A study of gender bias in the classroom
at Irvington High School

Joseph M. Adelman
AP English
October 24, 1997

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"The Olinka do not believe girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why she thought this, she said: A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something," (Walker 161-2) wrote Nettie in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.  This helps to illustrate, in the context of another culture, the problem which has faced American educators for decades: the issue of gender in the classroom.  Over half of the female AP English students recently surveyed at Irvington High School believe that gender bias occurs in at least one of their classes, usually in favor of male students.  This leads to a series of questions: What is the inequality?  Are steps being taken to remedy the situation?  Have educators perhaps gone too far in trying to compensate?

The best example of the inequality that exists can be found in The Color Purple, especially in those sections dealing with the Olinka, a West African tribe. Although Nettie describes them as a well-meaning people, they follow strict rules about a person's role in society. For example, when the mother quoted above tells Nettie that a girl can only become something to her husband, Nettie asks what that is. The mother responds, "Why, ..., the mother of his children" (Walker 162). They do not permit their girls to attend the missionary school, since they feel that girls need to learn other skills, especially household chores.

Nevertheless, the Olinka feel that they accord respect towards women: "Our women are respected here, said the father. We would never let them tramp the world as American women do. There is always someone to look after the Olinka women. A father. An uncle. A brother or nephew" (Walker 167). Their bias, then, is merely that they believe that women have a separate place in society from men; there are "male" jobs and "female" jobs. The question then becomes whether the Olinka are actually guilty of gender bias, or whether, in the context of their culture, set roles for each gender are fair.

In American culture, these stereotypes also exist, yet there have been changes, especially in the wake of the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1960's. In fact, the classroom has been a main battleground for activists from both sides of the issue, and the combatants are not exclusively male or female on either side. For example, Christina Hoff Sommers, a professor of philosophy at Clark University, wrote an article entitled "Where the Boys Are,"claiming that measures taken to improve the lot of girls in school are both unnecessary and harmful to boys:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is considered one of the more reliable measures of academic proficiency. In 1992, 17-year-old boys outperformed girls by 4 points in mathematics and 10 points in science, while girls outperformed boys by 12 points in reading and 17 points in writing. Girls are catching up in math and science; boys continue to lag far behind in reading and writing. The U.S. Department of Education's Condition of Education 1995 estimates that "the gap in reading proficiency between males and females [favoring girls] is roughly equivalent to about one and a half years of school" ...

Regardless of these statistics, there are girls who at minimum perceive a difference in the way male and female students are treated, particularly in science. In a recently conducted survey of an AP English class, two-thirds of female respondents claimed that a male science teacher favored males. More interestingly, two-thirds of male respondents stated that a male science teacher favored neither gender. In this case, it is fair to assume that perception is more important than reality, as the female students feel victimized regardless of whether the teacher in question actually favors males. Therefore, it is apparent that the discrimination that exists is not overly obvious, as we can see from the fact that the males, almost 80% of whom are in honors science, were unable to detect favoritism which many females saw as obvious.

Based on the demographic of the survey, it seems that the female students are basically speaking about one science teacher when they express displeasure. One student said, "It's just the way I feel." When presented with the fact that most of the males surveyed did not detect discrimination against female students, another said, "[Males] may notice discrimination that we don't see." However, not every female student feels the same way about this teacher. Megan Selenow, a senior in the AP Biology class, said that the teacher in question "expects everybody to participate." She believes that the teacher is more favorable towards girls, that he "tries to get them to feel more confident," and to "make girls feel like they can do it."

Another interesting result of the survey dealt with students' favorite classes. Each student was asked to rank his or her favorite classes among mathematics, science, English, and social studies. While male students showed nearly no tendency towards any class, females showed definite preferences, with the exception of math. Females tended to favor English class strongly, while they shied away from social studies and science, again. In addition, females, when asked to rate their confidence in science class, averaged a 6.7 on a scale of 10, while males averaged 8.4, which is a marked difference, though female confidence could not be categorized as low. Almost half of the female students would prefer a single-sex science class.

Finally, I must deal with my own views. I do believe that there is unfairness among certain teachers. However, I feel that Irvington High School as a whole is trying to meet the needs of all students, and is working especially hard to combat the problem of gender inequity. It should be noted that, in many cases, the students know best; if many believe that a particular teacher favors one gender over the other, usually male, it is probably true. The solution then, in part, is to occasionally survey students as to their opinions on teacher performance in the area of gender. Furthermore, administrators could perhaps hire a consultant to study the behavior of teachers in the classroom and to make recommendations. However, the school must be careful to select an objective party to observe classes; they must also remember that the IHS faculty is of a fairly high quality, so they should trust that teachers are doing the best that they can.

Finally, it is paramount that all interested parties remember that the most important aspect of gender equity is that it be equitable, and not swing the other way. As David Sadker, an American University professor and longtime researcher in this area stated at Cornell University, "the lesson from our research is to make [the classroom] a better environment for all students" (Goetz).


Goetz, Jill. "Education expert: Classroom gender bias persists." http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicles/
4.25.96/gender.html (5 Oct. 1997).

Selenow, Megan. Personal Interview. 19 Oct. 1997.

Sommers, Christina Hoff. "Where the Boys Are." Education Week. http://www.edweek.org/ htbin/fastweb?getdoc+view4+ew1996+10413+wAAA+%26%28Sommers%29%26AND%26
%28Sommers%29%3AKEYWORDS&25OR%26%28Sommers%29 (5 Oct. 1997).

Subjects. Personal Interviews. 21 Oct. 1997.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books, 1982.

This essay is the sole work of Joseph Adelman and reflect his opinions only. To make comments, contact the author, Joseph Adelman, by e-mail at jadelman@fas.harvard.edu

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