It’s Women’s History Month. Let’s Change How We Talk About Gender Stereotypes.
By Maggie Moore
Last spring, I led a group of high school girls through a six-month process of renovating a neglected courtyard area at our school. The girls dug holes, moved equipment, installed fencing, earned money, created a budget, and met with contractors. They were told no constantly but found new ways to overcome obstacles and persevered. It felt amazing to empower these young women to make the change they wanted to see, and then to sweat, toil, and labor with them to make it happen. This project got me thinking about what it means to be a woman in today’s society, and how powerful it was that these girls were relentless in their desire to make a difference. It was awe-inspiring to see this project come to fruition.
As a teacher, I have the opportunity each day to inspire and motivate students, and to support them in pursuit of a passion or special project. It pains me to witness the discouragement and disengagement that frequently happens when a young woman’s project involves math and science. It is frustrating when she, instead of working through the tough problems, feels pressure to give up.
“Girls don’t get dirty” and “pretty girls are dumb” are just some of the stereotypes that young women today have to confront. Although research has shown over and over that girls are not intellectually inferior to boys , girls still face an uphill battle when it comes to math and science. Psychologists have identified several factors that set girls back, including gender stereotypes, lack of self-confidence, lack of self-assurance, and inadequate opportunities to explore STEM pathways. Even though girls have dominated STEM competitions (they earned the top five spots in the Broadcom MASTERS National STEM Competition and placed 2nd and 3rd in the recent Intel International Science and Engineering Fair,) the stereotypes that portray girls as not having the math and science skills to succeed are pervasive. These preconceived notions are exacerbated by antiquated ideas about gender roles and reinforced through social media and pop culture.
I grew up debunking such stereotypes. My father died when I was 11 and my mom was a role model of strength and autonomy. She helped to shape my idea of what it means to be female, and I work hard to pass that on to my students. My sister is a surgeon and I am a science teacher, and not once did I consider that gender should have anything to do with career choice. I want each girl in my classroom to believe that with hard work and grit, they can achieve any goal they set for themselves.
We need to change how we talk about gender stereotypes. Teachers and counselors need to be trained to recognize and combat gender bias. All students need to be supported in the exploration of their passions, and counselors should direct students toward careers that utilize their talents, regardless of gender. If a male student shows aptitude in science and interpersonal skills, he can be directed toward nursing or education, fields in which there is a high demand for males. If a female student has strong analytical skills, she should be encouraged to explore careers in computer science and engineering. We need to debunk old ideas about what is appropriate for males and females and provide opportunities for boys and girls to dive deeper into learning and pursue their interests.
Women’s History Month is a great reminder of the amazing contributions made by strong women globally throughout history. Teachers can lift these women up by highlighting their importance in classrooms by reading about their life’s work in English, studying their experiments in science, or analyzing the power of their influence in social studies. Schools should encourage teachers to bring in guest speakers who work in fields where women are the minority, such as computer science or aerospace engineering. Young women should be encouraged, rather than discouraged, to build things and get dirty. The girls who took part in the renovation project are all currently enrolled in college, and one in particular is studying to be an environmental engineer. There is no doubt that they will need the tenacity and resilience that they developed in the courtyard project. They will need to be strong enough to overcome barriers, and they will need self-confidence to persevere despite the naysayers. I have no doubt that they can do it.
Maggie Moore is a secondary biology and anatomy teacher at Hononegah High School in Rockton, Illinois. She is a 2019–20 Teach Plus Illinois ILSTOY Policy Fellow and a 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist.