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Dealing with Gender Inequality at Your Child's School

Find the Best Way to deal with gender gaps at your child's school

Karen Finter, a science teacher at a Rochester, N.Y. area junior high school, sees the same scenario play out nearly every day. "Boys at the level I teach are rewarded for their aggressive and assertive behavior," she says. "The boys yelp, 'Oh-oh!' when they know the answer or they just shout it out. They're not afraid to speak their minds and they're picked as captains on teams or in lab groups. Girls are programmed already at this age that they are to be submissive, that their assertiveness might be held against them. It seems that somewhere they decide which girl to be, the pretty one or the smart one... and nine times out of 10, it's the pretty one, even though they could be both. The sexes are treated differently because they act differently, despite the efforts made at school to reverse this."

These days, schools are a battleground for gender politics. And it's a battle that is clearly well worth fighting.

The Research Shows

Reports proclaim the education system is shortchanging girls. Study after study concludes that girls receive less attention in schools and, essentially, become classroom spectators. At the same time, studies show that girls are frequently steered away from math, science and technology courses.

Other reports tell us that the system is failing boys. Studies show that boys repeat grades and drop out of school much more often than girls. They're less likely to take language, fine arts and sociology and psychology classes. At the same time, emotionally detached boys are acting out with violence, sometimes resulting in the school shootings with which we've become all-too-familiar.

Regardless of their gender, studies say children are getting a raw deal from the education system. "Unlike the T-shirt industry, one size doesn't fit all," says Alice Ann Leidel of the American Association for University Women Educational Foundation. "America can no longer afford to ignore this valuable lesson." Leidel's organization blew the roof off the subject of gender inequity in schools through its 1992 report "How Schools Shortchange Girls" and followed up with a 1998 report called "Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Shortchange Our Children," which revealed new gender inequities in areas such as technology and career preparation programs.

The Bright Side

But it's not all doom and gloom. Teachers are certainly conscious of gender equity concerns. The National Education Association issued this statement from Executive Director Don Cameron when the "Gender Gaps" report was released: "'Gender Gaps' sounds the alarm and points us in the direction we need to go if we are to prepare all our students to meet the educational challenges ahead. We know that we have a major responsibility in addressing the needs of all students. When large groups of children, whether they are girls or boys, African-American or Hispanic, whether from urban or rural schools, are not performing to the levels they are capable, then we must find out why and provide answers."

Finter and her colleagues find creative ways to keep a level playing field: "I try to provide positive, meaningful examples of women, minorities, men, people from all backgrounds applying the subject matter that I teach," she says. Last year, she brought in two engineers to speak to her class. One was a female packaging engineer; the other was a male mechanical engineer. She also calls on students in random fashion, rotates lab group leaders and provides differentiated levels of instruction to help boost confidence.

"I try to treat each student -- beyond male or female -- to look at the potential they have to achieve," she says.

Finter knows the challenges students face. She was one of the highest-achieving kids in a small school and the pressures to be "dumb" came from classmates -- not from adults. "I am very frank with all kids about my background," she says. "And I try to shun the glamorization of 'dumbness.'"

Some say teachers still can't avoid treating girls and boys differently, usually to the detriment of girls. "It's really unconscious," says Barbara Kerr, Arizona State University professor of psychology in education and author of Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women and Giftedness. "We're all subtly shaped to respond more quickly to boys and men."

What You Can Do

What are parents to do to ensure that the education system isn't failing their kids? Before you feel helpless – and whether you're the loving parent of a daughter or a son – check out this advice, culled from expert sources:

1. Be involved in your child's education.

You don't have to be supermom or superdad and volunteer for hours in the classroom each week. Being involved sounds obvious, but it's not always commonplace. Talk to your child about her or his school experiences, according to the Women's College Coalition in Washington, D.C. Look at what she or he is working on. Be perceptive about gender attitudes when you meet teachers. Discuss gender issues and stereotypes with your child.

2. Go against the grain at school

Even if your daughter doesn't show an affection for science and math, gently encourage her to keep working at it. Encourage your son to give the humanities – like languages and social sciences – a try. Let kids know it's always good to be well-rounded.

3. Praise appropriately.

Don't just praise your daughter for her appearance and neatness. Tell her you're proud of her skills and ideas. Don't just praise your son for being aggressive or physically gifted. Tell him you're pleased with the way he conducts himself and controls – and shows – his emotions.

4. Don't rescue girls or make excuses for boys.

Research shows that providing ready answers for girls actually undermines their confidence. If you're raising a son, you don't want to let him act in an inappropriate manner because "boys will be boys."

5. Push brains over beauty.

Parents of daughters between the ages of 12 and 18 know this might be easier said than done, but encourage your daughter to focus on schoolwork, activities and career planning, Kerr says. Don't encourage her to evaluate herself in terms of her attractiveness or her relationships. Many parents, consciously or not, push their daughters to value being popular over being smart.

6. Follow your instincts.

Ensuring your child gets a fare shake in their school life, often starts at home with the fundamentals. "I want to instill in my children a solid work ethic, a sense of self-advocacy and pride," says Finter, who will soon be a mother. "I will certainly balance my time between riding their tails for what they should be doing and cheering loudly when they reach their goals."

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