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Giving Girls an Even Break

Twenty years ago, Title IX of the Education Amendments made sex discrimination in education illegal. Although Title IX has improved educational equity for women and girls, recent studies report that gender bias still exists and still limits choices for half of the school population. While not the primary educational institution for children, museums nonetheless should do all they can to insure equity for girls in their educational programs.

In “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” a landmark study commissioned by the American Association of University Women in 1991, a number of significant findings centering on self-esteem came to light. The survey of three thousand girls and boys throughout the United States discovered that, although both sexes suffer a significant loss of self-esteem during adolescence, the loss is most dramatic and most long-lasting in girls.

The survey also found that girls are less likely than boys to feel they are “pretty good at a lot of things.” Their lower self-esteem reflects a lack of confidence in their own talents. And, perhaps most alarming, girls are less likely than boys to believe that their career dreams can come true.

A major cause of this loss of self-esteem, unfortunately, can be attributed to the gender bias girls encounter in educational institutions.

Much of the damage of gender bias comes about unintentionally, and teachers who have allowed themselves to be videotaped as part of an awareness program have been astonished to see examples in their classrooms. In a video of her science class, for example, a teacher heard herself telling a girl student not to help with the science demonstration because “… Johnny needs to know how to do this.” The unintentional message: “You don’ t need to know how as much as he does.” A primary teacher saw herself showing the boys in her room how to use the stapler but taking the stapler from the girls to staple for them. The unintentional message again, “You don’t need to know how.”

Studies reported in “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” the follow-up report commissioned by the AAUW and researched by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, indicated that teachers communicate more with boys than with girls. Teachers ask boys more complex, abstract, and open-ended questions. Teachers give boys more detailed instructions, but are more likely to take over and finish projects for girls. Teachers criticize boys for lack of effort when work is not done satisfactorily; a lack of similar criticism for girls implies that effort wouldn’t make any difference.

What can museum docents do to insure equity for girls in their teaching? In many cases, they can offer exactly the kinds of things girls need most . . . and the kinds of things missing in many American classrooms.

  • Provide hands-on, experiential learning when possible. Science, in particular, demands exploration and risk-taking, behaviors that are often more encouraged and accepted in boys than girls. Equal access to the tools of science is not available in most schools. By third grade, for example, 51 percent of the boys and 37 percent of the girls had used a microscope. By eleventh grade, 49 percent of the boys and only 17 percent of the girls had ever used an electricity meter. Science museums, zoos, and nature centers are much better able to offer science exploration than most school classrooms.
  • Create cooperative, collaborative learning environments. The accepting atmosphere of a museum experience, where all ideas are welcome and competition is at a minimum, is the environment where girls excel. Same-sex groups avoid the competition girls often encounter when working with boys. When girls and boys work together in cooperative groups, care should be taken to insure that roles are assigned so girls are not always the secretary/recorder and boys the president/leader.
  • Provide role models. Meeting and working with scientists, artists, and historians of both sexes in real-life situations reduces the negative stereotypes that are one aspect of gender bias.
  • Present art and history in their cultural contexts. Help children to see both men and women as integral parts of the fabric of life within a culture or period of history. When women are portrayed in stereotypical poses, as in much 19th century art, explain the context in which the art was produced.
  • Work with organizations such as Girls, Inc., Girl Scouts of America, and the American Association of University Women to offer out-of-school programs to narrow the “experience” gap.
  • Build confidence. More than any other variable, self-confidence is most highly correlated with academic performance. A drop in confidence, in fact, actually precedes a decline in math performance. By monitoring their own behavior, docents can do much to remove gender bias from their educational programs and help girls gain the confidence necessary to achieve their dreams.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Giving Girls an Even Break,” The Docent Educator 2.3 (Spring 1993): 14.

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