Gender Equity In Education: Is It Possible?

Gender equity in education. Despite efforts to create a better environment for girls in the education system, barriers to learning persist and gender inequity continues to flourish. Here's why.

Despite genuine efforts by parents and teachers to create a better environment for girls in the education system, barriers to learning persist and gender inequity continues to flourish. Here's why.

Numerous studies show that teachers often treat boys and girls differently. According to research, male students receive more of the teacher's attention and are given more time to talk in class from pre-school through college. Myra and David Sadker's book, "Failing at Fairness," points out that girls are three times less likely to be praised by teachers. Research has also found that student-teacher interaction in science classes is biased toward boys and that when students are grouped by ability in mathematics classes, boys are more likely to be assigned to the high ability group. In addition, girls are only half as likely to be called on in class by their teachers, and teachers ask boys more higher order questions than girls.

This issue is not so much a problem with the teachers as it is with their training. They can't teach what they weren't taught. The fact is that gender equity issues are virtually ignored in most colleges which educate our teachers, and strategies to correct gender-biased classroom behavior are almost non-existent. Most efforts to remedy gender inequity have been directed at working teachers.

Jo Sanders, director of the Teacher Education Equity Project (TEEP) from 1993 to 1996, which tried to rectify some of these problems, said, "When you stop to think about it, by limiting ourselves to an in-service approach, as we have primarily been doing, the education establishment keeps churning out new teachers who don't know anything about gender equity and, therefore, make mistakes of ignorance in the classroom."

In addition to poor teacher training, cultural stereotypes and expectations of girls that diminish their self-esteem and confidence continue to cheat girls out of the education they deserve. The differences in achievement between boys and girls often come from different expectations for success and different experiences.

For instance, in April 1999, Teacher Magazine, reported that girls display what one researcher calls "computer reticence," which is due, in part, to cultural and stereotypical messages that steer girls away from machines. And even though girls tend to like science, math, and computers at a young age, they begin to avoid them in adolescence when other cultural messages begin to sink in, like "Girls aren't supposed to like math" or "It's not cool be smart."

And the power of attitude shows. One study found that, in 1996, among 8th- and 12th-graders, girls were less likely than boys to like mathematics and science. Among 4th-, 8th-, and 12th- graders, girls were less likely than boys to think that they were good at mathematics and science.

As a result, girls do not take higher science, math, and computer technology classes as often as boys and do not go into science, math, and technology careers as often. That leads to economic equity issues later in life.

But girls and their attitudes aren't the only ones who stand in the way of their achievement and the opportunities that are offered to them. The 1997 Women's Sports Foundation Gender Equity Report Card, citing statistics from the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations, revealed that men's athletic programs at the high school and college levels, an integral part of education, receive more money for equipment, facilities, coaches and scholarships than do women's programs.

There is evidence that many standardized tests are also biased in favor of boys. On average, girls get better grades than boys at all levels of schooling but score lower than boys on key standardized tests given to 11th and 12th graders. As a result girls lose millions of dollars in scholarship funds.

The work toward gender equity for girls in education is tedious and slow, but it's work that is vital to continue. "I think when we don't address gender bias issues we leave out half the population and make sure that women don't reach their potential," said Sanders. "We need everybody's brain."

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