JITE v33n1 - Under Review - Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls

Volume 33, Number 1
Fall 1995

Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness: How America's schools cheat girls . New York: Charles Scribners Sons, Macmillan Publishing Co., $22.00, 347 pp. (ISBN 0-684-19541-0).

Susan M. Pavalko
Northeast High School
School District of Philadelphia
Yvonne S. Gentzler
University of Maryland

Attracting and retaining women to predominately male-oriented areas of study has been an issue seriously debated within academic and professional communities. The aspects of this issue appear to be intertwined with various factors that discourage participation and/or the desire of females to select professions that have traditionally been dominated by males. Myra and David Sadker's book, Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls , strikes an ominous chord of dissonance and might provide a clue to this never ending debate. According to their research, "Nowhere is the link between what students study in high school and where they work after graduation more direct than in vocational education … this field is still stuck in stereotypes" (p. 127). What does this mean for vocational educators? Does this accusation merit exploration? Could the teaching methods and practices used by vocational teachers be one of the reasons women often shy away from certain areas of vocational education?

The Sadkers have researched the concept of gender bias since the 1960s. Their latest venture presents an embarrassing view of the teaching profession, one worthy of serious consideration when analyzing why females do or do not select traditionally male dominated areas of study. The pages are rife with illustrations and anecdotes of female invisibility, self sex segregation, objectification and harassment of girls and women, and differential treatment, which all serve to erode the female spirit and pave the way for what the Sadkers dub "second class employment" (p. 186). Because every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the male persona is not unaffected. Gender bias feeds male power struggles and leads to their own miseducation. Males are thrust into a competitive mode while their female counterparts become mere classroom spectators.

Despite teachers' proclivities to the contrary, the researchers describe subtle ways in which gender bias is woven into the classroom landscape. Boys, on the average, use any type of exhortation deemed necessary to attract the teacher's attention. They are said to wave their arms wildly, simultaneously pleading and cajoling, "Me, me"; their persistence, especially that of the so-called "green arms" (students with arms raised, frozen in mid-air), is remarkable (p. 48). Girls, positioned on the opposite end of the spectrum, don't seem to buy into this particular style. Girls wait patiently to be acknowledged--arms raised tentatively, elbows slightly bent. Female invisibility at its best. Males seem to monopolize teacher time and attention, which may help to explain why girls shy away from male-dominated fields of study.

The Sadkers admonish that examples like these are indicative of the subtle nuances of gender bias found in all classrooms. Key words like unintentional and unaware become operative. Most teachers are painfully unaware that gender bias actually exists in their classrooms. However, some expose and embrace it blatantly and eagerly: "There are too many students in this class. Everyone with ovaries--out!" (p. 12). A statement such as this highlights the incidence of harassment of girls and women on many fronts; not only are females subjected to harassment by peers, but teachers and administrators as well. Female self-esteem becomes suspect and silent, and the effects are life-long.

Some might view the Sadkers' methodology as suspect. "America," which is used in the book title, is not comprised of the four states and the District of Columbia where the research was conducted. However, the book is meticulously and painstakingly researched; indeed, the Sadkers cite similar findings by other investigators as the basis for their geographic generalization. In fact, one has to closely scrutinize the pages of the text in order to differentiate between primary and secondary sources of data.

The Sadkers stated that they contrived a formal method of gauging classroom interactions, following a year of nondescript notations. Unfortunately, a clear description of their methodology and their rating codes is conspicuously absent from the text. The reader is told that the number of teacher responses to male and female students was counted, students were observed on an individual basis, teacher responses to students were recorded, and teacher attention to specific male/female groups within the physical confines of the classroom was delineated. Elementary and post-secondary classrooms were the primary sites of the study.

A rendition of the 4 types of teacher responses (praise, remediation, criticism, and acceptance), which the Sadkers dubbed "typical" (p. 54), was provided. These responses were used to gauge quality of instruction. Once again, gender bias reared its ugly head. Teachers, for the most part, pushed the boys' thinking and "okay'd" (p. 55) the girls.

While the researchers stated that observations occurred in environments that were ethnically diverse, and that all levels of socioeconomic strata were evident, little data surfaced to connect these variables to the main concept. There were some fleeting references to these elements in some of the statistics cited concerning test scores, but their parameters were not afforded chapter status. Perhaps they chose this route because of the chameleon-like characteristics of gender bias--its nuances are often not blatantly obvious.

Personal and provocative anecdotes, gleaned from participants in Sadker-sponsored sex equity workshops and from student interviews, were powerful indictments of a system gone awry. Their inclusion both corroborated the book's stated premises and added another dimension to it. The Sadkers draw a compelling composite of the insidious nature of gender bias and strip away its thin veneer chapter by chapter.

Three chapters, "Hidden Lessons," "Missing in Interaction," and "Higher Education: Colder by Degrees," verify the existence of gender bias in the curriculum and personify its stranglehold on the American educational system. "The Self-Esteem Slide," "High School: In Search of Herself," and "Test Dive," chronicle the accompanying deprecating effects on young girls and women's bodies, minds, and souls. In contrast, "The Miseducation of Boys" explains how the beneficiaries of this iniquitous system are also shortchanged.

The proliferation of sexism in the schools sparks the debate over alternative settings, single-sex versus coeducational, in "Different Voices, Different Schools." A historical and prognostic perspective is assumed in the remaining two chapters.

In Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls , Myra and David Sadker uncovered information vital to the issues surrounding girls' desire, or lack thereof, to participate in male oriented professions and related occupations. "At the highest educational level, where the instructors are the most credentialed and the students the most capable, teaching is the most biased" (p. 168). Post-secondary classrooms rivaled elementary and secondary ones for purported degrees of gender bias. Implications for educators at the professional levels are obvious, especially for those holding tenure in traditionally male-oriented bastions of academia.

There are a multitude of reasons why young women typically shun so-called male-oriented careers. Some are self-imposed; some are societally-imposed. Citing Robert Bly's, Iron John , the Sadkers write: "Bly's warning is a reminder: When it comes to gender, parents and teachers have spent most of the twentieth century worrying about boys at school--and the kind of men they will become" (p. 217). Therein lies part of the problem.

The classroom has become a virtual proving ground for the boardroom. Competition is paramount. Economic rewards loom in the distance. But, usually the females are not players; they are spectators. A sense of balance needs to be achieved. The personal vignettes in the chapter, "Higher Education: Colder by Degrees," give testimony to the struggles of women who have attempted to balance the scales on their own. Gender bias in the classroom must be eliminated. When a political cartoonist gets into the act (The text presents several caustic Doonesbury strips.), it is time to address the problem.

Educators and those involved in male dominated professions can retrieve knowledge garnered from the Sadkers' research and incorporate it into their classroom repertoire to insure the abolishment of "a girl's education" (p. 45). The text contains suggestions and techniques designed to strip gender bias from the pedagogy. As various pieces of the gender puzzle are exposed and dealt with appropriately, we can expect to see a change in the structures that have discouraged female participation in male oriented professions and occupations. This book provides a framework for serious exploration of these issues and merits reading.

Reference Citation: Pavalko, S. M., & Gentzler, Y. S. (1995). Review of Failing at fairness: How America's schools cheat girls. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 33 (1), 86-89.