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January 1996 | Volume 38 | Number 1
Reducing Gender Bias in School
Nia Kelly and Amanda Sarette know what it takes to publish a magazine. These two teenage girls, along with 18 other girls, manage and edit the publication of New Moon, The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams. As editors, Kelly and Sarette review the letters and manuscripts submitted for publication. They help choose photographs and artwork for each issue, and, they help select the cover art. These young media mavens exhibit the kind of confidence that comes through pursuing something challenging, and both Kelly and Sarette offer this simple advice for others interested in such a venture: "If you want to start a magazine, check around and see what other people want. Then, get a group of girls together and do it."
Giving girls more opportunities to take such leadership is one way to help reduce gender bias in our schools and in our society, according to a report released last fall by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Growing Smart, What's Working For Girls in School details a variety of programs and strategies that can be easily employed by educators, parents, and community members to provide a more equitable education for girls.
The report's authors reviewed more than 500 programs designed to improve the status of girls in public schools. The myriad ideas outlined in Growing Smart reflect the unique needs of girls. "There isn't one single program that is the answer for all kids," explains Jackie DeFazio, AAUW president. "The one-size-fits-all model has never worked."
Although the report cautions against the impulse to "force-fit" girls into "model" programs, it does suggest that successful initiatives for girls embody one or more of the key themes that emerged repeatedly during the survey of research. Educators, parents, and community members can use these principles to guide them in addressing the needs of girls—and, indeed, of all students, the report states.
The need for a report like Growing Smart became apparent to DeFazio and other AAUW members as they worked with schools and communities to address some of the gender inequities outlined in the groundbreaking study, How Schools Shortchange Girls, published by the AAUW in 1992. "We were constantly being asked, Well, what does work?'" says DeFazio. "The first report did a good job of laying out what the problems were, but we wanted to provide some solutions."
Many of the projects described in Growing Smart support efforts to change attitudes about what girls can and cannot do. "The kinds of bias we're most concerned about are the subtle forms," says DeFazio. These examples of sexism are so subtle, she asserts, that educators "run the risk of continuing to hold onto those biases" unless they become aware of their own preconceptions.
Project Parity, a one-year model program funded by the National Science Foundation, was designed to address those biases and combat the attitudes that crush a girl's confidence in her ability to excel in science. Administered by the Talcott Mountain Science Center in Avon, Conn., the program focused on 4th and 5th grade students in three urban school districts.
The project had two major objectives, explains Lydia Gibb, assistant director of Project Parity. These were "to provide a supportive environment in which young girls could explore science and to foster a positive attitude toward science, technology, and math."
The project began with workshop activities designed to increase teachers' and parents' awareness of the social bias that exists toward women in science. Then, once a month, girls traveled to the Talcott Mountain Science Center to participate in hands-on science activities. Staff from the science center then worked with all of the students in participating classrooms—girls and boys—to further explore the scientific concepts introduced at the center.
According to Gibb, Project Parity was a successful model program that was especially effective in encouraging girls to participate actively in scientific endeavors. "Girls who were involved in the project were more likely to take the initiative in hands-on science projects," Gibb says. "Girls who didn't participate were more likely to let the boys take the lead."
Lynda Rudis' 4th grade class at Morley Elementary School in West Hartford participated in Project Parity. Rudis agrees that the project was successful, citing girls' growing self-confidence as proof. Rudis attributes the boost in confidence to the girls' ability to meet high expectations. "We basically told them that we expected them to do the hands-on activities themselves," Rudis explains.
Gibb agrees that when educators hold such expectations for girls, girls perform. "In one instance, we asked girls to build a racetrack," she recounts. "One group just sat there and looked at it until we said, No one is going to build that track for you.' And so they built the track and, in doing so, they built their confidence."
Parents of the girls who participated in Project Parity also witnessed a transformation. According to Gibb, one parent reported that his daughter, prior to her experience in the program, wanted to be a cashier—now she wants to be a doctor. "Whether she becomes a doctor or not is not the point," asserts Gibb. "What is important is that she now realizes that she has options."
If a program like Project Parity can give girls the confidence they need to undertake scientific explorations, it can also rekindle the interests of teachers like Rudis.
"I've always been interested in technology, but I never really thought of myself as a science person," she explains. "Through Project Parity, I rediscovered my interest in other areas of science." That renewed interest prompted Rudis to join an expedition to study whales off the coast of Australia. "I learned firsthand about challenges faced by women with the dual roles of mother and scientist," she says.
Rudis adds that her own experiences, along with the teaching strategies she learned through Project Parity—such as addressing girls more often in class and tempering the aggressiveness of students who might otherwise dominate hands-on science activities—enable her to communicate a powerful message to her students: that girls are just as interested as boys in making scientific discoveries.
Helping girls learn how to filter out the messages that would limit their ability to translate their dreams into reality is another goal of Growing Smart, the AAUW report. "We want girls to know they can do it," says DeFazio. "We want girls to be empowered."
Empowerment is what the magazine New Moon offers its subscribers. Joe Kelly and Nancy Gruver founded New Moon when, after surveying the magazines popular among adolescent girls, they found none that offered the kinds of messages they wanted their preteen, twin girls to receive. So, working with their daughters, they created a magazine designed to counteract the negative messages girls receive every day. The magazine can be used as a model for educators interested in helping students create their own publications that value girls' voices.
"A lot of the media's messages tell girls, You should be thinking this' or You should be skinny.' We want girls to tell us who they are—we don't want to tell them who they should be," says 15-year-old Nia Kelly. In New Moon, girls can read "about real girls doing real things."
"There are sections on boys and makeup," says Joe Kelly. "But unlike the other publications for this age group, New Moon focuses more on the other things that interest girls—sports, spirituality—real-life stuff."
Sarette is a 7th grader at Woodland Middle School in Duluth, Minn. One of her favorite features of the magazine is a column entitled "How Aggravating," in which readers are asked to share moments when they've encountered sexist attitudes. "Some people say we're whining, but we're not whining, we're commenting on what should be changed," says Sarette. "A lot of people still think girls don't have any rights." New Moon, she explains, shows girls how things should be.
For his part, Joe Kelly is gratified to learn that the award-winning New Moon is billed as a "model" magazine for girls. "I really believe we are a model," he says. "It's not us adults thinking Oh, the girls will love this.' It's girls who decide what they want in the magazine—they have ultimate editorial control."
While reducing gender bias is the major aim of the strategies outlined in Growing Smart, DeFazio is quick to point out that, in addressing the special needs of girls, educators will enhance public education for all students.
As an educator and high school principal, DeFazio says she "feels very keenly that we need to serve all students." Growing Smart, she says, offers "simple, inexpensive ways that schools can meet the specific needs of girls" without sacrificing the education of others.
To combat gender bias in public education, educators, parents, and communities should create programs that:
Adapted from Growing Smart, What's Working for Girls in School. For copies of the report, write AAUW, 1111 Sixteenth St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036-4873. Or call (202) 785-7731.
Copyright © 1996 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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