Gender Inequalities in the Classroom

LizJ's picture

             There is a lot that can be said about the current state of education. There is a lot to be said about what is wrong with the current state of education. In particular, there is still a lot to say about different types of inequalities apparent within the classroom. While I could talk about racial or socioeconomic inequalities, I would like to focus on the gender inequalities of males and females. Even more specifically, I will argue that these gender inequalities are brought about through the ways in which people (teachers, students, etc.) have been socialized to look at gender and education and the fact that males and females just learn differently.

Even before I focus on the classroom, we can see that women have not been a part of history until fairly recently. It was only within the last 100 years that women were even allowed to vote, so when the beginnings of education were starting to be developed, women had limited, if not zero, say in it. As Elizabeth Fennema states in her article Gender and Mathematics: What is Known and What Do I Wish Was Known “History has been presented as if most of our ancestors were males and as if important things in the public arena happened predominantly because of and to males” (13). Here lies the first major problem of education. The current set up of education deals with a variety of fields that have been developed by men for men for hundreds and hundreds of years. How are we to expect our girls and young women to learn as well if the system they are learning in was specifically designed for men? Academic fields are supposed to be gender neutral and value-free, but it is clear that this is not the case because these fields of study “are in reality based on masculine values and perceptions” (Fennema 13). We forget that women were until recently excluded from most of the processes in the public sphere, education being one of them. People may ask, is it really a problem that education was developed from a male perspective? My answer to that is no, it is not necessarily a problem but it is not a complete way of looking at and/or utilizing the other 50% of the population.

This history of education (or history of most anything for that matter) has been dominated by men and has perpetuated its’ gender inequalities as teachers, students, and people in general have been socialized to think that males are in general smarter than women, especially when it comes to math and science fields of study. Fennema explains that “…while young men did not strongly stereotype mathematics as a male domain, they did believe much more strongly than did young women that mathematics was more appropriate for males than for females” (Fennema 4-5). I am not saying all teachers knowingly or willingly favor boys over girls, or that all men think women are beneath them intellectually. What I am saying is that when in a classroom setting, the ways events transpire within the teachers-student dynamic, males are treated differently than females and this treatment commonly favors males. Fennema backs up this assertion when discussing studies that look into classroom behaviors surrounding mathematics and finds “…teachers reported they thought more about boys than about girls during instruction” (Fennema 9-10).

To be honest, these findings do not surprise me in the least. I remember, especially in elementary school, that boys would be called on significantly more than girls. Almost every time I raised my hand, my teacher would call on a boy instead whether it was to read out loud or answer a math question. I remember getting mad because I was looked over. Eventually, I stopped bothering raising my hand and it took me quite some time to find my voice in the classroom again.

It is not only teachers who have a gendered bias when it comes to learning and education, but it is the students themselves. Even though times have changed and the society we live in takes many more strides in bringing gender equality for all, girls have been brought up in a society that gives social hints and reminders that it is men who dominate in and outside of the classroom. This is especially made apparent in Fennema’s article when she discusses “…the Autonomous Learning Behaviors model, which suggest[s] that because of societal influences (of which teachers and classrooms were main components) and personal belief systems (lowered confidence, attributional style, belief in usefulness), females do not participate in learning activities that enable them to become independent learners of mathematics” (6). This is not going to be an easy problem to solve. How can we raise our young girls to ignore the socializing factors set against them? Will bringing more attention to these differences even help? The state of education and teaching within the classroom cannot be revolutionized overnight, therefore the only real thing we can do right now is bring attention to the gender inequalities of the classroom and hope it will help.

The fact of the matter is: females and males learn differently. Fennema describes an example of this when talking about how males and females deal with mathematics. She asserts “In our study…we found strong and consistent gender differences in the strategies used to solve problems, with girls tending to use more concrete strategies like modeling and counting and boys tending to use more abstract strategies that reflect conceptual understanding. In other words, the mental processing of boy and girl were difference, and we also found some significant achievement differences in solving extension problems” (10). So how do we deal with these differences? Males and females should have an equal chance at receiving a good education. Does this mean we should look into different types of teacher led instruction that takes different approaches to various disciplines depending on gender?

All of these points that have been made about gender inequalities in education make it apparent to me that we should talk more about single-sex education. It seems to me that the learning differences between males and females are significant enough to consider different classroom settings that will benefit both males and females equally. While there have been intervention programs designed to help bring up these gender inequalities in order to eliminate them, they are not always effective (Fennema 6). So why single-sex education? Having the experience of attending a single-sex educational institution, I have first hand seen the benefits of single-sex education and will discuss them in the context of Bryn Mawr College.

I will first start with a statistic on the Bryn Mawr College admissions website. It states that the percentage of Bryn Mawr undergraduates that pursue majors in the natural science or mathematics is 30% compared to the percentage of women nationwide that is 7%. This is a fact Bryn Mawr is very proud of, as it should be. Having women attend a college that specifically focuses on women allows females to break away from the feelings of low confidence, uncertainty, and unnecessary competition from males. Without direct male competition, women find themselves choosing fields of study, such as the natural sciences and mathematics, that are traditionally male dominated most other places. And even though there are male students in most of our classrooms at Bryn Mawr, the difference is they are in a women’s space. The classroom dynamic is switched. Instead of men dominating, it is women. All of the social factors that affect the way women look at and are perceived within education are brought to the forefront and while single-sex education is not going to solve all the inequalities within the classroom, it is a start. I know not everyone agrees with single-sex education and that I am sure there are people who find separating males and females an inequality within itself, but so far no other better alternatives have been shared with me.

Despite all the problems I have described in education because of gender inequalities, I do not want to end on a pessimistic note. It is easy to criticize something, but the hard part comes when trying to figure out solutions to the problems being critiqued. I also do not think there are any obvious solutions that will bring an end to all gender inequalities, that would not be realistic thinking. All I can do is hope for these gender inequalities to be recognized and dealt with in a constructive manner. Females deserve, just as much as males, an equal chance at a rewarding education.



Works Cited

"About Us: Facts." Bryn Mawr College. Web. 30 Sept. 2010. <>.

Fennema, Elizabeth. "Gender and Mathematics: What Is Known and What Do I Wish Was Known." (2000): 1-21. Web.




Paul Grobstein's picture

Overcoming cultural bias in education

I don't at all doubt that institutional practices that have evolved under the primary influence of a particular cultural group will tend to favor members of that cultural group and disadvantage members of other cultural groups.  Certainly that has been true for women, as well as for blacks (cf African American student mobility through education and The power of school culture: addressing the systematic failure for black males), and a number of other groups(cf The new taboo in special education).   An interesting question is whether each of these is best dealt with on a case by case basis or whether there might instead be a change in educational organization and practice that could deal simultaneously with all of them (cf Education and black males and Cultures of ability).  

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