“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”
I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.
“I saved all my money by eating pocket lint.”
Warning: this post is over 1,500 words long. Read only if your attention spans greater than 3 minutes.
On our walk today Ian and I began talking about sexism in schools as documented “Failing at Fairness: Hidden Lessons,” by Myra and David Sadker. In their article, the authors claim that the education system consistently mistreats females both physically in terms of sexual harassment and in terms of quality of education. They state, “Tolerated under the assumption that ‘boys will be boys’ and hormone levels are high in high school, sexual harassment is a way of life in America’s schools. While teachers and administrators look the other way, sexually denigrating comments, pinching, touching, and propositioning happens daily.” (pg. 423) I emphasized the section regarding teachers and administrators because from my experience at BCS—not, I admit, a representative sample of all school situations—teachers worked hard to prevent just such harassment. Perhaps, though I never experienced it, such sexually denigrating experiences are common to many high school girls; but knowing the feel of today’s society is it possible to imagine school administrators turning a blind eye to potential law suits? Schools constantly struggle against sexual harassment with the best tools they have. Additionally, this article seemed to focus on teachers mistreating females, while the majority of harassment almost certainly (again, I haven’t done the research to support this) passes from male students to female students. They don’t offer nearly enough evidence to support the claim that “sexual harassment in schools is dismissed as normal and unavoidable” (426).
Harassment, however, serves only as a subset of their major argument, in which they focus on the lower quality of education females receive compared to their males. Females, according to the Sadker team, receive “very different educations” (418) from their male counterparts. To determine this, the ‘researchers’ (I tentatively use this term, for I remain unconvinced as to the status they deserve) spent “almost two decades of research grants and thousands of hours of classroom observation” (419)—which sounds legitimate to me; research grants aren’t paid to people who won’t use them for a useful study. However, the authors go on to describe the difficulty with which they observed sexism in classrooms: “it is difficult to detect sexism unless you know precisely how to observe.” (420) Very well; but doesn’t it sound as if this is a case of looking for something and finding what you expect to see? On the same page they describe Dateline employees taping a classroom and being unable to find any evidence of sexism; the authors suggest that the “‘Dateline’ staff members were wearing blinders.” Were the ‘Dateline’ people wearing blinders or did the authors find what they wanted to see while an outside source observed nothing but what was really there?
Much of the evidence these authors offer for their suggestion that females receive not only a different but inferior education from females comes in the form of personal testimonials or single personal examples. They take the case of one veteran fifth-grade teacher, Chris Zajac (cool name, huh?), notice that she behaves in a certain manner, and extrapolates it to say that “teachers of good intention, such as Chris Zajac, respond to boys and teach them more actively, but their time and attention are not limitless. While the teachers are spending time with boys, the girls are being ignored and shortchanged.” (421) Granted, no teacher, however talented, can exist in two different places at two different times to teach boys and girls identically. The article explains that since girls enter school scoring higher on standardized tests, the teachers focus on boys, who also tend to have trouble paying attention for long spans of time. Yet, I ask, if boys on average need more “help” than girls, is it sexist to aid those in need of such assistance? By the time the females leave the education system, be it with a high school diploma or a graduate degree, the woman has learned to “speak softly or not at all; to submerge honest feelings, withhold opinions, and defer to boys; to avoid math and science as male domains; to value neatness and quiet more than assertiveness and creativity [I add—are these mutually exclusive? Cannot neatness and creativity coexist?]; to emphasize appearance and hide intelligence.” (425) I myself “hid” my intelligence, but not so as to defer from boys; at BCS the overall consensus among the student body was that nobody should get all A’s, and those who did should be ostracized.
In support of this claim, as I mentioned previously, the authors offer lots of personal examples in which adult women, often college professors or holders of advanced degrees, when put into a blatantly sexist simulated “classroom situation” reverted to behaving quietly and deferring to men. They “sit and say nothing; once again they become the nice girls watching the boys in action.” (425)—yes, they do, but is this a typical example of a classroom? Indeed, the authors make numerous sweeping statements with which I cannot agree until I see some solid evidence: what to make of such claims as “the girl is conditioned to be silent and to defer” (425), “the majority of…voiceless students are women” (424), and “intimidating comments and offensive sexual jokes are even more common in college” (423)? The only major study I found mentioned came from a 1992 Glamour magazine—because of course a statistically relevant and diverse segment of society reads the magazine and responds to its polls. The authors offer personal testimonials, often secondhand ones, to verify the validity of their many claims and I cannot accept that they are truly statistically and relevantly proven until I see those statistics.
Finally, at the end of the article, the authors offer a “record of silent, devastating losses” (426) that they claim result in the female’s inferior role in education. Here they offer a list of statistics regarding standardized tests from the SATs to the GREs; say that according to their report “female students receive less active instruction” than males (if referring for support of their argument to their own argument isn’t circular and fallacious, I don’t know what is); and then move on to depressing statistics about female eating disorders and self-esteem—with the implication, of course, that these result from such continual degradations as reading history textbooks in which men feature prominently and in the majority, being called “cookie” by teachers, and having teachers goad boys to “keep up with” girls. Well, if girls can outstrip boys in exams, what’s wrong with prodding the male sense of competition by pointing out that fact? Granted, perhaps it’s poor teaching technique, as is keeping college students’ attention by interspersing slides of class notes with slides of bikini-clad women, but do these acts constitute sexism?
Sexism, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is “1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially: discrimination against women 2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.” From the article, definition one certainly isn’t proven, and although definition two has greater support, I still would like more than anecdotal evidence for any of these. What I instinctually consider sexism would be a male saying “females’ brains are physically different from mens’ such that females are less capable to perform Task X than a male is.” (Assuming difference in strength/body size doesn’t come into play; few would disagree that men and women are physically different in terms of strength and body makeup.)
Perhaps society has conditioned, from very early on in a child’s development, the child to lean towards an appropriately male or feminine outlook. Perhaps, by adulthood, the male and female brain is actually physically different as a result of childhood experiences that allow for formation of different synapses, different thinking paths. But if a boy and girl are born and raised with identical encouragement towards the humanities or the mathematical/technological, I cannot believe that the female will actually, as a result of her gender, lean towards the humanities. Sexism would be claiming that females are inherently mentally less capable than men of competing well in such technical fields as mathematics, computers, engineering, etc. It is my unsupported theory that mothers, however unintentionally, pass on to their children the unconscious desire to pursue properly “feminine” activities such as writing stories, or playing nurse, as opposed to designing things or playing with trucks (at one point I knew more about semi’s than any male I ever met, by the way. Also, why is playing with trucks a boy’s activity?). I think that society encourages boys to think logically and rationally about things, while pushing girls to “emote,” and as a result when they reach upper-levels of school the males find it “instinctive” to think technically while females “naturally” gravitate towards interpersonal, touchy-feely occupations. Nothing natural about it, of course; we simply didn’t realize at the time that our whole upbringing oriented males towards being able to think logically while handicapping females in the same way. This, combined with parental encouragement to follow sex-appropriate activities, solidifies the male/female abilities that become the basis of post-secondary education and future careers. Just my hypothesis, however.
Yet, if you look at me, my life seems to offer something of a counterexample: I excelled, albeit with hard work, in every math or science class I took, barring physics. I hate physics. But what have I decided to do? I had the opportunity to choose any field I wanted, essentially, and I chose a humanity. My parents didn’t, to my knowledge, urge me towards “girlish” activities; indeed, they forced us to do math in the summer alongside our other projects. Notice: FORCED. Even from youth we disliked math, and it never came as easily to me as did reading and writing.
Anyway, back to the main point. Overall, I remain unconvinced by “Failing at Fairness: Hidden Lesson”. The authors, though they do offer several blatant examples of sexism (as in the title-case where a professor actually ousted all female students from an overcrowded class), do only that: offer examples, not a convincing representative sample capable of supporting their thesis. We aren’t yet in any position to begin criticizing those hardworking teachers who need to duct-tape boys to their chairs to keep them still while allowing the well-behaved females to continue working independently. Maybe this is all a result of females maturing faster and needing less supervision?
– KF –
It must have been yesterday’s the day that I was born.