See Jane Get Ignored


By Myra and David Sadker

Scribners x 347pp x $22

When my daughter, Emily, entered first grade last fall, I wanted to tell her about how I learned to read in the 1960s. So I went to the local library for a Dick and Jane book. Guess what! Not only have Dick and Jane been banished from the classroom, they've been banned from public libraries as well. The only entry in the card catalog was Dick and Jane as Victims: Sex Stereotyping in Children's Readers. I decided that was too advanced for my six-year-old.

Has this sexism stuff gone too far? That was my thought as I picked up Myra and David Sadker's Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls. Didn't we deal with this issue back in the 1970s? Why are people still writing about it?

The Sadkers' answer is grim. Their book overflows with chilling examples of gender bias in the classrooms of today, from preschool (where a teacher shows boys how to use the VCR but pops a tape in for the girls) to medical school (where an instructor refers to a female cadaver as "a Playboy bunny" before cutting off the breasts and tossing them in the trash).

The authors, education professors at American University, are among the most prominent and well-regarded experts on sexism in schools. Myra Sadker wrote the first textbook on gender equity for educators, and the two conducted several multiyear studies during the 1980s. Through lectures, workshops, and hundreds of hours of classroom observation, they collected the rich material for this book, which teems with vivid examples and resonates with the voices of parents, teachers, and women remembering their own school days.

The authors admit that schools are a lot less sexist now than they were in the 1960s, when they were PhD candidates. Then, Myra's voice went unheard in meetings, while David got credit for work they did jointly. But the momentum of the 1970s stalled in the 1980s, they say, when conservative Republicans gutted federal programs for gender equity. The Women's Educational Equity Act, a federal program to encourage women in science and math, had its budget slashed and its staff reassigned. Title IX, which outlaws sex bias in schools, became "a paper tiger, declawed." Since then, the Sadkers say, efforts to eradicate sexism in education have been halfhearted.

And sexism, they say, is still pervasive. They document the "subtle and insidious gender lessons" that seem "insignificant when looked at individually but that have a powerful cumulative effect." Most teachers, they show, unconsciously give boys more attention, praise, and specific instruction than girls, who usually get such comments as "O.K." or "Neat handwriting." Boys are more likely to call out answers, while girls, over time, become more silent. To prove this, the Sadkers videotaped many teachers--who were usually shocked to discover the bias in their teaching.

In middle school and high school, self-esteem falls for both sexes, but girls' falls far more sharply than boys'. Smart girls try to hide their good grades to stay popular. Girls' test scores drop, especially in math and science. One of the book's most stunning passages quotes boys who were asked how they would feel if they suddenly became girls. "I would kill myself right away by starting myself on fire so no one knew," said one. "I would run in front of a huge semi in 18th gear and have my brains mashed to Jell-O," said another.

The book ends more positively, citing quiet ways that parents, teachers, and students have influenced schools to be more sensitive to girls' needs. In classes where the Sadkers trained teachers to recognize bias, the ratio of males to females calling out answers, originally eight to one, fell to eight to seven.

For parents of daughters, the message is overwhelming. As soon as I finished the book, I called the nearest all-girls school. Such institutions are back in vogue because they encourage assertiveness and self-confidence. And the Sadkers, who sent one daughter to an all-girl, middle school, seem to approve.

Critics of the Sadkers note that women have made big gains over the past 20 years. More than half of college students are women, and their numbers have grown dramatically in medical, law, business, and other traditionally male programs. Schools are far less biased than movies, television, books, or, God forbid, video games.

My only gripe is different. U.S. schools have more fundamental problems than sexism. Bringing the teaching of both sexes up to international standards is a far more important challenge. Teachers and parents should read this book, and teachers should try to eradicate bias and promote gender equity. But all of our kids will be cheated if schools don't start providing the education they need to compete in the global economy of the 21st century.