Monday, November 26, 2012

Teaching Gender Stereotypes

I love it when little kids are able to recognize that something is not quite right when it comes to imposing gender on things that really shouldn't be gender-specific. Here's another little girl who has the right idea and isn't afraid to speak up about it. As seen on Sociological Images (specific article), this 8-year-old girl was supposed to take fifteen activities and separate them by activities that boys do, ones that girls do, and ones that both boys and girls do. She put three in the boys' column, two in the girls' column, and all the rest in the "both" column, earning a comment from her teacher saying she did the assignment incorrectly:

I am currently involved in some curriculum development and I have been a teacher before. I try my hardest to stay away from things like this assignment. The purpose of this assignment is to categorize things, but the content used requires value judgements and reinforces stereotypes rather than simply allowing students to categorize things. It seems as though the teacher used check marks to note what was wrong - she put a check in all of the empty boxes as well as by Legos in the column for "both". Legos are for boys only? Well, now we see why they felt the need to make Lego Friends!

Why not use a project like "Dogs vs. Cats", with things like water and food bowls as what they both use and scratching posts and bones as category specific? That is likely to be familiar to all students, but maybe not, so it may not be the best choice. How about things you do at home versus things you do at school? Eating and playing games should be in both, while sleep and have math class are probably going to be category specific. There are other examples of categorizing that are familiar to students and not reinforcing stereotypes, so why choose an assignment that teaches young kids what they can and cannot do?

Teachers are very important people, especially in the lives of young, impressionable children. Girls especially can be affected by what their teachers think of them, and sadly, there's a major bias against girls in science and math. You probably hold this bias too; head over to the Implicit Bias site from Harvard, click on "Demonstration", and take the Gender-Science Implicit Association Test. I'll wait. You probably have at least a slight bias against women in science. Many women in science and engineering have this bias too. In one recent study (NY Times article), a resume was given to physics, biology, and chemistry professors, male and female, at six major research universities and they were asked whether they would mentor the student or give them a job, and to rate their competence and give them a general starting salary. The resumes were identical except that half were from "John" and half were from "Jennifer". Jennifer had an expected starting salary of $26,500 and was rated 3.3 on a scale of 7 on average. John could expect $30,300, was considered to be a 4 out of 7, and the professors were more likely to hire him. Gender, age, and other factors of the professors didn't matter, John was considered better than Jennifer even though the rest of the resume was the exact same1. These are the professors teaching, advising, and mentoring future scientists, and they favor the male. Teachers tend to believe that their white male students are doing better in math than they truly are, but more problematic, they tend to believe that their white female students are worse at math than their scores show, according to a study (Forbes article) in Gender & Society2. This contributes to girls losing ground to boys in mathematics at every step of their educational path3. Additionally, if girls in elementary school have a female teacher who has math anxiety, it can have a negative effect on their math scores4. Basically, teachers are much more important and influential on young minds than I could have ever imagined, and overt displays of stereotype reinforcement like this could potentially be very detrimental on students' identities and beliefs of what they can and cannot do based on their gender.

1 Moss-Racusin, C. A., et al. (2012). "Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
2 Riegle-Crumb, C. and M. Humphries (2012). "Exploring Bias in Math Teachers’ Perceptions of Students’ Ability by Gender and Race/Ethnicity." Gender & Society 26(2): 290-322.
3 Robinson, J. P., et al. (2011). The Effects of Teachers' Gender-Stereotypical Expectations on the Development of the Math Gender Gap, Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness: 11.
4 Beilock, S. L. (2010). "Female teachers' math anxiety affects girls' math achievement." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(5): 1860.

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