreme Court acknowledged in Franklin v. Gwinnet County Public Schools et al. (1992) and Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999) that institutions could be held liable for individuals in those institutions who participated in discriminatory behavior toward females. During the 25th anniversary year, Valentin (1997) reported the following Title IX accomplishments: * From 1972 to 1995 college women athletes increased from 15 percent to 37 percent. * In 1996, girls constituted 39 percent of high school athletes, compared to 7. 5 percent in 1971. Between 1971 and 1994 college enrollment of female high school graduates increased from 43 percent to 63 percent. * Between 1971 and 1994 bachelor degrees earned by females rose from 18 percent to 27 percent. * In 1994, women received 38 percent of the medical degrees, compared with 9 percent in 1972; 43 percent of the law degrees, compared with 7 percent in 1972; and 44 percent of all doctoral degrees, compared to 25 percent in 1977. The gender bias movement has taken root in America, and with or without a beating heart, it continues.

Gender Inequalities Encouraged Gender equity in education is the elimination of sex role stereotyping and sex bias from the educational process, thus providing the opportunity and environment to validate and empower individuals as they make appropriate career and life choices (Hilke & Conway, 1994). Therefore, gender bias in education can be defined as treating boys and girls differently in schools. This includes how teachers respond to students, what students are encouraged to study, and how textbooks and other resources represent gender roles.

A study commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in 1992 entitled “Shortchanging Girls; Shortchanging America” synthesized much earlier research and concluded that the average school is biased against girls in a number of ways. The study found that girls did not receive as much attention from teachers as boys, and boys were called upon to answer more abstract and complex questions than girls. Instead, all too often, female high school students focused on their bodies and neglected their minds. Early differences in the treatment of girls and boys can result in enduring learning patterns.

Skolnick (1982) reported that children spend more time with their teachers than any other adult with the exception of their parents. Consequently, teachers’ expectations and actions have a profound effect on student achievement as well as self-esteem. What teachers say and do not say, their body language, what they do and who they call upon, form a hidden curriculum that is more powerful than any textbook lesson. Sadker and Sadker (1994) stated the self esteem of elementary girls remained high even though they received less time, less help, and fewer challenges from the teachers.

However, the constant reinforcement for passivity results in a decline in their independence and self-esteem. Sadker and Sadker concluded, as victims of benign neglect, girls are penalized for doing what they should and lose ground as they go through school. After 25 years of research, documentation reveals numerous examples where girls are denied opportunities to excel in the classroom. The sexism is subtle, and the bias very often is unconscious. Girls are rewarded for their conformity to classroom rules by simply being ignored, thus they pay a huge price for their compliance.

Sex segregation, both during play and in the classroom, polarizes the sexes and contributes to female invisibility. Well-meaning teachers often think they protect girls by this separation when, in fact, they encourage stereotypical patterns of passivity in girls and aggression in boys (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992; Sadker & Sadker, 1984, 1994). Despite the loss of confidence and voice, the most profound effects of gender bias are evident in today’s high schools.

During adolescence many girls become over-socialized to contemporary stereotypical definitions of “femininity. ” The messages they receive from the popular culture and media cause many girls to become preoccupied with physical appearance and perfection. Many of the models which appear in leading fashion magazines today are commonly 23 percent below normal body weight. Eating disorders, once considered prevalent among young women on college campuses, are now common among high school girls. It has been estimated that as many as 66 percent of high school girls are engaged in dieting.

The stress of dieting and appearance undoubtedly uses energy that is necessary for learning in school (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992; Pipher, 1994; Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Keyes (1976) interviewed adults that attended high school during the 1970s, and found that being popular was a top priority for girls. This was also true in the 1960s, when James Coleman conducted his classic study, The Adolescent Society. Sadker and Sadker (1994) found that in our present society, many girls think that being intelligent conflicts with popularity.

High school dreams consist of the following: to go to the prom with the right date; to be a cheerleader; to be chosen as most popular; and to be elected class officer. During most of the twentieth century an invisible line dissected the courses offered in our nation’s high schools. In the division of curricular, home economics was a female field, preparing girls for their roles as wives and mothers, while shop was reserved for boys. Women considered incapable of learning math and science when they were girls were written off by both teachers and parents and bear the scars of sexist schooling (Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

Finally, girls are now learning the lessons that math matters. Girls are at last staying in math courses longer. Often school counselors harm young girls when they only want to help. Feeling sorry for girls enrolled in math and science courses, which they find difficult, school counselors often dismiss girls. This dismissal is less likely to be offered to male students. Young girls, though, tend to neglect to realize the high cost of their math/ science course dismissal.

When girls self-select out of math, science, and computer technology, they are making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). While girls appeared to gain ground in the sciences between 1960 and 1980, there is evidence that this trend is reversing. It is well documented that something occurs between junior high and high school that causes girls to lose interest, perceive science, mathematics, and computer technology as masculine endeavors and opt out of more difficult courses (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992; Chapman, 1997; Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

Denied their history, discouraged from taking crucial courses that lead to key careers, concluding that the appearance of their bodies may be worth more than the quality of their minds, realizing they are not the gender of choice, and doubting their intelligence and ability, high school girls make the journey from adolescence to womanhood. It is abundantly clear that they pay a steep price for their passage (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Practical Solutions Achieving equity will require more than gender-balanced textbooks and gender-fair teaching practices.

The traditional curricula should be transformed to include the contributions, experiences, and scholarship of women. Boxer (1989) and Reis (1990) pointed out the considerable time needed for significant change to occur in educational practices, and the need for systematic support for effective implementation. However, the authors believe that teachers and educational leaders do have the ability to create transformative classrooms. Epp (1995) found the lack of women in leadership positions did not create a positive image for girls.

For example, a female teacher with a male principal sends a powerful message to girls about their leadership capabilities and their position in society. In 1995, only 19 percent of all principals at a secondary level were female. Despite many qualified female applicants in the job pool, females are often overlooked for leadership positions. Teacher education programs contribute to the problem. Rarely do students in teacher education programs receive gender equity training and instruction in gender-balanced teaching strategies.

Teachers need to learn how to identify gender equity in instructional materials as well as learn about specific scholarship and contributions made by women in their content areas. Teachers who receive this training may become important change agents once they arrive in the classroom (Eckert & Tracy, 1995; Sanders, 1996). To achieve equity educators should begin the process early in the lives of girls. Guidance counselors and vocational educators need to provide career information to girls when they are in elementary school.

Self-perception of ability in mathematics, science, and technology has been found to be a high predictor of course selection and of choosing these areas as major fields of study. The relationship between self-esteem and success in these fields appears to be circular. Girls need female role models as mentors and opportunities to interact with women in the community who work in technical and nontraditional fields (Kane, 1991). It must no longer be acceptable to parents or guidance counselors for students to opt out of difficult science or mathematics classes.

Students in China and other countries which require these courses do not perform differently by gender. Teachers must encourage girls as much as boys to pursue rigorous courses. Parents can increase science achievement by providing their daughters with science-related experiments at home, toys that are mechanical in nature, and science-related excursions (Kahle & Meece, 1994). Educators can help parents become aware of the impact of the culture and teach them to empower their daughters with their support and active involvement (Baldwin & Kielbaso, 1990).

Parents begin treating their female and male children differently as soon as they enter the world. This is reflected in several ways: (a) the way parents hold and plan with their children as infants, (b) the toys, books, television programs, and activities their children are exposed to as toddlers, and (c) the type of encouragement children receive when trying new activities (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992; Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

Chapman (1997) and Hammrich (1997) recommend to parents that they should provide girls with puzzles, building blocks, and teach them to use common household tools as prerequisite skills needed for science (Chapman, 1997; Hammrich, 1997). Conclusion It is imperative to spotlight the cost of gender equity to society and to change the instructive strategies used in all schools. Educators must take the responsibility to expand and enhance commitments to gender equity. Presently, the need for qualified scientists and engineers can not be met.

Therefore, the norm in the schools must include enticing female students to pursue the sciences. To understand the position of girls and women in education requires an understanding of changing structures and complex processes and a commitment to breaking down the barriers which continue to result in female disadvantage. If America is to hold the best possible future for our people and civilization, she cannot afford to waste a primary resource–our nation’s girls and women.


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