Schools’ ‘Glass Ceiling’ Imperils Girls, Study Says

By Millicent Lawton — February 12, 1992 7 min read

WASHINGTON--Girls face pervasive barriers to achievement throughout their precollegiate schooling and are “systematically discouraged” from pursuing studies that would enhance their prospects for well-paying jobs, a study to be released this week contends.

The report, commissioned by the American Association of University Women, is described as the first synthesis of the existing research on girls in public education.

It lists 40 recommendations for bringing about more equitable treatment of girls by schools, ranging from strengthened enforcement of federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination to the adoption of “gender fair” curricula. The recommendations will be the basis for discussion at a national summit of education organizations scheduled to be held here Feb. 12 in conjunction with the report’s release.

“Construction of the glass ceiling begins not in the executive suite but in the classroom,” Alice McKee, the president of the A.A.U.W. Educational Foundation, said in a statement accompanying the report.

“It starts in preschool....By the time girls reach high school,” she said, “they have been systematically tracked toward traditional, sex-segregated jobs, and away from areas of study that lead to high-paying jobs in science, technology, and engineering.”

In her foreword to the report, Ms. McKee calls its implications “enormous.” She refers to the growing ranks of women and children among the poor and chides education policymakers for failing to address the relationship between poverty and inadequate education.

By not properly educating girls, “we are losing an extraordinary amount of talent,” Anne Bryant, the executive director of the A.A.U.W. Educational Foundation, added in an interview last week.

“We are losing the talent that creates management-level and greater-than-poverty-level-wage jobs,” she argued.

Tougher Title IX Enforcement

The research review, entitled “The A.A.U.W. Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls,” was conducted last year by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women with a $100,000 grant from the A.A.U.W. Educational Foundation.

It draws on research showing, for example, that girls do not receive the same attention from teachers that boys do, that they learn lessons from gender-biased textbooks, and that they are not encouraged to pursue the same curricula or careers as their male peers.

Such findings provide the basis for dozens of specific recommendations. Among other suggestions, the report calls for:

  • Tougher enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex by schools receiving federal funds. The report urges that school districts be required to conduct regular reviews of their compliance with the law and to report their findings to the U.S. Education Department.

Saying that many schools still discriminate against pregnant girls and teenage parents, the report calls for greater scrutiny of Title IX violations affecting such students.

  • The provision of teacher training and staff development in gender issues. The report says that state-certification standards should require course work in this area.
  • The adoption of “gender fair,” multicultural curricula that avoid sex stereotypes and reflect differences in learning styles.
  • Increased efforts by schools, business, and government to involve girls in the study of mathematics and science and to promote career choices in those fields as appropriate for women.
  • Greater attention to gender equity in vocational-education programs.
  • The reform of standardized tests to eliminate sex bias, and a decreased emphasis on test scores in awarding scholarships.
  • A more central role for girls and women in educational reform, including equitable representation on reform committees. The report also advocates national standards for data collection including breaking down statistics by sex and other characteristics-that permit more accurate comparisons of states and districts.
  • Improved programs in health and sexuality, including tough policies against sexual harassment.

‘Discouraging’ Messages

The messages sent by both the formal school curriculum and informal classroom interaction are “discouraging” for women and girls, according to the report.

A 1989 study, it notes, found that of the 10 books most frequently assigned in public-high-school English courses, only one was written by a woman and none by a minority group member.

In addition, the report cites studies showing that academic achievement for all students was linked to use of nonsexist and multicultural materials, and that a curriculum portraying the sexes in nonstereotypical roles prompted less stereotyping among students.

The report also discusses what it calls the “evaded” curriculum--topics of concern to girls that are not taught, or are only touched on briefly, in school.

Adequate sex and health education to help prevent pregnancy and the spread of venereal diseases and AIDS “is the exception rather than the rule,” the report says. It says topics such as incest, rape, and other physical violence are rarely discussed.

But the “most evaded of all topics” are those related to gender and power, the report contends. School curricula, it argues, must deal with the fact that girls “confront a culture that both idealizes and exploits the sexuality of young women while assigning them roles that are clearly less valued than male roles.”

‘Raise Your Hand’

The A.A.U.W. review also cites research indicating disparities in how teachers treat boys and girls in the classroom, as well as differences in teacher behavior toward black girls and other students.

Teachers pay more classroom attention to boys, give them more encouragement, and coax answers from them more often, according to the report. One study quoted showed that boys in elementary and middle school called out answers eight times more often than girls did; when the boys did so, teachers listened.

But when girls called out, they were told to “raise your hand and speak,” the study found.

Other research, the report says, indicates that black girls have less interaction with teachers than white girls do, even though black girls try to initiate such interaction much more often than white girls or than boys of either race.

Black girls also receive less reinforcement from teachers on their academic achievements, even though their academic performance is often better than that of boys.

Disparity in Science Increasing

While the report sees reason for concern about disparities between the sexes in achievement and participation in both math and science, it suggests that the differences are markedly more worrisome in science.

In math, it says, gender disparities in achievement seem to be small and declining, and differences in participation appear to be small and only in higher-level courses.

In science, however, gender differences in achievement are significant and may be increasing, it notes.

While the disparity between the number of science courses taken by boys and girls is small, the two sexes take different types of courses, the study found. Girls are much more apt to take advanced biology, and boys are more likely to enroll in advanced chemistry or physics.

The physical sciences are also the area in which boys have the greatest advantage over girls in achievement, the report says.

Even when girls take science and math, it says, they do not receive the same encouragement to pursue scientific careers.

Still, Ms. Bryantof the A.A.U.W. Educational Foundation said, the report’s findings about girls and math are heartening, because they seem to show that efforts made by educators in recent years to alter math instruction and tests to better serve female students have paid off.

“To me, that is a very powerful statement,” she said.

Few Test Items on Women

One of the aspects of schooling in which gender bias is most evident, according to the report, is in standardized testing.

The “most obvious” source of such bias, it says, is in the disparate numbers of references to women and men in test items and in the stereotypical portrayals of the sexes.

Despite efforts begun in the 1970’s by test companies to balance references to men and women and to screen out items deemed offensive to women, the report says, a 1984 analysis of standardized tests found twice as many references to men as to women, and more pictures of and references to boys than girls.

A subsequent study of reading comprehension passages in the four 1984-85 versions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test turned up references to 42 men and only 3 women.

Such bias, the report argues, makes the test a poor measure of both boys’ and girls’ abilities and can skew the awarding of financial aid when S.A.T. Scores are the main criterion. When college scholarships are based on s.A.T. scores, it says, boys are more apt to receive scholarships than are girls who get equal or slightly better high-school grades.

The report recommends that such factors as grades, portfolios of student work, and extracurricular activities be considered along with test scores to make more accurate assessments of student abilities.

Copies of “The A.A.U.W. Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls” are available for $14.95 each for A.A.U.W. members and $16.95 each for nonmembers from the A.A.U.W. Sales Office, P.O. Box 251, Annapolis Junction, Md. 20701-0251; telephone (800) 225-9998, extension 91.

Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1992 edition of Education Week as Schools’ ‘Glass Ceiling’ Imperils Girls, Study Says