Gender Bias in Education
Gender Bias in Education
Treating boys and girls differently at school
Gender bias in education means treating boys and girls differently at school. This can include how teachers respond to students, what students are encouraged to study, and how textbooks represent gender roles. Education researchers have studied gender bias in the schools for the past 20 years, but the subject did not receive widespread publicity until the early 1990s, with the publication of several landmark studies. A study commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in 1991 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 claimed that girls do not receive as much attention from teachers as boys, boys are called on to answer more abstract and complex questions than girls, teachers encourage boys to think for themselves more than girls, and many school books continue to present stereotypical images of women or ignore women's achievements. While elementary school girls report high self-esteem, once they reach junior high, many girls think less well of themselves consciously. The findings of the AAUW study were amplified in a further report in 1992, called "How Schools Shortchange Girls," and in a book published in 1994 by two of the major researchers included in the earlier studies—Myra and David Sadker's Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls. The Sadkers' work quantified classroom behavior and found, for example, that on average, boys are 12 times more likely than girls to talk in class and five times more likely to get the teacher's attention. Educational researchers are concerned that such bias against girls contributes to many adolescent girls' self-esteem. Compared to boys, girls think less of their academic skills and shy away particularly from math and science.
In spite of the conclusions of the AAUW studies, other experts point out that girls continue to have considerable success in school. Girls stay in school longer, cut classes less than boys, and on average earn better grades than boys. Though boys, on average, outperform girls on standardized math and science tests, girls score higher than boys on standardized reading and writing tests. Girls, on average, take more academic courses than boys, are more likely than boys to finish high school, and are more likely to go to college. The percentage of female students in medical school continues to rise—to nearly 50%—which seems to contradict the idea that girls are discouraged from pursuing scientific careers.
The importance of conscious reports of self-esteem is another controversial aspect of the gender bias debate. Some writers point out the discrepancy between girls' high grades and reported low self-esteem. Another study suggests that self-esteem is not a good indicator of academic achievement or future success. Students may think well of their abilities and perform poorly, or vice versa. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and other tests, has found simply that students who spend more time on math homework do better on math tests. It is difficult to quantify the effects of self-esteem in such a direct way.
Bias in standardized tests is another issue that has been scrutinized in the 1990s. Some advocacy groups have claimed that standardized tests are written with biased language, in that they refer to men much more than women. According to other research, girls tend to perform better on essay tests than on multiple choice tests. Another concern is that colleges often base scholarships on test scores. A girl with higher or equal grades but lower test scores than a boy is less likely to receive a college scholarship.
Some school districts have experimented with single-sex classrooms, offering all-girl math, science, and
If parents are concerned about gender bias, they should visit their child's school and discuss perceived problems with other parents, teachers, and administrators, and encourage their children to be more sensitive to gender stereotypes.
Sadker, David, and Myra Sadker. Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls. New York: Scribner's, 1994.