Schools Are Called Partly Responsible For Drop in Self-Esteem Among Girls

By Robert Rothman — January 16, 1991 3 min read

Washington--Schools are a major contributor to the dramatic drop in self-esteem and aspirations that girls experience during adolescence, a survey released here last week concludes.

The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation commissioned the survey of 3,000 students in grades 4 through 10, said to be the largest of its kind ever conducted, as part of a national effort to place “gender equity” high on the education-reform agenda.

The study found that, although both boys and girls tend to lose self-esteem during adolescence, the discipline among girls is more severe. Partly as a result of that decline, the survey found, girls more than boys tend to lose interest in mathematics and science, which are considered vital for entry into professional careers.

And, it found, teachers often inadvertently foster girls’ lack of confidence in their academic abilities by sending subtle cues that boys are more able than girls.

Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the foundation, said the findings underscore the view that the needs of girls have been overlooked in school-reform efforts.

“I am ever more convinced,” she said at a press conference here, “that education reform without gender equity is like building an airplane with one wing. It just won’t fly.”

The survey released here reaffirmed the view, common to smaller-scale studies, that girls suffer a dramatic and long-lasting decline in self-esteem during adolescence.

In elementary schools, it found, 60 percent of girls and 67 percent of boys said they were “happy the way I am.” Eight years later, however, 46 percent of boys and only 29 percent of girls agreed with that statement.

This declining sense of self-esteem also contributes to a gender gap in career aspirations, the study found. Girls are much more likely than boys to say they are “not smart enough” or “not good enough” for their dream careers, it found.

In analyzing possible reasons for such findings, the survey notes that, contrary to popular perceptions, schooling plays a prominent role in teenagers’ self-esteem.

“The popular literature suggests that peers dominate the world of teenagers,” said Celinda Lake, a Washington-based researcher who conducted the survey. “In fact, adult institutions tell them who they are.”

One sign of such influence, she noted, is the survey’s finding that adolescents’ sense of self-worth is related to their interest in mathematics. While math becomes less popular for all students as they move through school, the survey found, the drop for girls is much sharper than for boys.

Moreover, it found, boys and girls differ in their reasons for disliking the subject.

“Girls interpret their problems with math as personal failures,” a report on the survey states. “Boys project it more as a problem with the subject matter itself.”

Teachers may inadvertently exacerbate such attitudes, according to Ms. Bryant. For example, she noted, if a girl has trouble answering a question, a teacher is likely to answer it for her or to ask a different student. But teachers tend to encourage boys to solve problems on their own, she said.

“There are 1,001 ways, some subtle, some not so subtle, that schools discourage girls’ aspirations,” she said.

As part of its effort to boost the is sue of gender equity in education, Ms. Bryant said, the education foundation is expected this fall to release a major study on the status of girls in education.

In addition, she said, the foundation will launch a series of “roundtable” discussions among educators, business leaders, and policymakers aimed at raising the issue of gender equity. The first such session, which included Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, chairman of the National Education Goals Panel, took place here last week.

The forums may lead to legislation to establish teacher-training programs, similar to one the foundation currently sponsors, to address gender biases in schools, Ms. Bryant said.

“This is not a billion-dollar education program,” she said. “It’s training for teachers. They are dying for it. They didn’t get it in their schools of education.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 1991 edition of Education Week as Schools Are Called Partly Responsible For Drop in Self-Esteem Among Girls