Examining gender disparities in the classroom

Commenting on how gender influences GPAs and course selections

December 20, 2018

“If someone is taking Honors Physics and Honors Math, and I’m taking AP English and AP Euro, I feel like I’m not challenging myself as much as they are” explains Abby Tutterow ‘20. When asked if the gender identity of the other student would matter, Tutterow pauses, then answers, “somewhat.”

In classrooms, teachers and students generally work hard to avoid perpetuating stereotypes based on gender, yet pressure on students and teachers to conform is also abundant. From the division of its faculty, to the way classes are marketed, Blake’s teaching faculty works hard to minimize any gender disparity that may emerge in the classroom. However, from course selection, behavior and success in class to the action of teachers, the Upper School community continues to wrestle with acknowledging stereotypes and inherent biases in order to learn from and move past them.

Despite the stereotype that female-identifying students work harder than others, this doesn’t seem to be the cause at Blake. In such a high pressure environment with the end goal often being college acceptance, students generally strive to learn to the best of their ability. Joe Ruggiero, Upper School Director and Gender Studies teacher, remarks, “In terms of seeking good grades, I don’t see a gender difference.”

This data is reflected in 2017-2018 overall average grade point averages. For students who identified as female in Blake’s database, the average grade point average was a 3.55, while students who identified in Blake’s database as male had an average grade point average of 3.42. With unweighted grade point averages, honors or AP level classes do not inflate these numbers, and these, as well as gender disparity in classes can only be identified through transcript data.

“Generally speaking, I have seen instances of girls who tend to be more cautious about their course selection, especially when it comes to what they perceive to be challenging math classes,” explains Kreisle, “ whereas in many instances with boys, it’s almost the opposite. They aren’t necessarily looking for my validation, they are just like, ‘well of course I can do this,’ and so I do see a disparity in confidence, which doesn’t necessarily translate into what they do in the classroom. I think that a lot of that is societal, girls are somewhat trained to be a little more reticent, and boys are just like ‘I’ll tackle whatever, and failing is okay.’” ”

— Susan Kreisle

Susan Kreisle, math teacher of 22 years, has anecdotally observed the number of girls in upper level math courses consistently growing, as more chose to continue with math courses after fulfilling the Algebra 2 department requirement. For the first time in her teaching career at Blake, Deborah Weiss, Blake science teacher of 18 years, had more girls than boys in her AP Chemistry course last year. This growth reflects national trends, where the number of women working in math or computer science nearly doubled from 1993 to 2010, according to the National Science Foundation. Jim Mahoney, college counselor and dean of 12 years, presents another possible explanation for this upward trend, that nearly, “60% of people applying to college are girls. And I don’t think girls miss that data,” inspiring them to pursue classes they anticipate will help them stand out during admissions processes. In 2017 The Atlantic reported that 56% of all college students in the United States were women.

While movement towards equal gender numbers in classes has occurred, cultural differences continue to influence course selection. “Generally speaking, I have seen instances of girls who tend to be more cautious about their course selection, especially when it comes to what they perceive to be challenging math classes,” explains Kreisle, “ whereas in many instances with boys, it’s almost the opposite. They aren’t necessarily looking for my validation, they are just like, ‘well of course I can do this,’ and so I do see a disparity in confidence, which doesn’t necessarily translate into what they do in the classroom. I think that a lot of that is societal, girls are somewhat trained to be a little more reticent, and boys are just like ‘I’ll tackle whatever, and failing is okay.’” This perceived disproportionality in confidence translates to the ability makeup of classes. “If I look at the students in that [Honors PreCalculus], there’s a wider gap between the highest performing boy and the lowest performing boy in the class” explains Kreisle.

This disparity continues perpetually into elective courses, examples being the Economics CIS course and Gender Studies. This semester, Economics consists of seven gender identified girls in a total enrollment of 31 students. In contrast, Gender Studies has four gender identified boys and 14 gender identified girls. David Zalk ‘66, social studies teacher of 24 years explains that the high male enrollment of Economics is not just a phenomenon at Blake, it’s true not only at every high school, but at the college and graduate school level as well. Economics is a discipline that skews male. And I don’t think that anyone really fully understands why.” Zalk also remarks that this disparity transgresses even into AP scores, where gender identified males score consistently higher than gender identified girls.

Joe Ruggiero, Upper School Director and Gender Studies teacher, believes that many “boys think [Gender Studies] is going to be a class about feminism and about historical feminism and female oppression, and I think that they don’t feel that it’s going to be about them.” In effort to combat this misguided belief, Ruggiero co-taught Gender Studies with Anne Rubin, 12th Grade Dean, for the first time this semester.

Teachers play an enormous role in inspiring students to take and succeed in a course. While all courses are listed without teachers in the course catalog, many faculty members teach the same course over many years, enabling students to develop an idea of what a course will be like before they decide to take it. Kreisle explains, “I think that you look around, and see, are there people like yourself? And whether that’s gender, race, socioeconomic group, cultural background, whatever that is, you kind of, go, oh, are there people like me doing the things that I aspire to?” All departments are very aware of this bias and work hard to ensure that there is gender equality in teaching faculty. Within the last fifteen years, the math department has moved from no female faculty teaching calculus to a nearly equal ratio.

Bias towards the known is inherent or otherwise learned at a very early age. While students may be drawn towards what they know, teachers inherently are as well. Blind grading is occasionally used in all departments, but for Mahoney, resisting bias “has to do with having a relationship with that individual, and making sure that they know that my role is to support them.”

And for many, these relationships are the most important. Atreyus Bhavsar ‘22 explains that for him, a teacher’s identity significantly influence his drive to succeed, “It’s not really their gender. It’s just how they teach.” Scott Hollander, English teacher, agrees, “If a teacher is modeling, as an example of someone who is curious and seeking to learn themselves, then it’s easier for them to create that culture where students will want to participate with them in that investigation of life and reality.”

Education exists to help students learn about the world and themselves, creating their own opinions and viewpoints. Acknowledging biases and differences is sensitive for many, but doing so allows communities to move forward and ensure that students feel like they can take the classes they wish to take, and with effort, be successful. Mahoney explains, “Even if we aren’t explicitly activating bias…if we aren’t asking the question of what that looks like, how it happens, and what our lived experiences are, the perception can become reality, because things can creep in that we don’t mean to creep in.”

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