Text: Gender Equity in Education

by Abbie Chepolis

At first glance, we think America has come a long way in terms of gender equality in education. At the ripe young age of two to three years old, parents drop both their sons and daughters off at preschool to begin their academic careers. Those same students move onto kindergarten, grade school, graduate high school, and then many will even go on to higher education. Throughout this time, the ratio of boys to girls that is present in classroom remains relatively even, making it seem as if we have achieved gender equality in academics, especially when comparing to years prior.

However, the mere attendance at academic institutions cannot be the determining factor of equality; what matters is the environment in which the students learn and the messages of the material that they are learning. Conventionally, many may jump to conclusions and assume that any inequity favors male students and leaves females behind, but this is not the case. Both girls and boys in academic institutions are experiencing extreme disadvantages due to gender stereotypes that society—knowingly and unknowingly—places on them.

It is not only in activities and academic lessons that students are ostracized into gendered treatments—differing expectations of the two genders creates a distinct separation. The understanding of what it means to be “masculine” versus “feminine” has clearly impacted the treatment of the two genders in the institutions. As Ferguson pointed out in his 2000 study, stereotypes of young boys as “dangerous and predatory” impact their experience in schools, as they construct the school discipline approaches and enforcement. In a study that Skiba and colleagues conducted in 2002, Ferguson’s study is proven further, as it found that “boys are referred to the school office and excluded from school as a disciplinary action at much higher rates than girls.” Another study demonstrated similar trends: the Arizona Department of Education observed that in 2009 the four-year graduation rate for male students was 69%, in comparison to the 78% of females who completed school in four years (Arizona Department of Education, 2009). Overall, the expectations of females to be more sensitive and obedient and males more hard and riotous affect the way that they are treated not only by society, but also most significantly within school walls.

Aside from treatment and disciplinary action, the expectations that stood out most remarkably in research were the socialization of girls and boys in the classroom. Since the beginning of mankind, gender roles have differed significantly; women have traditionally been seen existing in the private sphere, taking care of the family, while the men work manual labor jobs, earning the money. Lines have been pushed in recent decades, but the stereotypes still exist. A male student is expected to pursue a career in the sciences or engineering, while a female student is more likely to be seen in liberal arts courses, pursuing reading and writing. This is not to say that overall, men prefer the sciences and building while women prefer reading and writing. In fact, there is evidence that at the age of one, girls are just as interested in building blocks as the boys and the same was found with boys and dolls. It is instead the way that society raises children into gendered roles that seems to force males in one direction and females in another.

In the Intercultural Development Research Association’s podcast titled, “Fostering Gender Equity in the Classroom,” Frances Guzman looks into what causes these differences in education for males and females.

“Thirty-four years ago—this is a true story—a little girl gets picked up from her early childhood classroom and is asked, ‘How was your day?’ and the little girl says, ‘Mama, I am very mad,’ ‘And why is that?’ the mother asks. She says, ‘Mrs.—and gives the name of the teacher—said that I could not play with the blocks and the cars. The mother being a classroom teacher herself reflects on it before just reacting and says, ‘Well was it the time to be at that center? Was it—were you sharing? Was it your turn?’ and she goes, ‘Oh, none of that existed’ now of course this is a four year old girl, she says, ‘I was told that little girls go to the homemaking center and little boys go to the blocks.”

In her story, this little girl is taught that building blocks are for boys and the playhouse toys are for girls—at this young age, society is teaching her that as a female, her place in society is in the home. It is possible to infer from this story that while the girls are subliminally receiving this message, the boys are not only gaining that same understanding that girls belong in the household, but also the understanding that they, themselves, do not. In a changing time when more and more men are seen as homemakers, it comes as a shock that schools are still pushing gender roles on elementary school students, whose perceptions of the world are so easily molded by what they are told.

Doctor Lise Eliot, author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” explores further into the science of this finding, bringing to the surface a controversial reality in society’s acceptance of “toy-mixing” between the genders.

“We also know that even egalitarian parents, the one thing we bristle at is boys playing with girl toys. We’re okay now with girls playing with boy toys, but if a little boy puts on mommy’s high heels or a sister’s ballerina dress, no matter what the parents may say, there’s usually some form of reaction that the child can pick up on and in fact when you do meta analysis of a lot of studies, this is the one way we are less egalitarian. And so, kids pick up on that message and by age 5, remember I said the difference in toy choice, which is by the way, orders of magnitude, about an order of magnitude larger than the difference in verbal skills and math skills and so on, toy choice is really a pronounced sex difference. But by age five, what you see is that girls are splitting their time. Five-year-old girls in a room full of toys split their time between the boy stuff and the girl stuff. Five-year-old boys don’t touch the girl stuff. They’ll spend maybe ten percent of their time with that. So the girls have learned that it’s okay to play with either thing but the boys are not given that permission.”

Doctor Eliot blatantly states the irrational fear that many adults in today’s society have—that their little boy playing with dolls and Mom’s heels will make him gay. There are a number of issues in this assumption that go beyond this podcast, however it is crucial to realize the significant lack of factual support behind this conclusion. Additionally, preventing children from playing with the toys that interest them will not necessarily end their desire to play with them. It is irrational to assume a child’s toy preference predicts his or her sexual orientation, or any aspect of their adulthood for that matter, beyond simple interests.

Female students interested in building and male students interested in playing house already begin to lose confidence in their interests at a harmfully young age. As time goes on, their confidence in pursuing a track of interest that is deemed only suitable for the opposite gender decreases further, to the point that many will merely surrender and follow a track more “suitable” for them. Those who do continue to push for their dreams are likely to experience a great deal of criticism and a lack of support, in comparison to those who choose roles favored by society.

Making changes to this system to promote greater equality seems rather obvious, and with increasing awareness of the problem, more institutions are turning to new possibilities in encouraging the genders to pursue all fields of study. The Myra Sadker Foundation, known for their studies on educational inequality, suggests “100+ Ideas to Promote Gender Equity in Schools and Beyond” on their website—a useful resource for any educational institution looking to balance the field between boys and girls. One suggestion on the list that seems promising is that a lesson on gender equality and biases should be taught within the classroom. A notable issue with gender equity in institutions is that many children, especially at young ages, aren’t aware of the inequality between genders. As seen in Doctor Eliot’s talk, by age two children understand their gender and begin to fill the role that fits the stereotype that society has created for that gender. An educational lesson would make both students and faculty aware of warning signs that should be brought to attention and corrected.

With increased awareness of the gender inequality that exists in today’s education systems, it is possible to strive towards greater equality. Most important to this change is enforcing a curriculum and learning environment that allows the students to determine their path, without the influence of gender stereotypes that tell them that their choice is one for the opposite gender. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women held only 1.3% of jobs in chemical engineering in 1970, compared to the 22.3 percent in 2011. These statistics show a significant jump in female presence in a traditionally male-dominated occupation. On the other hand, from 1970 to 2011, the percentage of male elementary and middle school teachers climbed from 16.1 to 18.3 percent. A possible explanation for the difference in crossover percentages between the two genders is exactly what Doctor Eliot spoke of in her talk—tolerance for females partaking in “male activities” is growing, while society still tends to restrict males. Even though the percentages of males in “female fields” remain small, the central point is that they are increasing. As we develop our education system to be more accepting of both genders exploring a multitude of fields and career paths, we can hope to find these ratios evening out. General education of our youth has and always will be crucial to a growing nation, but with a society that is shifting away from traditional norms of gender roles, it is only appropriate that our education system reflects this too.


ForaTV. (2009, October 13). Why don’t boys play with dolls [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbLuldzDudw

Montemayor, A. M., M.Ed. (Producer). (2007, March 23). Fostering gender equity in the classroom [Show #9]. IDRA classnotes. Podcast retrieved from http://www.idra.org/Podcasts/Resources/Fostering_Gender_Equity_in_the_Classroom/

100+ ideas to promote gender equity in schools and beyond. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2014, from The Myra Sadker Foundation website: http://www.sadker.org/100ideas.html

Thorius, K. K. (n.d.). Gender equity matters! [Pamphlet]. Tempe, AZ: The Equity Alliance at ASU.

York, A. (2013, February 5). Men, feel liberated to become secretaries. Retrieved April 17, 2014, from Cable News Network website: http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/05/opinion/york-male-secretaries/