A group of energetic boys embark on an impromptu soccer match. We need one more player! They shout.
Amanda, watching nearby, jumps at the chance, only to be stopped by her teacher: “Boys play rough. Are you sure you want to join them?” The few seconds Amanda paused were just enough for another player to join the group. She missed the opportunity to have fun and get active, but also to further develop her spatial skills. She might question her boldness next time she feels driven to join “boy’s games” and become increasingly passive. And, by the way, she might have just missed the chance of ever becoming a Mathematician.
Even good teachers are frequently caught upon stereotypes. Closing the gender gap in education requires serious, conscious effort. These are some of the best examples I have seen:
- Encourage physical activity in girls from early on. This includes simple things, from recommending adequate dressing for all kinds of play (it is difficult to climb a tree wearing a dress) to providing ample opportunities for problem solving in a variety of active contexts. Challenge all your students –boys and girls- to take risks and assume different roles, including leadership ones. Create a culture in your classroom where asking many questions is valued even more than providing “correct” answers.
- Provide a safe environment for boys to connect with their artistic side and foster their creativity – traits usually associated with a “feminine” personality. Hook them into arts, music and literature by exploring their interests and finding engaging materials for them to enjoy.
- Enrol parents against gender stereotypes. We are all exposed to strong messages in the media and act upon them inadvertently. Parents will allow boys to go outside and play more often, and encourage girls to stay inside and talk, read or help with chores. Ask your son to help you cook dinner and wash the dishes, ask your daughter take out the trash and walk the dog. Read to them every day, and demand that they both complete their homework in time.
- Provide positive role models of women in the sciences and men in the humanities, both in history and today. Watch out for your words and actions, as your own stereotypes might emerge. In the classroom, record how many times you call upon boys and girls, and what are the reasons of you calling them (to regain their attention? to keep them still?)
My daughter, Annie, is studying Applied Math at ITAM, a prestigious University in México City. Girls account to about 25% of her class. I am so proud of her for being bold enough to pursue her dreams, but I feel for those little Amandas who are not sitting beside her because we convinced them early on that girls were not suited for Math.
Every child has the potential to excel wherever they find their passions, and teachers need to be advocates, not detractors. Now let’s show that to little Amanda next time we find her. Which could be your classroom, right now.