By MARY HOOD HART
In 1992, the American Association of University Women released a study indicating that girls are being shortchanged in schools across America. The study reported that teachers were more inclined to call upon boys to respond to questions and girls were not encouraged as often as boys to pursue excellence in math and science. It also pointed to cultural stereotyping of women and teacher prejudices as the primary reasons girls were shortchanged.
When I read news reports about the study, I asked my daughter Katie, in her first year of middle school at the time, if she felt her teachers subtly encouraged boys and discouraged girls from pursuing the more rigorous subjects. Katie said she felt, if anything, the opposite was true. Girls in her class were among the top achievers and more boys than girls were chastised for poor work habits or unruly behavior. Unscientific as they are, Katie’s and my observations of teachers and their students lead us to believe that, especially in middle and elementary schools, girls are among the majority of excellent students.
However, the AAUW study also concluded that as children advance in school, a boy’s academic performance improves while a girl’s performance declines. Reportedly, girls lose confidence in their academic abilities and become more concerned with popularity than achievement. If, at the high school level, some girls become less confident and less inclined to pursue rigorous studies, unlike the AAUW, I don’t blame the classroom teachers. I believe most conscientious teachers are committed to encouraging every student’s success. If it’s true that girls tend to become less academically oriented in the upper grades, I would blame a cultural climate that makes romance and physical attractiveness the most sought after goals of an adolescent female.
The messages young women are sent these days are not mixed. Pick up any magazine aimed at adolescent females and you’ll see the majority of articles are geared toward making yourself attractive in order to find and keep a boyfriend. Here’s a sampling of some headlines in teen magazines: “17 Hot New Guys;” “Love in the new year: Make it happen;” “Your Crush: How to tell if he likes you;” “Get the hair you want;” “The Scoop on Kissing: the good, the bad and the scary;” “What’s Up with Him? Your guy questions answered.” And on the same cover with “Does he like you? 7 ways to tell” is the refreshingly different headline, “Playing it smart: girls who refuse to act dumb.” Aside from the occasional exception, however, teen magazines rarely feature articles on doing well in school and pursuing a rewarding career.
Watch any TV shows aimed at adolescents or pre-adolescents such as “California Dreamin'” or “Saved by the Bell,” and you’ll see beautiful, buxom, teen-age girls wearing mini-skirts and tight blouses. They may be smart, but most important, they’re attractive and popular.
There’s no question in my mind that such messages (which girls receive as soon as they’re old enough to say “Barbie”) are at the heart of any problems girls might have in pursuing academic excellence in upper grades. The old problem of girls not wanting to appear too smart lest they intimidate male admirers is, I’m afraid, alive and well in many high schools. More than boys, girls are urged to make the most of their looks, stay slim, wear the right clothes, keep their complexions clear and their hair shiny. When so much energy is invested in their physical appearance and popularity, how much is left for academic pursuits?
If our society is serious about encouraging young women to explore opportunities in math and the sciences and pursue top academic awards, then we have an obligation to reduce the emphasis placed on feminine beauty and teen romance. Girls are made to feel as if their value depends on their ability to attract boys. Over and over again this is played out in everything from TV commercials to sitcoms to our daughters’ choice of games and toys. Some board games are even aimed to encourage a fascination with dating and romance.
In light of such messages, I am not surprised when studies show that private girls’ schools frequently have the greatest success in educating teenage girls. Such a setting reduces the need for girls to make themselves attractive to boys and the business of learning is given the emphasis it deserves.
Attending a girls’ school is not practical or possible for many teen-agers, so the next best thing would be for us to help our daughters at an early age question the harmful messages they must contend with daily. We can work to help them understand that their self-worth is not dependent upon physical appearance and we can caution them about sacrificing their schoolwork in efforts to attract boys.
Finally, we can do our best to reduce our daughters’ (and sons’) exposure to sexually provocative images and teach them to be suspicious of the old lie: “you’re nobody ’til somebody loves you.”