In a study by Dr. Cynthia S. Mee on the trends of thought among middle school students regarding their own gender, as well as the opposite gender, she found a large discrepancy between male and female students. On the whole, male students’ thoughts about their own gender were positive. On the other hand female students’ thoughts about their gender were, in contrast, quite negative; especially in regards to the opportunities they had, and would have in the future. “Both the boys and the girls thought that boys can do more, are viewed as better, have different expectations, and have different restrictions”(5). Such perceptions, as expressed by the middle school learners interviewed by Dr. Mee, reflect a school culture and curriculum that is tragically gender biased. Gender bias, both in the curriculum, as well as within the school culture, is a major problem in middle school education.
In Dr. Mee’s study, she interviewed 2,000 middle school students in grades 5-8 in 15 different schools in 6 different states. She asked them to respond to the following three prompts: the best thing about my gender, the worst thing about my gender, and the biggest difference between the sexes. According to her, one of the most common responses to the first prompt among male students was “we can do more things”. Female students, however, had a much harder time thinking of positive aspects of being female, mostly focusing their comments on physical attributes like hair, make-up, and clothing. In contrast, female students did not have as much of a problem identifying the negative characteristics of their gender. On the other hand, the most common response for boys when asked the worst thing about their gender was “nothing,” or “I can’t think of anything”. Such a divergence of responses indicates that the school culture and curriculum in middle school can reinforce negative gender stereotypes that already exist in American society. The media is a very powerful influence in creating gender bias, but the classroom is just as powerful.
A curriculum that solely, or even mostly, focuses on the contributions of men sends the wrong message to middle school students at a time when they are most impressionable to these types of messages. In addition to receiving an inequitable education, gender bias in the curriculum reinforces old stereotypes of how women should be, further perpetuating the endemic gender inequality pervasive in U.S. society. One tragic consequence of this is that gender-bias in the curriculum influences women’s self-esteem, educational accomplishments, career choice and income. “The long term-effects of continued gender inequities in classrooms are that girls are not receiving the training necessary to ensure well-paying jobs.”
Switching to a gender-balanced curriculum would not only give female students a more realistic perspective, it would literally open to them many more opportunities and options in life. As Amanda Chapman notes “research shows that the use of gender-equitable materials allows students to have more gender-balanced knowledge, to develop more flexible attitudes towards gender roles, and to imitate role behaviors contained in the materials.” There are a number of strategies out there for implementing gender balance in the classroom. Everything from what we teach to how we teach it can affect the equity of education in the classroom. As teachers, it is imperative that we treat all our students uniformly. Everything from how we call on students to the way we give praise should be done with a conscious effort on treating all students equally. In addition, just as important to ensuring educational equity across gender is our use of instructional materials. As teachers, it is imperative that we provide children bias-free role models by including the perspectives of both genders in our disciplines.
An awareness of gender bias in the classroom has been around for some 30 years. As Dr. Mee’s study indicates, it continues to be a major force in shaping students ideas about gender roles in society. Gender bias in society is not something that will change overnight, but with enough concentrated effort we can create communities where both genders are truly equal. Such an effort must start in the classroom and work its way out into the world. By creating classrooms free of gender bias we model for our students the type of communities we ourselves aspire to live in; equitable, egalitarian, bias free communities where opportunities for everyone are truly equal.