Leveling the Playing Field for Girls in the Classroom

In a Spectator survey taken by 555 Stuyvesant students—302 female, 233 male, and 20 who identified as other genders—42.7 percent of respondents reported having experienced what they perceived as gender-based treatment from teachers.

Female students reported sexist behaviors on the part of teachers which ranged from microaggressions to inappropriate physical contact. More commonly, both girls and boys reported what they perceive as favoritism toward girls. These situations are explored in the written responses to our survey, some of which are included in this editorial.

Problematic Positives

The Perks of Being Underestimated

“I feel like, because I’m female, sometimes teacher[s] have a better impression of me; they think I’m more trustworthy and responsible than I may be.” —anonymous female student

“In physical education, I’ve been able to get away with not doing as much work as the boys do. I’m going to be honest—I enjoy it. However, in the long run, I know it’s not beneficial for me to go through physical education without having to do any serious work.” —anonymous female student

“I don’t think disparity based on gender is always a bad thing, as it could contribute to closing the sizable gender gap in some fields (particularly females in STEM areas).” —anonymous male student

Comments such as these were reiterated by numerous responders. Despite the positive connotations of being trustworthy and responsible, a stereotype is a stereotype no matter how you twist it. Positive assumptions about a student’s characteristics come from the same ill-informed place as do negative stereotypes, which portray girls as weaker or less intelligent than their male counterparts. Unwarranted assumptions about a student’s character can and will distort her development as both a student and an individual. It is axiomatic that both genders are entitled to a fair playing field, and only with equal treatment can all students flourish.

Notably, 20.8 percent of female responders said that they believe that their grades have been impacted positively because of their gender. For males, this number was 1.7 percent. As one male student reported, “I had a female teacher sophomore year [who] quite obviously favored females, and even gave them higher participation grades [and] often overlooked small mistakes on their part that she reprimanded male students for.”

Females share the same views. One stated simply, “My teacher usually gave girls a higher grade, and so I got a higher final grade than I should’ve.”

The practice of curving girls up is more common in STEM classes in which female students are a clear minority, and teachers want to encourage diversity in the classroom. Promoting girls’ involvement in STEM is certainly admirable, and on an individual level it only serves to benefit the students. On a broader scale, however, the teacher is sending the wrong message: that for girls, the expectations should be lowered. Instead, teachers can open doors for students by being attentive mentors, giving them the guidance they need and being enthusiastic about their accomplishments. But projecting the idea that the expectations for girls are lower than those for boys is discouraging and demeaning.

Power Dynamics

“I’ve seen several cases where girls were harassed in class. The worst cases tended to be when one or two girls were singled out and teased or creepily flirted with throughout the year.” —anonymous male student

“I’ve been called a “bad housewife” by a teacher because I was trying to clean something up.” —anonymous female student

“[A Teacher] used to tell [a female student] in our computer science class to “manage” the boys who were programming, instead of telling her to program herself.” —anonymous female student

Mild harassment, such as inappropriate language, is often subtle enough to be laughed off and normalized. For example, comments about the way a female student is dressed, often made by female teachers, may seem like minor offenses, but ultimately make female students feel self-conscious, and therefore less comfortable in their learning environment.

In rare cases, some teachers have engaged in inappropriate physical contact with students. This usually occurs between male teachers and female students, and can range from a teacher putting his arm around a student while coming over to help her to something more serious. These actions are extremely harmful to the learning environment because they make students feel unsafe. Such concerns about safety and feelings of discomfort inhibit students’ ability to focus on school.

Because the fate of a student rests in her teacher’s hands, she may be more likely to let him dominate her and she may be less likely to call him out or report him for inappropriate behavior.

Solutions

Issues surrounding gender in the classroom are hardly anything new, but they are also not addressed simply. Gender biases among teachers are often subconscious, or may be more acceptable in the culture or period in which the teacher were raised.

Currently, professional development programs at Stuyvesant do not explicitly address how teachers should react to the gender diversity within their classrooms, and as a result, teachers act according to what they feel is right. If the administration and the Department of Education were to utilize professional development as a platform for discussion, we might see many of these unconscious biases addressed and ultimately expelled from our learning experience.

When we witness these biases in classroom settings, it is important that we reach out to our administration. Many of the issues we experience are subtle and thus easily overlooked by both students and teachers. But it then becomes our responsibility to speak up—to elucidate the issues, and ensure that they do not go unrecognized.

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