Foster Equality in the Classroom

National Human Genome Research Institute

National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Understand Your Role in Science Education

Foster Equality in the Classroom

It is important to be aware of gender and multicultural issues when speaking in the classroom.

Foster Equity in the Classroom

There are still barriers to the entry of women into science, including the absence of women from textbooks and widespread publicity about supposed female inferiority in the cognitive abilities, such as spatial visualization and the mathematics needed for science. Some feminists criticize science as too "masculine," implying that women will not be successful until science itself changes its character.

Some of this problem can be remedied by giving credit to the contributions of females in textbooks, by providing course coverage of these accomplishments and by inviting guest speakers who emphasize women in science and encourage girls to enter the field of science by suggesting career opportunities. Scientific institutions can provide females a positive experience in a laboratory to learn skills and techniques. This can expose them to learning scientific concepts that will give them the confidence that they need. By providing a safe atmosphere for risk taking with a supportive mentor, the females will experience a feeling of success and greater confidence in their abilities. That feeling is what allows an individual to take risks or be creative. The risk taker knows that if she fails there will be someone there to catch her.

Recent psychological studies on cognitive sex differences have shown that these differences are much smaller than usually assumed. A spatial advantage for males increases after puberty and persists through adulthood despite no consistent sign of sex differences in general intelligence. According to recent research, sex differences in cognition result from socio-culturally determined sex role pressure. Boys, but not girls, are encouraged to perform spatial tasks such as block building. This may be the reason that they develop more advanced spatial skills.

From earliest childhood, girls are not encouraged to find out how their toys work by taking them apart, thus losing a valuable opportunity to develop mechanical inquisitiveness and skills. By third grade, girls are conditioned to accept toys as they are and not to manipulate or change them. By fifth grade, they are quite reluctant to work with science toys, explaining that, "I'm a girl; I'm not supposed to know anything about things like that." Boys tend to play with action-oriented toys and learn many mathematical and scientific concepts. Girls experience play patterns that are stationary, stimulating little interest in understanding natural laws that govern the physical world. There appears to be no scientific basis for the assumption that a much larger number of women cannot be successful scientists because of innate mental limitations. It appears to be biased socialization.

The recent report "How Schools Shortchange Girls" states that there still is little encouragement for girls to pursue math and science, few female role models in textbooks, and subtle teacher practices favoring boys, such as calling on boys more often or gearing school and play activities more to the males. There may be a disparity between males and females in standardized math and science tests. Teachers often steer more boys then girls to scientific fields. Males still outscore females on SAT 498 to 455. On the 1988 SAT, the gap in science was wider. On the achievement test in physics, males averaged a 611 score out of 800, 56 points higher than females average score of 555. The fact that girls often have better grades in high school than boys, leads researchers to suggest bias in the tests. These tests determine college admittance and scholarships.

Several studies have suggested that girls are further disadvantaged because teachers encourage male students to work with laboratory equipment, especially in the more complex sciences. Girls are criticized for lack of effort or the failure to be neat and precise which lowers their self-esteem and reduces their incentive to take risks.

Top of page

University Studies Reveal

David Sadker of the American University suggests that researchers move around the room to avoid calling on more boys than girls. He also encourages speakers to use inclusive or generic terms; avoid masculine pronouns such as he or his or gender sensitive terms like mankind.

Carolyn Callahan of the University of Virginia has explored the philosophy behind the lower level of interest among girls in the fields of science and mathematics. Girls tend to view science as negative; responsible for pollution, nuclear warfare, depleting the ozone, and carcinogens. It is important, then, to tie science into socially positive causes like curing disease, alleviating famine, and creating high-tech prosthetics. The social image of the scientist is also less than ideal. Often the scientist is equated with some genius hermit locked in a laboratory without social contact. This stereotypical scientist is elitist, has his own sense of humor, understands only inside jokes, speaks a language almost unintelligible to the common person, and is always male. To unseat this stereotype, presentations to high school students should include references to teamwork among scientists and collaborations on various projects, including mention of female scientists and the significance of their work. The presenter should be careful to use language that is easily understandable and free of jargon that would exclude parts of the audience.

Top of page

Support for Females

The courses students take in secondary school influence and limit subsequent college and career choices. Most girls do not elect to take advanced science and mathematics classes even if they do well in those subjects. Although there is little difference in the ability of males and females to do mathematics, there is an enormous gap in the numbers of boys versus girls that study mathematics. Lacking four years of college preparatory math, young women find themselves eliminated from many college majors, including astronomy, civil engineering, biochemistry, physics, mathematics, medicine, forestry, economics, and computer science. They generally find themselves in education, social work, nursing, and the humanities – fields that offer much in the way of social worth, but comparatively less pay.

Top of page

Patience for Males

Boys do not like math better than girls. The greater participation by males in math is related to the males' understanding that math may be a necessary prerequisite for their subsequent careers.

The differential treatment of males and females in schools is bad for both sexes. The pressure on men to compete and succeed may result in frustration and stress. Many men work constantly to build and preserve their "masculinity." Society has given them the superman fixation which may involve sexual virility, bravery, risk taking, physical strength, skill in sports, aggressiveness, exercise of power, control, and dominance. This is an impossible task and leads to frustration in not being able to meet these expectations. These males may become maladjusted, underachievers, truant, delinquent, inattentive and rebellious. Their traits of tenderness, sensitivity, and emotion may be under-developed. Unrestrained aggressive behavior causes serious problems in schools and in society.

Top of page

Multicultural Background

Minorities, women, and other disadvantaged groups have not traditionally excelled in the areas of science, mathematics and computer technology.

Individual methods of processing information and problem solving vary greatly. Research has shown that minorities and women learn in similar ways, but in a way different from that defined by educators as the norm. There are many factors that play in this difference:

Top of page

Learning Styles of African-American Children

The differences between the cognitive functioning and learning styles of African-American and Caucasian children are simply differences and not deficits. African-American learners prefer experimentation, improvisation, and harmonious interaction with others and the environment. Cooperation is an important dimension in the learning style of African-American children. Research has found that cooperative learning groups, in which small, heterogeneous ability groups work together on learning tasks and activities, are particularly effective for African-American students. When instruction techniques involve more stimulus variety, greater verve, and rhythmic, verbal interactions, the African-American students performed better than they did with traditional techniques.

Top of page

Last Updated: April 19, 2012