We recently had a discussion in our house about girls being disadvantaged in life by their lack of exposure to team sports. Details of what occasioned the discussion are not relevant; suffice it to say that my daughter the 6-year-old had a rather unaggressive debut as a soccer fullback and I was enlisting her brothers' assistance.
I am pleased to report that in succeeding games she has improved markedly and now has decided she likes soccer. Her coach found nothing abnormal in her initial behavior. "The little girls play with their hair," he said, "and the little boys look at the sky and kick the dirt."
What brings this to mind is a new report by the Project on Equal Education Rights of the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund. The report, written by Mary de Nys and Leslie Wolfe, is an overview of recent research into classroom environments in the early grades and the differing impact on little girls and little boys. Lack of team sports is not the only negative influence on little girls.
"There is no doubt that dedication and caring characterize the majority of the teachers in our elementary classrooms," de Nys and Wolfe wrote, "but their perceptions often remain skewed by the sexism of the society which has shaped them."
Thus, researchers found that teachers viewing a film of a classroom discussion perceived little girls outtalking little boys, while in fact the boys were talking three times more than the girls.
Girls are more likely to sit near the teacher, which encourages dependence and closeness. Little boys tend to separate themselves from the teacher.
"Boys in seats far from the teacher also receive much more attention than girls in such seats, largely because they act more independent and are more aggressive in demanding such attention." Classroom chores reinforced stereotypes: boys moved desks and helped with the audio-visual equipment, girls help the teacher tidy up.
Boys are more likely to get in trouble and be disciplined, while girls are "more likely to seek approval by quietly avoiding trouble," de Nys and Wolfe wrote. "Teachers, it seems, follow the students' lead . . . . They reinforce the existing tendencies toward male independence and female dependence, unintentionally magnifying existing inequities rather than minimizing them . . . . Teachers ask boys complex, open-ended questions requiring abstract reasoning, creative thought, and extended answers. Girls, on the other hand, are more often asked basic memory-type questions requiring docile absorption of material." Girls, they wrote, are often bailed out by the teacher and not pushed.
"Girls, despite their superior grades, are sent a series of unconscious messages in class discussions and in the comments on their oral and written work to the effect that their achievements depend on care and compliance and their failures are due to inadequate abilities. Is it any wonder that by the time they reach high school, girls tend to rate themselves lower than boys do on intellectual ability and leadership?"
The authors also pointed out that older girls underestimate their math and computer abilities. Guidance couselors direct them into typing and nonacademic, business courses. The report points out that "of the brightest high school graduates who do not go on to college, the vast majority -- 75 to 90 per cent -- are women."
"Boys emerge from this environment ready to move ahead and surpass their female classmates. Girls bring to their further education and their career plans a habit of playing it safe and a collection of nagging doubts about their own abilities which often persist in contradiction to their exceptional grades.
"If we seek to break this cycle of inequity and lack of confidence, we must begin with the teacher," they wrote. But this is not a problem often addressed in teacher training or in educational textbooks. Fewer than 20 percent of elementary school principals -- people in positions to implement training programs about subtle bias -- are women.
"Parents," wrote de Nys and Wolfe, "should be alert to their children's experiences in school" and bring problems to the attention of school personnel.
They urged parents to "use the current concern for quality education to focus attention on equity as an essential component of educational excellence for all children."
It is one thing to write columns about stereotypes and quite another to field a daughter into the world. Little girls are different from little boys, but there is no reason to expect them to be any less. What is dismaying is to discover that they are entering a world where that could still happen.