Girls and Stereotypes
Stereotypes. Whether we see them as false, but based on general knowledge, or as completely false and too ridiculous to even mention, stereotypes influence the way we think about others. More surprisingly, they influence the way we think about ourselves.
There was a study done on Asian women. You see, everyone knows that Asians are really good at math. And everyone knows that women are really bad at math. Right?
So they divided their subjects into two groups and gave each person a math test. Before taking the test, however, they were given a series of pre-test questions that asked the test takers about themselves. One of the groups got pre-test questions that asked them about their heritage and culture (essentially emphasizing to the women: you are Asian).The other group got pre-test questions that asked them about their gender (emphasizing to them that they were women). The group that was reminded they were Asian did better on the math test than the group reminded that they were women. It seems that the results show that these Asian women were thinking, subconsciously or not, “I am Asian, so I am good at math,” and that gave them more confidence as they approached the test. Or, they were thinking, “I am a woman, so I’m not good at math,” and the result was less confidence and lower test scores.
Now, I was homeschooled. I didn’t even hear about the whole “girls are bad at math” thing until after I had completed calculus I and II in high school. When I did hear that stereotype, I laughed. But what if I had heard it earlier, when it could have been ‘conditioned’ into my mind? Maybe I wouldn’t have believed it, even scoffed at it. But would it have changed my perception of myself, or affected my approach to difficult subjects?
I just finished watching this TED Talk* with Reshma Saujani, which has a description saying “We’re raising our girls to be perfect, and we’re raising our boys to be brave.” At first I thought by “perfect” she meant “virtuous” or “good.” But Saujani wasn’t saying that we focus too much on teaching girls to do the right thing. By “perfect,” she meant “without mistakes.” To support this, she mentioned two examples.
A programming professor mentioned to her once that his male students will often come to him saying, “Professor, there’s something wrong with my code.” His female students, however, were more likely to come to him and say, “Professor, there’s something wrong with me.” Another example she gave was the account of a coding teacher. Girls often called this teacher over asking for help, showing her a blank screen and asking what to do next. The teacher discovered that the girls had not, in actuality, been spending the whole time staring at a blank screen; pressing the undo button revealed that they had tried a code, failed, and then deleted it.
Saujani used these examples to convey the idea that girls are taught that if their work isn’t perfect, it isn’t worthy. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to be braver, more willing to take risks. Now, I believe that there are innate differences between the way boys and girls learn and think, but the extent to which those differences are innate or culturally conditioned I have no idea. However, I do think that what Saujani recognized isn’t just a ‘girl problem.’ The fear of making mistakes is something I have seen in both guys and girls.
I know boys who would rather show you nothing than show you work that they know is imperfect. And I know girls who are willing to show others imperfect work to let you check for mistakes (I’m a girl who does that, too).
The thing is, students need to know that fixed mistakes are the building blocks of learning. Whether the misconception that mistakes should be hidden at all costs is more prevalent among girls than boys, I don’t know. Saujani seemed to think so. But if that is the case, it is definitely not a trait inherent in a girl’s thought process; guys can have it too! Instead, it is reasonable to suppose that this is a problem exacerbated by cultural conditions. What kind of culture fosters that kind of thinking?
Two words: public schools.
The sad truth is, teachers make assumptions about their students. Kids compare themselves to their peers. If there are stereotypes floating around that say “boys should be willing to take risks and make mistakes” and “girls need to make sure that everything they do is perfect,” those things are going to be floating around in schools – whether through mistaken teachers or through the peers that the students care so much about.
People like to say that homeschooled kids are sheltered. While my natural tendency is to be indignant at such a suggestion (I see it as implying that homeschooled kids aren’t equipped to handle the ‘real world’), in a lot of ways, homeschoolers are. But you know what? Not everything kids are exposed to in schools is good for them. And that includes stereotypes.
I honestly never knew that girls were supposed to be bad at math until I was fully confident that I can handle the subject, and I think that’s a good thing. Homeschool parents can free their children from stereotypical generalizations and enable them to learn in ways that may not otherwise be expected of them (for example, embracing mistakes) or to learn subjects they may not be expected to excel in.
This reaches beyond educational stereotypes of gender. Danah Boyd, author of It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens recounted that she was once consulted by a Harvard admissions team. The team had received an application from a seemingly very academic and accomplished young man. But when they looked him up on Facebook, they found a kid who ran with a rough crowd and gave off a "gangsta" lifestyle. Boyd mentioned, however, that this application came from a black high school graduate in LA. She explained that there is a lot of peer pressure for black students to give off that gangster persona, in many schools in that area; perhaps the Facebook page was only a cover the student had used to avoid drawing too much attention to himself. Perhaps he was using it to hide the fact that he didn't fit some firmly held stereotype that said black students aren't supposed to be academic or aspire to go to Harvard.
What I do know is this: kids raised by their parents, who love and support them in everything and anything, are likely going to be “sheltered” from such nonsensical presumptions. They are not surrounded by peers who tell them “girls don’t really do that” or “blacks aren’t really into that.” They have their own interests and strengths, are encouraged to try hard things, and, more often than not, accomplish them.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is, here is just one more reason why homeschooling rocks!