The Achievement Gap We Don’t Talk About: A Parent’s Guide to Addressing Gender Bias

When I was a professor, I often noticed evidence of gender division in class discussions. There were exceptions, but in general, my female students were quieter, less apt to speak up in class, and more careful in their responses when they did choose to comment. By contrast, my male students were likely to speak first and in a more exploratory vein — that is, they didn't worry about being right as much as about being heard.

Although I was teaching college-aged students, many of these gender differences begin to develop by preschool. As researcher Anette Hellman of the University Gothenburg in Sweden found, there are behaviors that are considered “typical boy” or “typical girl” by both preschoolers and teachers, and these gender positions often affect teacher planning and student interactions in early childhood settings.

In her review Gender Bias in Education, Amanda Chapman summarizes research from the 1990s through the early 2000s that look at the ways gender biases are reinforced in elementary school, at home, and in the larger culture. In particular, she found that girls are rewarded for good behavior and compliance, while boys are given positive feedback for assertiveness.

More recently, David Sadker and Karen Zittelman wrote about similar concerns in an issue of Principal Magazine. Among their findings, they note research showing that boys view literacy as a “feminine” area, and that girls believe their technology skills are lower than boys’.

While it is likely that these attitudes are beginning to shift since this research was published, there remain nagging areas of concern.

Why Gender Bias Matters

As parents, it’s important to be aware of gender stereotypes in order to help your children navigate the biases they are likely to encounter in school, their community, and eventually the workplace. You'll want to arm them with tools to avoid falling into these patterns and to ensure that their choices are as expansive as possible.

Gender stereotypes are so widespread that they may strike you as traits we are born with. But research suggests that these ideas, especially negative ones, are produced and maintained through cultural reinforcement — and not through our biology.

How does bias affect achievement?

When we talk about the achievement gap in education, we typically think about differences in learning outcomes among racial or ethnic groups. But there are divides in boys’ and girls’ interests, experiences, and attainment levels as well. For example, there is no innate reason why your daughter shouldn't major in math or science, though statistically she probably won't. Nor are weak reading abilities carried on the male chromosome — and yet, boys lag in reading scores for most of their academic lives.

An analysis by Barbara Ericson from Georgia Institute of Technology showed that fewer girls took the AP computer science exam than boys in 2013, although they took AP exams overall in far greater numbers than boys. Moreover, girls continue to be underrepresented in STEM subjects generally, but surpass boys in language-related areas like literature and English. Experts suggest that the gender gap in STEM studies relates to experiences boys and girls have as young children.

Researchers believe that such differences between boys and girls originate in the ways that they learn to play in early childhood: Girls attune to social structures, while boys master spatial reasoning, experiences that are continuously reinforced by social expectations and educational experiences. Some academics contend that children’s toys steer kids in gendered directions; boys often receive Legos and robots to play with, while girls are given dolls. Through such early experiences, boys learn problem-solving, building, and critical thinking abilities, while girls develop social-emotional, language, and collaborative skills. And these divisions seem to deepen as kids get older.

In addition to the underrepresentation of girls in STEM areas — which can have long-term consequences for their career opportunities — boys also suffer from early gendered experiences. Beyond their struggles with reading, they drop out of high school in greater numbers. And while research suggests that some of these academic differences may be biological and developmental, there remains a strong cultural component as well. For instance, boys are directed toward movement-based play, sports, and activities, which researchers believe puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to learning subjects that rely on language skills for high achievement.

Moreover, experts in the field of masculinities studies, such as Michael Kimmel, suggest that boys are socialized to be strong and "manly," qualities that may make it difficult to develop empathy, to talk about their feelings, or to develop close friendships. These attitudes and experiences, in turn, makes them less apt to seek help when they struggle in academic subjects.

Bias in Education

These experiential and cultural influences embed strong biases in children early on, before they’re even aware of the impact. As a parent, you can help your children by both teaching them how to recognize these factors and providing them with the tools to address them head-on. Gender bias affects educational pathways, college outcomes, career prospects, earning capacity, and interpersonal relationships. To help ensure your children have the broadest set of choices, it’s important to address these stereotypes with them when they’re young.

What are instances of bias in literature?

Gender bias is often built into formal curricula through the predominance of male authors and thinkers in textbooks and literature. Even young children's stories lean toward highlighting male experience and achievements. When scholars examined over 6,000 children's books published in the 20th century, they found that only about 31 percent of main characters were female — and when the protagonist was an animal, this percentage dropped to just 7.5 percent.

Researchers and authors alike are concerned that this underrepresentation may have far-reaching consequences. Children don't see a fair representation of female characters and experience, and what they do see typically includes stereotypical behaviors or actors. In this same literature review led by Janice McCabe of Florida State University, she noted that the young characters typically yearned for love and support from a mother, rather than from a father, creating the impression for children that family relationships are the domain of women but not men.

What effects does bias have in the classroom?

The experiences of boys and girls in actual classrooms reinforce gender stereotypes as well. According to Chapman's research, assertive behavior from girls is far less tolerated than it is from boys. The cultural edict "boys will be boys" also has a palpable effect on the severity of punishments. Behavior that would be overlooked or lightly punished in a boy may result in far harsher penalties for a girl because educators consider it aberrant, outside of acceptable social norms.

Chapman also found that children suffer when schools tolerate overt and subtle forms of sex discrimination. For example, it is commonplace to hear kids insult a boy by saying that he throws, cries, or moves "like a girl." These stereotypes harm both girls and boys and perpetuate sexist attitudes. And while these types of casual, derogatory statements make plain the implicit lower status of girls, schools are arguably not serving boys well either.

Classrooms are generally sedentary environments that may be difficult for boys to thrive in — especially since they are socialized to be active. By contrast, girls are routinely encouraged to be neat, quiet, and well-behaved, and are praised for this behavior. And while such characteristics may enable girls to navigate traditional expectations of schools more successfully than boys, they can, over time, result in the sort of quieter, more hesitant participation I experienced with my female college students.

How Adults Can Help

Kids want to fit in and look to adults for guidance. They follow expectations, both the ones they learn at home and those out in the world. Children have a difficult time overcoming biases on their own, or bucking a system, when they are rewarded for adapting and obeying. Studies now concur that it is socialization, rather than biology, that accounts for most gender differences, underscoring the importance for adults to be intentional about providing opportunities for children to engage in a broad range of experiences, particularly those that cross gender expectations.

Helping your children navigate gender bias will be deeply challenging, but it's crucial for enabling them to develop strong identities and to pursue rich, varied opportunities for learning and careers. Solutions don’t have to vary significantly for boys and girls, but you should be aware of the different challenges that they will face. Resolutions can and ought to be inclusive of both genders. It will help a child's understanding of this complex subject to be presented with the perspective of the other gender.

What can parents do at home?

  • Encourage your children to pursue their own interests, regardless of how these conform to traditional gender roles.

  • Offer your children books, stories, and films that highlight the achievements and contributions of women, since these topics are often insufficiently addressed in school.

  • Openly discuss gender stereotypes — especially as you notice them in toys or favorite films and music videos your children may be watching.

  • Praise your daughter for intellectual achievement and your son for good behavior. The opposite is often the norm in other settings, so this helps to even the playing field.

  • Take particular care to help your son become aware of his emotions and feel at ease with expressing them.

  • Encourage your daughter to be assertive. Encourage her to raise her hand each day at school, and when she comes home, ask her what she said. Confident expression of her own ideas should become a habit.

  • Recognize the gender bias they may encounter in various academic subjects, such as STEM and languages. Support your children’s learning in areas that cross these stereotypical divisions.

  • If you are concerned about gender bias in your child's classroom, openly discuss it with the teacher.

What can teachers do at school?

  • Openly discuss stereotypes by fostering conversations that invite students to think about the divisions they notice around them.

  • Make an effort to avoid perpetuating stereotypes in the classroom by rotating play so that boys and girls don't always end up with gendered toys or stereotypical imaginary roles.

  • Be mindful of the ways that you refer to adults, and refrain from sexist language or stereotypes.

  • Introduce positive role models of both sexes, such as women in authority roles and male mentors in nurturing positions.

  • Use a range of classroom materials, such as literature that includes characters with various identities and both genders engaged in a range of activities.

  • Be intentional about teaching women’s achievements alongside those of men.

  • Try to avoid rewarding gendered behavior in boys and girls, like praising girls for neatness and boys for assertiveness.

  • Make an effort to ensure that class discussions include observations and insights from equal numbers of boys and girls.

  • Don't separate children into groups based on gender. Such divisions may reinforce gender differences and lead children to perceive one gender as more favored than the other.

My Final Thoughts

While we have clearly made strides in changing gender roles and expanding opportunities for girls and boys, there are still countless ways in which we perpetuate stereotypes of both sexes. If we hope to ensure that our children have the broadest array of choices, we must be mindful and deliberate in our efforts to provide them with experiences that counteract these influences.

To learn more about efforts to address gender stereotypes for children, check out the Always ad campaign, Girls Who Code and Guys Read.

You can also ask your questions about the gender gap in education and find further insights here on Noodle.

Sources:

Application and implications of information technologies in the home: Where are the data and what do they say? (March 2001). Retrieved August 5, 2015 from the National Science Foundation.

Bennett, J. (2015, August 8). A master’s degree in ... masculinity? Retrieved August 9, 2015, from New York Times.

Chapman, A. (n.d.). Gender bias in education. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from Critical Multicultural Pavilion.

Flood, A. (2011, May 6). Study finds huge gender imbalance in children's literature. Retrieved August 9, 2015, from The Guardian.

Kurtzleben, D. (2014, January 14). AP test shows wide gender gap in computer science, physics. Retrieved August 5, 2015, from U.S. News & World Report.

Larson, S. (2014, September 12). Why so few women are studying computer science: A systemic problem. Retrieved April 28, 2015, from ReadWrite.

Lorber, J., & Farrell, S. A. (1991). The social construction of gender. Newbury Park, Calif: Sage Publications. Retrieved August 8, 2015 from Southern Utah University.

Loveless, T. (2015, March 24). Girls, boys, and reading. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from The Brookings Institute.

Reilly, D., & Neumann, D. (2013). Gender-role differences in spatial ability: A meta-analytic review. Sex Roles. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from Case Western Reserve University.

Sadker, D., & Zittleman, K. (2005, March 1). Gender gap — again! Retrieved August 18, 2015, from National Association of Elementary School Principals.

University of Gothenburg. (2010, October 5). How gender is created during everyday life at preschool. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 8, 2015 from Science Daily.

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