Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Gender Issues in the classroom - a history

Thirty years have passed since the official Ministry of Education stance has upheld the right of equal opportunity for all children without limitations on the basis of gender. (The Formative Years, 1975) How far have we come in that time? Tremendous research was undertaken in the early 70s, especially in education, to examine stereotyping on the basis of gender. Researchers have looked at many form of gender bias;
-the ways in which literature stereotypes, -how teachers are biased in their interactions with students at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels,
-the ways in which mixed groups react to male and female participants
-the kinds of role models who influence children in both classrooms and offices.
In the seventies, document after document was published to point out these unfair and limiting educational practices. Ministries published guidelines, committees were formed and research journals began to devote space to the issues of sexism in the schools. Women's Studies courses sprang up in the traditionally white, male bastion of higher education.

The result of the intense effort to correct the discrimination of the past has meant that in many ways both sexes now have doors open to them that were previously closed. Legislation now demands that individual boards will develop employment equity programs to ensure that supervisory officers, principals and vice-principals will be more fairly representative of the statistical population by new staffing appointments. Boards must report these new statistics to the Ministry office to demonstrate their compliance with the regulations.

School Boards must show a commitment to the elimination of sexual harassment through stringent policies and procedures designed to train management in employment equity. Those in power can not abuse their power, they must be able to demonstrate that they are equal access, equal opportunity managers and employers.

In Ontario in the early 1800s women made up about 25 percent of the teaching profession, but by 1871 they made up 50 percent, a number that continues to increase. Most of the female teacher were under 25 years of age, the men primarily over 25, the women would be forced to resign upon matrimony. (Women and Education, 1987) In 1988 in Ontario, despite being 63 percent of the work force, women principals made up only 9.6 percent administration level.

Women represent more than half of all staffs in schools today, by 1989 over half of all successful candidates for Principal Qualifications and Supervisory officers examinations in Ontario were women. Slowly, with progress on a broken front, the number of women qualified to hold PAR jobs has increased. Women are no longer being held back by their lack of confidence, or lack of role models, in holding jobs requiring more responsibility. They believe in their strengths and bring their own management styles to their work. Women are collaborating, sharing information, ideas and resources to make their way successfully through the school systems in order to fulfil career goals.

On the other hand, the number of men in the elementary panel is decreasing. Through attrition, the number of male role models in the elementary panel is getting smaller. Our goals of unity through strength and collaboration is threatened by a further imbalance of male to female staffing ratios.

The stereotyping practices of the past, many believe, have been eliminated. Young women surveyed today deny that they are feminists and do not see the need to fight for their rights, despite the fact that many young women's goals are limited acquiring husbands and producing babies, with little thought for themselves about careers and jobs. A recent Statistics Canada report states that three quarters of all single parents are female, yet these single women earn only seventy percent of their single male counterparts. Despite a new realization that families often require two incomes in order to support themselves, Stats Canada says that having a spouse reduces a woman's income by 10% and having a child by 15%. When a man and a woman divorce her standard of living, and her children's, drops anywhere from 20 to 73 percent. His standard of living increases anywhere from 7 to 42 percent. 

Those of us who have chosen to stay at home to raise children face irrecoverable income losses, further compounded by the new government philosophies of cutting funding to the women and children who need it most. We in education will see an increasing number of children who face poverty. Children whose single parents cannot afford adequate housing, filling basic nutritional requirements and mothers who cannot afford to go out and earn the self-respect that comes from a job and a sense of self-worth because day care is an impossibility.

Despite all these current problems, men and women have sought to divest themselves of the label feminist. The truth is that women and men, social agencies, Federations and lobbying groups have worked long and hard to fight for maternity, adoption leave, affordable day care, pay equity, access to reproductive services and affordable health care. We have come a long way but the fight for social and economic rights isn't over. We are still battling for an end to discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, including paternity leave and fair hiring practices for both sexes, visible minorities and the disabled. False accusations of child abuse against teachers are on the increase. Pay equity is now being threatened as well.

There is progress. We are seeing changing instructional patterns as men and women work together in a spirit of collaboration, developing curricula which encourages group problem solving skills, team work and the sense that each child will work up to his or her potential.

Sexism in our schools has been reduced. Studies now show that the sexes achieve equally well in science and math (Phi Delta Kappan, Mar. 86) In these same schools, girls are to be found setting up and assisting with A-V equipment, boys are kindergarten helpers. Both sexes now enjoy Family Studies and Design and Technology classes and can be seen in all of the centres in a kindergarten classroom. Both sexes play equally well with a skipping rope or a soccer ball. The unfair division of labour in the allocation of classroom chores to one sex or the other has ceased to be the norm. In order to be successful in the workplace, boys and girls will have to learn to co-operate in the classroom. Yet, we still have a long way to go.

Male sports teams continue to receive better funding. The boys have more publicity, better facilities, and better uniforms. Most sports casts feature male teams and volunteers are hard pressed to snag funding for female tournaments. Potential sponsors, holding onto their money with a tight fist, still practice blatant discrimination. When will this message filter up to the executive offices?

Within the classroom, teachers still call on boys more often than girls. Boys still demand more teacher time, they speak out more often than girls. Boys are disciplined differently than girls who answer out of turn. In school systems as a whole, boys are identified as having more academic and behavioural problems than girls; they receive more praise and criticism too. The underlying assumption, researchers have hypothesized, is that males are seen to be more important, more deserving of teacher time and attention. Boys receive the most money, energy and resources. Girls tend to be identified as special students only 33 percent of the time to receive resource help, until the older grades, when girls tend to be referred. At that time their problems are more pronounced and they are further behind in their academics. (Phi Delta Kappan, Mar. 86)

Another traditional stereotype, still unchanged, is the common usage of the pronoun "he". "Chairman" and "Spokesman" are commonly used when the writer is referring to a woman. A study by Mediawatch, a group which monitors bias in the media, has confirmed these findings. There are fewer female reporters, very few female editors and few positive portrayals of women. This kind of subtle undermining of the female presence undermines the self-esteem of women. When one is constantly faced with this kind of exclusive language, one begins to believe that the male role model is the only one available and that having a female take on that role is an aberration. This is reinforced by reporters who refer to the "woman judge" or "woman architect" which trivializes the woman who dares to take a previously male dominated job. This gratuitous modifier suggests that the person in question is out of the ordinary. In this kind of environment girls learn to defer, to being second class, and it limits their options and calls to attention their inadequacies. There is too much work to be done in this world to divide it up as men's or women's work.

Language bias can be found at the high school level. Girls suffer more than boys in secondary schools from name calling. The President of Metro-Toronto Student Council Association was interviewed and he said that the high school halls are still a difficult place for young women to walk. Words like bitch and slut are used in daily conversation, when the equivalent racial slur would be unacceptable. (TVO, 1992) In fact, such name calling is becoming more prevalent at the intermediate levels, too.

At the university level we still have a considerable number of "Canadian History" courses, referring to the achievements of our forefathers, not our forebears, that are separate from Women's Studies courses, which refer to the work accomplished by the women of history.

Both sexes have contributed greatly to the founding of our nation and both sexes should be exposed to the major contributions made by great people, whether they be male or female, black, white, native or British. We shouldn't be separating out the work done by those who have gone before in terms of sex or racial origins. We all need to see successful leaders of all races and nations, creed or colour or sex shouldn't be a factor in reporting great deeds. Men and women continue to shape this nation, we should not have separate education for students any more than we should have separate federations. We've all got to understand one another and stand up for one another.

Women are making inroads; by 1985 40 % of Queen's medical students were women, the same number of Ontario pharmacists were women and female veterinarians in Guelph numbered 59 percent. It seems to be good news for our daughters. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It is in the blue collar jobs and the armed forces where women are continuing to suffer from discrimination, bias and sexual abuse. Women in factories are perceived to be at threat by men facing job cuts and cut backs.
The tragic horror of the Montreal massacre of fourteen engineering students is a painful reminder of how threatened some are by achievements and excellence, a danger in women's equality. In a field where very few women have been successfully employed, nor been welcomed, one male student decided to take his revenge.

Susan Faludi's book Backlash highlights how much some men are fighting back against women who have dared to achieve. Male executives change story lines which would reflect reality in society - they look for reporters to get "Yes, but.." stories. Many U.S.-made movies do not reflect modern women, corporate executives who have managed to combine career and family. In the movies women tend to fall apart and then seek a therapist who tells them to go home and have babies. We know that men can be found in grocery stores and kitchens but one would have a hard time convincing television advertisers of this point. It is primarily women who seem to do the cooking and cleaning. On the big screen men are busy, Rambo-style, fighting the bad guys or pretending to be incompetent moms. This kind of social treatment stereotypes both sexes. Perpetuating myths that no longer exist in many 90s families. This kind of violence diminishes our society and encourages violent children who only understand the power of their fists. The moral majority demands an end to birth control and abortion clinics in order to "save the family", a family that is having a hard time making ends meet, visiting food banks and women's shelters. They bomb abortion clinics, shoot at doctors and assault women who seek the end of an unwanted pregnancy.

We need more support for all working parents who require adequate day care, not just McDonald's-like facilities or places for the upper income families that can afford that or private nannies. Private home day care spaces are disappearing as more and more parents must work outside the home. In 1986 in Canada there were 854,000 single parent families with only 320,000 day care spaces. There is a great void. In 1990 53 percent of women with children under age 3 were working. In 1990 79 percent of all women worked. We know, as teachers, how difficult it is for many parents to come to the rescue of a sick child at school. We see the results of action by governments who have decided to cut funding, primarily directed towards women and children. Despite 25 billion dollars in deferred taxes by big business and wealthy Canadians. In this difficult bargaining climate education budgets are being severely slashed. 

There is a decrease in support services for special students and increased expectations on the part of parents and lobby groups to provide that same level of education. Anyone who has ever sat in a classroom considers themselves an expert and participates in the ever prevalent teacher bashing we face in the media. With demands for increased accountability, despite add on curriculum and more responsibilities for teachers and principals, this economic climate doesn't lend itself to initiatives. Gender equity is only one of a series of problems. The December 6th massacre of engineering students reminds us of the price we pay should we disregard this problem.

I would ask you to examine your classroom practices and your personal beliefs.
  • What kinds of values do you hold?
  • Do you allow your personal biases to influence decisions you make in your classroom or your school?
  • Would any child be comfortable in your classroom or in your school?
  • Do you permit or do you encourage all children to become eager participants in your class, irregardless of sex, race or colour?
  • Do you call upon all students equally?
  • Are you discipline standards equal for all students?
  • Do you school practices and activities encourage equality during all time tabled parts of the day?
The fight against discrimination, for all enlightened people, begins with these answers. In such exemplary practices as Peer Coaching you can find out the answer to these questions. Your peer coach can document the number of times you call on girls vs boys, the kinds of interruptions you tolerate from a student in one group vs tolerance levels for others. You can look at the texts you use and examine them for biases, using them as discussion points to open up the eyes of all of your students.
Think about the number of times you've used the word "man" when "people" would have been preferable. Think about how half of your class feels when you use he, but really mean both sexes. Think of the potential police officers (not policemen) or fire fighters (not firemen) who may be sitting in your class. Think about the jokes you make. Do they reflect an assumption that one group of people is inferior to another? If the answer is yes , then deep down you still believe that this is the truth. You are nurturing these stereotypes and giving them validity by reinforcing the assumptions you have made and have been socialized. Sexist and racist jokes made amongst friends and adults could be misinterpreted by those who are listening, especially our children.

I believe that in one united federation we can all work together. We can learn to be intolerant of sexism, racism and ethnic bias in a federation which encourages all teachers to be equal and take their rightful places as career teachers, administrators, federation members.

All of us, as classroom leaders and innovators, are beholden to those whose minds we mold. We must help them come to an understanding of Canadian society as an all-embracing, democratic, free country which protects the rights of us all. It is our responsibility to society and to ourselves to come to an understanding of what is just and communicate this to our students.

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