Girls Will--and should--Be Girls

By Millicent Lawton — March 30, 1994 16 min read
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It was back in the late 1960’s when Myra Sadker and David Sadker first began thinking about gender bias against women and girls in the classroom.

They were both doctoral students in education then, and Myra had experienced bias firsthand in her own academic program. In fact, those encounters gave Myra the idea for her first textbook, Sexism in School and Society. Written with Nancy Frazier and published in 1973, the text, designed for teachers, was the first to explore the nature of sexism in school.

Unlike others who have since left the study of gender equity, the Sadkers have not wavered from their work. Over the years, they have directed more than a dozen federal equity-research grants, written six books, and published more than 75 articles on the subject. They are still at it today, a quarter of a century later.

Now professors of education at American University in Washington and veterans of hundreds of workshops and lectures, the married couple have just published their first book for a popular audience, Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls. Released last month, the book has gained wide notice--thanks in part to a splashy publicity campaign and book tour orchestrated by their publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons.

USA Weekend featured a cover story by the Sadkers last month. And the couple has taken to the road to make appearances on local television and radio programs across the country. They’ve even recently discussed their work on the “Dateline NBC’’ television news magazine and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.’' And over the last month, newspaper columnists and reviewers have seized the opportunity to comment--both favorably and unfavorably--on the Sadkers’ anecdote-filled book.

In her book review in The Wall Street Journal, Rita Kramer, the author of Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers, called the Sadkers’ conclusions “questionable’’ and their book “a work of advocacy rather than scholarship.’' A review in The Nation magazine charged that the Sadkers were “terrifyingly simplistic when it comes to analyzing what they report.’'

And the reviews from their colleagues have been somewhat mixed, too. Although most gender researchers hail the Sadkers as pioneers in the field, the couple have encountered their share of detractors as well. But the Sadkers don’t shrink from the dissension--among academics or average citizens--that their work has engendered. “We’re trying to draw people in,’' Myra Sadker says, “get them talking, arguing if they want--at least paying attention.’'

Judging by the media attention Failing at Fairness has already received, the Sadkers have succeeded on that front, at least. How America’s schools really do--or don’t--cheat girls is on people’s lips from coast to coast.

Getting the Word Out

Writing a book for a popular audience, the Sadkers say, was the one thing they felt they hadn’t done. “We’d done research, we’d done grants, we’d done speaking and interviewing,’' Myra Sadker explains. “We’ve lived it with our own [two] daughters, and we just felt that we had to put it together.’'

It was after an early examination of textbooks, they write in Failing at Fairness, that they decided to look at “an even more powerful hidden curriculum that surfaced in the way teachers treat children and the way children treat one another.’' So, over the course of three years, the Sadkers sent trained “raters’’ to observe 4th, 6th, and 8th graders and their teachers in more than 100 classrooms in four Eastern states and the District of Columbia. Schools represented inner cities, rural areas, and affluent suburbs.

During their site visits, raters tallied interactions on observation sheets according to a methodology the Sadkers developed. It took the couple about a year of trial and error to design a rating sheet that they were satisfied with. Eventually, the Sadkers say, they gave up trying to record many aspects of classroom interaction because they were just too hard to document reliably.

What they discovered raters could dependably record were questions such as: Whom did the teacher call on? How did the student get the teacher’s attention? By raising a hand? By calling out? Did the teacher designate the student? What did the teacher say after she or he called on students? What level of help or feedback were students getting? If the teacher praised a student, what was the praise for?

In a later study, the Sadkers analyzed classroom communication at the college level.

Based on the Sadkers’ own research and that of others, Failing at Fairness tallies the myriad ways in which they see girls and young women treated differently from boys and young men--from kindergarten through graduate school. The Sadkers detail how “schoolgirls face subtle and insidious gender lessons, micro-inequities that appear seemingly insignificant when looked at individually but that have a powerful cumulative impact.’'

These “hidden lessons,’' as the Sadkers call them, take many forms--from less attention and praise from teachers to sexual harassment, from sex stereotyping in course enrollment to biased standardized tests. The end result, they say, is clear: Girls often receive lesser educational experiences and opportunities than boys do.

Starting at an Early Age

Gender bias in the classroom begins in elementary school, according to the Sadkers, where girls get shortchanged in class discussion, on the playground, and in the curriculum.

  • Calling out in class, for example, is an “open invitation for male dominance,’' the Sadkers write. Their research shows that boys call out eight times more often than girls do.
  • In the more than 100 classrooms the Sadkers studied, they found boys received more of four reactions from teachers: praise, correction, help, criticism--"all reactions that foster student achievement,’' they write. “Girls received the more superficial ‘O.K.’ reaction,’' the Sadkers continue, “the one that packs far less educational punch.’'
  • Male dominance continues on the playground, the Sadkers note. In a “typical’’ schoolyard, they write, the area where boys play is 10 times larger than the play area for girls. “Girls huddle along the sidelines, on the fringe. ...Recess becomes a spectator sport.’'
  • When the Sadkers asked 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in 1992 to name 10 women and 10 men from history who lived anywhere in the world but were not entertainers or athletes, the children, on average, could name 11 men but only three women.
  • In 1989 elementary school textbooks in mathematics, language arts, and history, the Sadkers discovered that mentions of boys outnumbered those of girls two to one or three to one. In one 631-page textbook covering the history of the world, only seven pages related to women.

In their book, the Sadkers acknowledge that girls get better grades in school and receive fewer punishments than boys, calling girls “the elementary school’s ideal pupils.’' But they don’t view that as all positive. Girls receive less time, less help, and fewer challenges, they say. “Reinforced for passivity,’' the Sadkers write, girls’ “independence and self-esteem suffer.’'

Teachers claim, the Sadkers write, that boys get more attention both because they act out more and because “they need it more,’' that is, they’re academically behind the girls. But the Sadkers argue that by middle school, girls are more needy than boys in math and science but aren’t getting more attention.

Moreover, David Sadker says, it’s not good teaching to reinforce with the boys the idea of “‘Act out, threaten to act out, and I will shower you with instructional time to keep you on task.’'' To girls, he adds, teachers say silently: “‘Do what’s expected, and I’ll ignore you.’''

Building Up to Bias

As girls get older, the Sadkers argue, the cumulative effects of gender bias combine with social and developmental factors to create an even more complicated picture. In middle school, for example, evidence suggests that the self-esteem of adolescent girls plummets. In addition to citing a 1991 American Association of University Women poll showing a self-esteem gap between girls and boys, the Sadkers document other research studies showing that girls begin to censor themselves as they grow older, becoming more reticent and masking and denying their feelings.

By their high school years, the Sadkers write, girls face social pressures that foster a negative body image, such as the emphasis on fashion-model-like thinness. These pressures further threaten their self-esteem and can even prompt some girls to become teenage mothers and drop out of school.

Citing U.S. Census and other data, they add that although more boys than girls drop out initially, by age 25 slightly more males than females have earned their high school diplomas. Unlike boys, the Sadkers say, when girls leave school, they rarely return.

Despite recent improvement in girls’ enrollment in math and science classes, the Sadkers say girls still don’t persist in them--nor are they expected to--in the same way as boys. Even though the same numbers of girls and boys take algebra and geometry, for example, boys go on to take calculus while girls drop out of math. Physical-science courses, too, are especially male-dominated, the Sadkers write. A 1991 survey by the Council of Chief State School Officers revealed that the enrollment of first-year physics courses was 60 percent male and that seven out of 10 second-year physics students were boys.

In sizing up the high school experience, the Sadkers repeated their exercise of checking textbooks for references to women and asking students to name famous women from history. Their results mirror those found in elementary school. Fewer than 3 percent of the more than 1,000 pages of A History of the United States are about women, the Sadkers write. Only eight women in the 1992 textbook merit as many as a couple of paragraphs. And, once again, few women made the students’ lists of famous historical figures.

Standardized testing, too, draws the Sadkers’ scrutiny for being biased against girls. On the S.A.T., required for admission to many colleges, boys typically score 50 to 60 points higher than girls. A high school girl with an A+ grade-point average typically scores 83 points lower than a boy with the same G.P.A., the Sadkers say.

On the Achievement Tests, which evaluate knowledge in a single subject area, boys in 1992 outscored girls on 11 of the 14 different versions of the test--from physics to American history to Latin. Girls outdid boys only in German, English composition, and literature.

Although the Sadkers acknowledge that gender bias does not occur in every school or with every teacher, they offer possible solutions to the gender inequities that they say do exist in many of America’s classrooms. They outline strategies for teachers, for example, to use to keep boys from dominating the classroom: wait longer for answers after asking a question, monitor cooperative-learning groups, and make sure comments to girls encourage academic progress.

In addition to describing the “miseducation of boys’'--the stereotyped roles parents and schools foster for boys--the Sadkers make suggestions for how students, parents, and teachers can improve the experiences of girls. They urge parents to be involved at home in shaping nonsexist attitudes in their children in the way they speak to them, in the toys they provide, in joining girls in nontraditional activities. Parents, they write, should seek out real-life female role models, encourage their children’s school to use nonsexist curricula, and urge their daughters to speak up in class and at home.

Hearing Out the Opposition

Although the Sadkers have long been prominent in their field, they are hardly the only scholars who have researched the experiences of girls in school. By and large, their colleagues praise the Sadkers for both the content of their work and for bringing gender equity to the attention of the general public.

But not all of their fellow researchers agree with the Sadkers’ approach. And not all research finds precisely the kind of sex-biased situations the Sadkers have found. In fact, some critics charge that the picture the Sadkers paint is incomplete. They claim that many factors other than gender differences--namely age, race, native language--come into play when looking at classroom or playground interactions.

Although Barrie Thorne, a University of Southern California sociologist, lauds the Sadkers’ research as important, she says, “I think in their work they don’t say enough about the complexity of gender, and they make girls too much into victims.’'

“The Sadkers’ approach to gender is actually quite out of date in terms of feminist scholarship and feminist theory because we have moved to such a complex way of thinking about gender,’' adds Thorne, the chairwoman of U.S.C.'s Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society. “Nobody in women studies says women are just victims.’'

The Sadkers vehemently deny their book is about victims. Rather, they say in unison, it is about “empowerment.’'

“We’re trying to share with people what happened,’' says David Sadker, “some of which was females were victims. But not in the sense of making them victims, but of explaining to them and to parents and to teachers what they need to do to insure equity and a successful future. The book is a road map for educators and others on the pitfalls that lie ahead for females, at every level.’'

Thorne, who is also the author of last year’s book Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, agrees that curriculum is centered too much on boys, leaving girls on the margins. And based on the two ethnographic studies of elementary school children in California and Michigan described in her book, she has also found that boys usually dominate play areas.

But, she says of the Sadkers, “what they’re missing is the great variation from classroom to classroom--the way social class, race, and ethnicity intersect with gender, which is just extremely important.’'

In Gender Play, for example, Thorne points to the mixed-sex play group that developed on the California school’s playground. The Spanish-speaking girls and boys who made up the group, she suggests, were probably more comfortable speaking Spanish with each other in an alien environment than observing traditional gender-based rules of play. Same-age groups--more prevalent in schools than in neighborhoods--also tend to foster same-sex grouping by children, Thorne writes.

Sometimes, girls conquer traditional male dominance and some teachers treat children of different races differently, Thorne adds. “I saw girls in elementary schools exercising power over boys sometimes,’' she says, as well as teachers who paid more attention to “white, middle-class, ‘clean’ girls and didn’t come near black and Latino girls.’'

Thorne also takes into account differences in classroom behavior based on the individual, regardless of gender. “Gender-related patterns, such as boys participating more actively and receiving more teacher attention than girls in classroom settings, are, at the most, a matter of statistical difference,’' she writes. “There is wide individual variation in patterns like readiness to talk in class.’' Gender relations are not fixed but vary by context, she says.

Jacquelynne Eccles, a University of Michigan psychology professor, also found that factors other than gender come into play in classroom interactions. In her observations of junior and senior high mathematics and science classes in the Midwest, she found academics affects behavior. The teachers tended to pay more attention to the high-achieving students, whether they were boys or girls.

“I can tell you the much more significant thing is how the children are performing’’ academically, says Eccles, who is also chairwoman of Michigan’s combined program in education and psychology.

In about one-third of the classrooms, according to Eccles, the teacher did practice overt sexist behavior, treating boys better than girls of comparable ability levels. But, over all, she says, “we found that the biggest gender difference is that the boys get yelled at more than the girls. That swamps all other differences.’'

The Sadkers have also encountered a fair share of criticism about their methodology. Critics charge that because they are feminists, their rating sheet used to record observations can’t be objective.

The Sadkers disagree. The 50-page manual that accompanies the rating sheet, they say, clearly defines such classroom interactions as “praise.’' What’s more, raters had to agree 85 percent of the time on what they had seen. If they couldn’t, the Sadkers didn’t use those results.

“We developed the form,’' Myra Sadker explains, “but it’s not exactly a high-inference form. ... Who got called on? Circle it. Count it. That, to me, is the most objective thing you can do--not gain an impression, but count.’'

Sharing the Spotlight

The attention the Sadkers’ book has garnered--from critics and supporters alike--has helped maintain the momentum building around the gender-equity issue since the release of “How Schools Shortchange Girls’’ two years ago. Commissioned by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation and researched by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, the report reviewed the literature, including the Sadkers’ work, suggesting that girls receive different, often worse, treatment in school than boys do.

Other events are fueling that momentum, too. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of the testing watchdog group FairTest, filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights. It charged that the Educational Testing Service and the College Board had violated federal law by administering and sponsoring the Preliminary S.A.T. as the sole criterion in awarding more than $25 million annually in National Merit Scholarships.

In 1989, FairTest won a lawsuit charging New York State with gender bias in its award of scholarships based solely on Scholastic Aptitude Test scores. Scholarship awards in that state were subsequently based also on grades before budget cuts eliminated them altogether.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the House version of bills sponsored to address the findings of the 1992 A.A.U.W. report were passed in floor action late last week. The group of bills, introduced as the “gender equity in education act,’' was incorporated into the bill, HR 6, reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act--the legislation that authorizes most of the federal elementary and secondary education programs. In the Senate, a package of four bills addressing gender equity in education awaits incorporation into the Senate’s version of E.S.E.A. legislation.

And there is bound to be continued interest in gender bias in the classroom. Due out in September is a book by journalist Peggy Orenstein, which expands on the A.A.U.W.'s 1991 self-esteem poll. Schoolgirls will chronicle what Orenstein found after spending a year with 8th graders at two public schools in California.

After 25 years of pushing for educational equity for girls and women, Myra and David Sadker seem to look to the future with equal doses of optimism and caution.

We’re at a “very critical juncture,’' Myra Sadker says. “Equity is an attainable goal in education.’' But, based on the “backlash’’ she says she and her husband have encountered during their book tour, she also warns: “We could go backward.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 1994 edition of Education Week as Girls Will--and should--Be Girls


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