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Gender Bias Starts Early

Newsletter • volume 1 • number 11

Why are there fewer females in science, math, engineering, and technical disciplines? At least one reason may be the way girls are treated by their teachers. Recent studies indicate that consciously or not, teachers often treat girls in ways that reduce their self-esteem and steer them away from careers in such typically "masculine" fields as mathematics and science.

A study published in 1990 by the American Association of University Women found that not only do teachers call upon girls less often than boys, they ask girls and boys different kinds of questions. For example, in a geography class, a teacher might ask a girl which country borders China, but pose a more difficult question about trade routes to a boy. It appears likely that the lower expectations for girls does little to build their self-confidence.

An interesting finding was that female teachers are just as responsible for this unfortunate situation as are their male counterparts. A female teacher from an upper-class California neighborhood suggests one reason: "I try to make sure I call on everybody, but sometimes I slip - the boys demand so much more attention. They are more rambunctious, and as a group, more assertive, so I find my attention drawn to them."

This can project into adult roles where some may argue that the "expert" is more fundamental to our notion of masculinity than our concept of femininity. According to convention, women are more inclined to be givers of praise rather than of information. Such limited thinking reinforces stereotypes and assumptions and sustains barriers for promoting women.