I was my first grade teacher’s favorite student. Every week, Ms. Holland gave a Milky Way candy bar to the most well-behaved student in class, and I won more than anyone. She told other students to behave like me — to raise their hands before speaking and to always say “please,” “thank you” and “I’m sorry.”
It wasn’t until years later that I realized she had only ever used girls as examples, lauding our docility. Not a single male student earned a Milky Way that year.
My experience is not isolated. Research on gender bias in elementary school classrooms shows that teachers praise compliance and penalize disobedience in female-identifying students at a much higher rate than in male-identifying students.
That treatment has led to a gender gap in higher education. According to a 2013 study by Oregon State University, in the average high school classroom, boys take up nine times more linguistic space than girls. While boys are inclined to dominate discussions and answer without the fear of being wrong, girls tend to speak only when they are certain of their answer. From a young age, girls are taught that our silence is worth more than our words, yet once we reach higher education, teachers expect us to speak assuredly in a classroom.
Many classes at AHS weigh participation just as heavily as written work. What does that mean for the girls who came from first-grade classes like mine? For those who were taught that their words are worth less than those of men?
Although the outspoken boys in Ms. Holland’s class might not have won any Milky Ways, they now dominate conversations and ace graded discussions. Perhaps if I had been one of the “troublemakers” in first grade, I wouldn’t struggle to actively participate in class now.
I’ve recently become more aware of how my gender affects my classroom performance. While many of my male classmates don’t seem to care if their answers are wrong, I often refrain from participating, afraid of sounding stupid.
With every hesitant response I give in the classroom, I feel closer to losing my teachers’ and classmates’ respect. I’m constantly trying to prove my intelligence as a female-identifying student in an environment where my voice is often diminished; shout out to the STEM classes and clubs.
I regularly witness other female students apologizing and introducing their thoughts with statements like “This might be wrong, but” or “I’m not sure, but.” These disclaimers are often aptly referred to as “feminine qualifiers.”
Similar to low levels of class participation, the use of these qualifiers is rooted in elementary school classrooms. When young girls are praised for being demure, they equate self-assurance with conceit. I’m guilty of this: I apologize when people bump into me; I begin emails with phrases like “just to clarify”; I end sentences by asking if what I’ve said makes sense.
While I know that feminine qualifiers undermine my words, I also don’t want to be seen as arrogant — it’s a vicious, interminable conflict between a desire for others to take me seriously and a fear of being perceived as cocky.
I have a request for students, teachers, and parents of all genders. My resolution for 2021 is to catch myself before using a feminine qualifier and participate more in class. I’m asking all of you to do the same: open your eyes and acknowledge gender inequality in the classroom. It’s no coincidence that in a class full of male students, female students often have the lowest levels of participation.
Teachers should consider their biases toward students of all genders and intervene when male students make condescending remarks to female students or begin to “mansplain.” Remind girls, as well as gender non-conforming or non-binary students, that their words are valued and require no justification.
It’s time to give all students, regardless of their gender, a reward greater than a Milky Way: respect.