When I was in elementary school, my exploratory music teacher had us count the beats in a measure of music. Asking our class for the answer, she qualified: “Boys, you’re supposed to be good at math. I’ll wait for one of you to answer.” She ignored not only my hand, but also the hands of several other female students around me. That night, I told my parents what happened. They were—rightfully—furious. I quickly backtracked and assured them that she had not meant it the way it sounded, that I had somehow misunderstood what she said. I was unhappy with her comment, yes, but I convinced myself that it was not a big deal. It happened all the time; there was no use getting upset over it. Mostly, I did not want my music teacher to get in trouble. My hurt and discomfort at her words did not seem worth endangering her job.
Yet this kind of subtle sexism in school is significant and we should not ignore it. It paves the way for more flagrant inequality between male and female students as they get older, perpetuated by administrators, teachers, and even students themselves. As Christians, we should be concerned about this kind of bias in our education system. Subtle sexism denigrates the image of God in girls and women and makes them feel like they are less capable and worthy than their male peers.
In most cases, we do not disregard subtle sexism out of hatred or anti-women sentiment. No, I think we ignore these incidences because we have been socialized to believe that offensive behaviors and comments are acceptable, or at least not notable. We teach girls to be proud of not having female friends because “girls are so much drama” (this is an actual quote from my sixth grade-self). We press them to ignore and minimize anything that makes them uncomfortable because “it’s better not to rock the boat.” I have often talked myself out of being upset about a negative comment or experience in the classroom, dismissing valid feelings of anger and hurt as no big deal.
Discriminatory school dress codes unfairly target girls, sexualizing and policing their bodies. They are not flagged as problematic or demeaning of girls’ dignity and self-image. Sex education programs in schools do not properly or respectfully teach students—especially female students—about bodies, consent, boundaries, and healthy relationships yet they are not seen as worrisome or incomplete.
Smaller aggressions (and concessions) like these create an environment where larger incidents of sexism and misogyny can later be ignored or downplayed, because we have learned that subtle sexism is acceptable. Schools don’t exist in a bubble. They reflect—and reinforce—the beliefs and values of our society. The effects of growing up in a gender-biased schooling system don’t fade the minute we walk across the high school graduation stage. In college, I have met both men and women who support strict dress codes for female students. I have talked to people who believe that women are better-suited to teaching early education than secondary or post-secondary education. I have seen girls struggle to find their vocations because of what they have been told women are supposed to do and be.
The lingering effects of internalized patriarchy became clearer to me after meeting my now apartment-mate Caroline, a math and secondary education major. Caroline’s favorite things to talk about are math (calculus, specifically) and her lesson plans for future math classes. Our sophomore year of college, Caroline wrote a research paper on the effects of education socialization on girls and their entry into STEM fields. In it, she asserted that stereotypes about girls, such as that girls aren’t good at math (sound familiar?), discourage women from declaring STEM majors in college or pursuing STEM careers.
It also did not escape my notice that almost all my elementary school teachers were women. Or that more and more of my teachers were men as I got older. In college, almost all my professors were men. Currently, seventy-seven percent of public school teachers are women, but eighty-six percent of school superintendents are men, according to the School Superintendents Association. Why does that matter?
When a girl sees only men in positions of power in her school and does not see female teachers and professors in higher education, she will form unwritten (and self-limiting) expectations about what women can and cannot do. And when boys do not see healthy male role models in teaching positions in primary school, negative stereotypes about males can be reinforced too. In short, what students see and hear becomes what they expect to always see and hear.
And, the same goes for church. Our college’s male chaplain preaches most Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I have begun to expect that even our guest speakers will be men. When I learned that our new chapel series was dedicated to making space for women’s voices, I was pleasantly surprised. That is, until I saw that “making space for women’s voices” really translated to making space for just a few women’s voices. Even our women-focused series featured more male speakers than females! If young people see only men in the pulpit and in ministry leadership at Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries, they will expect to always see and hear men in the pulpit. In elevating the preaching of men only, we make it difficult for women and girls to picture themselves in church leadership.
The ramifications of a school system (and a church) that undermines women’s and girls’ gifts and leadership and promotes negative expectations of men and boys are far reaching. Misogyny is incredibly pervasive in US society, as in much of the world. Our education institutions are constructed on a system that historically demeans girls—patriarchy. While schooling today has evolved to better support female students, our progress cannot offset the damage done by a culture that forces girls to be tolerant and docile in the face of subtle sexism. We can do better. As Shuri, fictional female technology genius from Marvel’s Black Panther, said: “just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”
I do not claim that my music teacher’s comments about girls and math are the sole reason that I am not the world’s foremost mathematician right now. My lack of interest in math holds that honor. But I was not the only girl in that music room, and I am, by far, not the only girl who has heard someone of importance (i.e., a teacher or parent) say that math and science are not for girls. And this is the issue. We can laugh about how dumb and wrong those comments are, but that doesn’t change the fact that most schools are biased against girls. Nearly every girl will be affected by sexist comments and behaviors in school, and even subtle aggressions can have lasting consequences.
I should not have felt the need to defend my music teacher to my parents that day, and my apartment mate should not have to plan how she is going to show her female students that math really is for girls. But we do, because our education system does a supreme disservice to girls and boys in forcing arbitrary limitations on them and their futures. We have the power to change that system.
This article appeared in “Let Them Learn: Fighting Sexism in School,” the Fall 2019 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.