Updated: Nov 14
The role of education has often been discussed in terms of strengthening gender equality in schools; the effects of inclusive education have helped achieve improved maternal health, reduced infant mortality and pregnancy rates, increased prevention against HIV and AIDS, in addition to increased opportunities for women and girls. There is no doubt that worldwide, education has overall played a primary role in empowering women and advancing gender equality. This however does not mean that educational systems are impartial and unbiased entities. Schools continue to promote and preserve gender inequalities through processes such as stereotyping, labelling and teacher expectations. There is a critical step missing between the promise of equality offered by schools and the efforts and realisation needed to accomplish this goal.
Socialisation as a whole is the process of internalising the norms and values of society. While primary socialisation refers to learning that occurs inside of the family and is our first exposure to social norms, values and acceptable behaviours, including the beliefs held by individual families, secondary socialisation takes place through outside institutions such as the education system and religion. Here students take on values, beliefs and norms held by both their teachers and their peers.
There are a variety of different factors prevalent in schools that perpetuate gender inequalities. This is demonstrated by the concept of a gendered curriculum, gender stereotypes and gendered teacher expectations that can have negative ramifications such as labelling. A gendered curriculum is explained by the way the relationship between education and the economy sends messages about the structure of occupations, which can then translate into gendered subject choices. There can exist a subject hierarchy within schools that values subjects based on the gender that they are associated with. Traditionally, subjects associated to male-dominated fields, such as maths and physics, have been held in a higher regard than English and psychology, which are often viewed as feminine subjects. This can have negative effects on both male and female students as they may feel as though their choices are limited due to their gender or that they are less able to succeed because they are not as “suited” to the subjects they have chosen if it does not align with beliefs held about gendered subject choices.
In 2017 a study in the US, conducted by Joseph Cimpian, Associate Professor of Economics and Education Policy at NYU, and his colleagues, found that fields that were perceived to discriminate against women were strongly predictive of the gender of the students in the field. This means that women have been found to be empirically less likely to enter fields where they expect to face discrimination.
Gender stereotyping can be cultivated both from the school curriculum and through stereotypes that teachers factor into their expectations of students. Lesley Best found in her 1992 study of pre-school textbooks that books designed to develop children’s reading levels remain populated by gender stereotypes and sexist assumptions. Throughout all levels of the education system, males are often shown in active roles in textbooks while females are shown in passive roles. This relates to the idea of a hidden curriculum with intended and unintended consequences that are taught to students through the schooling system.
Intended consequences include students learning and taking on values such as obedience to authority, which is encouraged by teachers and can affect girls on a deeper level as they are expected to be more subservient than boys. Unintended consequences include status messages such as whether boys appear to be more valued than girls and perceptions about ability. This connects with the idea that teachers commonly link girls’ educational achievement with working hard and by understanding what is required of them in assessments and exams, while boys’ success is attributed to innate ability. If a girl is not performing well in school, it is likely that it will be attributed to a less dedicated work ethic and desire to do well, rather than any other possibilities including the style of teaching. This can instill in young girls the belief that they are naturally less talented than their male peers, which can affect their motivation and attainment levels in school.
Joseph Cimpian and Sarah Lubienski’s studies of gender attainment found that the beliefs that teachers have about student ability might contribute significantly to the gap. “When faced with a boy and a girl of the same race and socio-economic status who performed equally well on math tests and whom the teacher rated equally well in behaving and engaging with school, the teacher rated the boy as more mathematically able—an alarming pattern that replicated in a separate data set collected over a decade later.”
In order for girls to be viewed as equally and mathematically proficient as their male peers, they must not only perform as well as their male counterparts on a psychometrically rigorous external test, but also be seen as to be working harder than boys. Matching and instrumental variables analyses have suggested that teachers’ underrating of girls from kindergarten through third grade accounts for about half of the gender achievement gap growth in math.
Essentially, if teachers didn’t perceive their female students as less capable, the gender gap in math might be substantially smaller. This concurs with Norman et al. who found that teacher expectations, especially in the formative years of schooling, placed a great deal of emphasis on traditionally female roles. Students, both male and female, may sustain these expectations and labels by taking them on and repeating them or emphasizing them to other students. This continues as a constantly repeated and reaffirmed cycle that reinforces gender norms.
The process of labelling, which refers to the ways teachers classify and stereotype students, affecting students’ self-perceptions, can be based on gender. Teachers are an important part of a pupil's reference group. Their opinions will always be significant to students, and even to parents, because they have the power to create and impose labels that relate directly to individual self-perceptions. Students can view teachers as authority figures who are bound to know more than them and be correct about the type of student they are. Teachers often regard girls as quiet and well behaved in the classroom, while boys are seen as naturally more boisterous and disruptive. If female students deviate from this label, teachers are likely to react differently than if a male student exhibits the same behaviour. Female students may also be reprimanded or punished more severely than male students. Teachers may also expect boys to be better at certain subjects which can transfer onto students’ expectations of themselves. Robin Nash (in a 1972 study) averred that labelling can be a determining factor in a student’s educational success. This can be explained by the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy which refers to the phenomenon where a person's or a group's expectation about another person or group comes true through expectations that have been held.
Dale Spender, an Australian feminist scholar and author of Invisible Women: The Schooling Scandal, asserted that girls and boys are given different types of attention. Girls are praised for appearance, good behaviour and neat work while boys are not. She states, “What is considered inherently interesting is knowledge about men. Because men control the records, and the value system, it is generally believed that it is men who have done all the exciting things, it is men who have made history, made discoveries, made inventions and performed feats of skill and courage – according to men. These are the important activities and only men can engage in them, so we are led to believe. And so it is that the activities of men become the curriculum.”
Obstacles that girls face in education can be policy based such as biased and restricted dress codes, but they mostly tend to be largely socal and culturally based. Societal beliefs are instilled in girls from a young age, such as the idea that girls are innately less talented than their male peers, and can persist from the very start of their education and continue into their work lives. While well-intentioned, educational institutions are still complicit in reinforcing the obstacles faced by girls in schools. It is necessary to examine biases and stereotypes at all levels of education in order to deconstruct the barricades set in place. While policies can be implemented to aid gender equality in schools, it is more difficult to address and change inherent beliefs that have been ingrained into us.
Everyone can make a difference by evaluating and noticing their own perceptions and beliefs, and thinking about the impact that they can make. From there onwards we can change and ‘unlearn’ our biases in order to move further towards true gender equality in schools.
About the author:
I’m Tessa Schroenn, a 17-year-old girl from South Africa who has a passion for travelling and exploring the world, loves a good laugh, and can’t wait to curl up with a book and a blanket, especially on rainy days!