How To Be a Girl: Lessons in Sexism from the American Classroom
Last fall, an elementary school in Frisco, Texas made headlines when they sent home a school newsletter that detailed different curriculums for male and female students. The students were to be separated during a monthly class with a guidance counselor, with the boys learning about “college and career exploration” while girls were to learn about “friendship and confidence.” Parents were rightfully outraged at the gendered messaging sent out by the school administration about their children’s futures: the boys were to prepare for academic and career success, the girls to stay at home and maintain their social circles. While this represents an extreme case, and it should be noted that the school has since amended the newsletter and upcoming curriculums, the problem of gender bias in the American educational system isn’t going away anytime soon.
Gender bias typically happens when there are assumptions made about someone’s behavior, preferences and abilities based only on their gender. It’s important to note that bias due to a person’s gender is not mutually exclusive of other social categories such as race, ethnicity, class, religion, and language. We all know the stereotypes: boys are good at math and science, girls at art and English. Girls are more focused and listen to direction, boys are energetic and aggressive. Boys are uncommunicative, girls are emotional and social. Some of the most powerful lessons we learn about ourselves and the world around us are learned at school. Often, the socialization of girls and boys as early as elementary and preschool teaches woefully limited understandings of gender and what makes a “good” student.
Studies have shown that while gender bias affects all students, low-income female students of color are the most negatively affected by teachers’ implicit beliefs about gender. In New York, black girls are twelve times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended. Teachers may perceive female students of color, particularly African American students, as “loud” or “uncontrollable” because they may not exhibit the “acceptable” feminine behaviors associated with white women, like being docile and accommodating. “Target students,” those who dominate teachers’ time and classroom resources, ask the most questions and are asked the most questions, are typically white, male, and middle class.
As educator and writer David Sadker wrote in his work Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls: “Sitting in the same classroom, reading the same textbook, listening to the same teacher, boys and girls receive very different educations.” The “different educations” that boys and girls receive have well-documented long standing effects on students’ performance, confidence, and future success, and prevent students of all genders from reaching their full potential.
The socialization of students in the educational system assures a harsh gender divide from the get-go. Students are often seated or lined up by gender, affirming that boys and girls are inherently different and should be treated as such. Teachers often socialize girls to a feminine ideal, and praise them for being neat, quiet, and well-mannered, whereas boys are usually encouraged to think independently, be active, and speak up. “Pushy” behavior from girls is often seen as disruptive, while the same behavior from male students is perceived as the student’s desire to assert themselves (“boys will be boys”). Teachers’ gendered expectations of students’ abilities is also reflected in the type of praise they administer: girls are given less meaningful and critical feedback, and their work is often undervalued.
Along with failing female students, teachers’ gender biases can uphold limited constructions of masculinity and undermine male students’ interests in the arts and languages — stereotypically “feminine” subjects. As gender bias promotes the myth that boys are naturally better at math and science, the implication is that girls who do well in these subjects do so as a result of hard work rather than inherent intelligence. Boys’ success in these subjects, however, is accredited to their “natural” talent.
Boys who misbehave in class are often put next to female students to improve their focus. There is little thought given to how this might affect female students’ learning environments and attitudes towards the classroom. Rather than teaching boys self-control and dedication, this strategy perpetuates the idea that boys are undisciplined and that girls are cooperative. Moreover, this tactic puts female students in a maternal role where they are responsible for making sure boys do as they are told.
One of the most crucial ways that gender bias negatively affects young girls in particular is in school dress codes and permissive attitudes about sexual harassment. Young girls are routinely shamed and taken out of the classroom because their outfits are too revealing and “distracting” to their male peers and teachers. As Laura Bates writes at Time, “This sends an incredibly powerful message. It teaches our children that girls’ bodies are dangerous, powerful and sexualised, and that boys are biologically programmed to objectify and harass them.” When schools demonize young girls’ bodies and ignore sexist behavior in the classroom, they give tacit approval to those kinds of behaviors. When there is a lack of attempt to discipline boys for harassing female students, it perpetuates the idea that it’s the girl’s responsibility to protect herself from feeling unsafe.
Because schools are microcosms of society, it follows that socialization patterns of young children are carried out into the culture at large. However, gender bias in education reaches farther than socialization patterns because bias is embedded in textbooks, resources, and teacher interactions with students. When curriculums omit the contributions of women in history and literature, tokenize female experiences, or reinforce stereotypical ideas about gender, they further perpetuate gender bias inside and outside the classroom.
Like so many pressing social issues, understanding gender bias requires a heartfelt intersectional approach. The sexist lessons children grow up with are inextricably tied to problems of racialized and gendered violence as well as economic disparity. Training teachers to understand and recognize their own biases is a critical step in moving forward. Gender-fair teaching materials that are dynamic, representative, and affirmative should be a core part of every curriculum in elementary school and beyond. Classroom shelves are filled with beloved stories about boys who are brave, strong, and curious, and with girls who are obedient, passive, and gentle. There are, of course, cherished exceptions. We’re making strides (check out the incredible activism of 11-year-old Marley Dias), but our curriculums continue to fail supremely in representing LGBTQ and gender nonconforming youth as well as youth of color. It falls on not just educators but everyone to contribute to environments (inside and outside the classroom) where all young people are equally encouraged, free from gendered stereotypes, and emboldened to reach their highest potential.
Senti Sojwal is an India-born, NYC-bred feminist, activist, writer, and coconut-lover. She’s fascinated by the intersections of pop culture and race, gender, youth, sexuality, and all things Nicki Minaj. You can find her on Twitter at @senti_narwhal
May 27, 2016