Equity & Diversity Opinion

Schools Can Influence Changes in Gender-Defined Roles

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 12, 2016 5 min read
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Bias is a very personal and deeply stealth orientation, set of feelings, and frame of mind; so deeply, in fact, can bias be hidden that it can go totally unnoticed by the holder. Denial may not be dishonest. It may be the result from simply being unaware. Gender bias exists from the very beginning of life. It does not begin in schools. It begins at birth. One might think that “we’ve come a long way baby” and in some ways we have. But evidence that “we’ve got a long way to go” exists all around us.

A Holiday Trip to ToysrUs
During the holiday season, ToysrUs served as an eye-opening laboratory for observations. Although this certainly was not the first trip, somehow this time was breath taking, not only for the way the store was divided by colors and categories, but for the observed behaviors between parent and child. Age level made little difference. The overt and covert messages appeared to be the same. Here some observations:

  • Fathers and sons walked past the stuffed animals and the dolls, even the puzzles, and were drawn toward the Lego sets or the Star Wars aisle.
  • During the observation period, the only mothers seen in those sections had been dragged there by their sons...and they stood while the young boy(s) perused the aisle. Dads were seen in conversation about who the figures were, what they could do, if it was mechanized, how they could do something together with it. Moms were virtually silent.
  • The girls were drawn to the pink aisles filled with stuffed animals, dolls, play kitchens, and dress up clothes. Mothers’ conversations with their daughters were more animated and interactive, unlike when they stood in the Lego aisle with a son.
  • The division of the store was an unexpected disappointment since we had written about how Legos was unveiling a female scientist. But when thinking about this ToysrUs experience and searching on the Internet for this female scientist, she was found to be a frumpy looking character, unlike those found in their other female kits, which in and of themselves are role limiting (Pop Star House, Castle, Cupcake Café). But in this particular ToysrUs, there were not any of these kits to be found. Legos were targeting boys.
  • Boys often were corrected with a “Don’t do that” or “Be respectful” while girls were corrected with “That’s not nice” or “Apologize to your (sister or brother)”

The fulcrum point of the observation and the resulting question here is, " While attempting to maximize sales, is the store they shaping gender stereotypes or are they acknowledging gender stereotypes that already exist?”

“Hey, you guys!”
How do educators contribute to gender messages? Before saying, “not me”, consider this...teachers, leaders, coaches, television personalities all use the term “guys.” “How do you guys feel about this?” “Ok, you guys, let’s move to another topic.” It is so accepted that Merriam-Webster now defines the word as “a man, fellow OR a person used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex.” Common use, without our notice has turned what referred to men, into being gender neutral. But what if it had been the other way around? What if we had used “girls” to refer to a mixed gender group? How do you think that would have gone over? It certainly would never have made it into common use OR the dictionary!

Children Arrive to School Already Socialized into Gender Roles
All this to raise the issue of whether or not we, as educators, are aware enough of how our language reflects deeply (and sometimes universally) held biases and how subtly it is communicated to each other and to the children for whom we are responsible. How we interact with the five year olds as they enter our doors and how we influence them as they continue throughout their thirteen years with us adds to the formation of gender behaviors, beliefs and career choices. Yes, they arrive already having been socialized about gender roles by their parents and relatives, by retailers, by television, and by movies and stories and books but it is the public education system that continues or interrupts those constraining messages.

Society has made some important shifts by accepting, for example, paternity leave as evidence of a respect for parents of either gender who want to stay home and care for a child. Baby changing tables in men’s bathrooms began and now family bathrooms are found in many public places. But, if we truly want more girls to go into science, technology, engineering, and math fields, schools have a responsibility to begin by becoming aware of language and behaviors on the part of the adults who concretize or open the developing attitudes, beliefs and choices of their students.

Gender Bias Remains in the Workplaces Where Students are Headed
The world in which our students will be working already holds extensive bias. Even in academia, the issue prevails. In this TheConversation.com article, six Cornell University professors discuss the “long road to academia in STEM ends long before they obtain a faculty position.” In addition they report on a study in which,

886 letters of recommendations for faculty positions in chemistry showed that these letters tended to include descriptors of ability for male applicants, such as “standout,” but refer to the work ethic of the women, rather than their ability, by using words such as “grindstone.”

Educators Can Make a Difference
How we speak to and behave toward the girls and boys in their thirteen years with us will shape or reshape their attitudes toward each other. This is not only important for young girls to see beyond the boundaries that exist, but for the boys as they see models of different ways to think about girls while in their school years and hopefully beyond. Realistic goals about women in STEM are dashed when we realize that even as we encourage young girls to become interested in STEM fields, they will attend universities where their professors will likely be predominantly male and where they will be ground breaking.

The fact is at the current rate of increase in women faculty in tenure-track positions in STEM fields, it may be 2050 before women reach parity in hiring and, worse, 2115 before women constitute 50% of STEM faculty of all ranks.

A difference can be made as we work with our students to recognize and acknowledge the bias that exists, to prepare our students to call it out when it exists, and to develop the inner strength to walk the tough path of trailblazers. This, like all learning, is a trial and error process that requires vigilant and committed educators all along the way.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.