By: Staff Writer Tanushri Sundar
MSJ Girl Up invited five teachers to discuss sexism in the classroom on February 2 in C-120. MSJ Girl Up, a branch of the United Nations Foundation organization Girl Up, aims to increase awareness about gender inequality and motivate MSJ students to fight for equal rights.
The panel was comprised of Principal Zack Larsen, Spanish Teacher Elvia Sepulveda, Math Teacher Tyler Robinson, and English Teachers Sandra Cohen and Cherylle Lindsey. Over 150 students listened to the teachers engage in an open-ended, interactive discussion about their experiences with gender bias in an educational environment.
The topic quickly broadened to sexism experienced in the workplace as well. Lindsey described the sexism prevalent in Silicon Valley’s tech industry, and Larsen shared his experience of working with an all-female administrative staff. He said he would often receive the same comment: “Oh wow, you’re the only guy,” stated as if it was “some sort of burden [he] carried, like [he’s] the only one doing all the work.” This comment came from both men and women, indicating that both genders contribute to gender bias and sexism.
As the discussion moved towards school, teachers found subtle sexist attitudes the most frequent among students. Robinson pointed out the disparity of males and females enrolled in higher level math classes, emphasizing that this decline often takes place over the course of a few years. Larsen noticed that gender-specific lab groups and seating arrangements hinted to underlying bias in students’ attitudes. Teachers pointed out that small actions and phrases, such as calling outspoken girls bossy, saying, “Oh, you look so pretty today,” and assuming a lost pink binder belongs to a female student, have disproportionally large impacts on a student’s self-perception and self-esteem.
Language is a powerful fuel for bias, and the panel agreed that teachers should avoid using words to pigeonhole people. This is as an easy way to make sexism an acceptable behavior. Sepulveda brought up the concept of internalization. In internalization, people start to believe continually repeated sexist remarks and can unknowingly use them against others. This contributes to creating situations, as described by Cohen, in which girls don’t feel as if they can speak up in class, for they feel as if boys will carry the conversation. Cohen said, “As a teacher, I reach out and bring those voices out so everyone can be heard equally.”
When the discussion called for student questions, Sophomore Avantika Rastogi asked the panel how to close the “Confidence Gap”, a concept defined in a 2014 article of the same name by Matty Kay and Claire Shipman. The “Gap” is supposedly created by an inherent lack of confidence in females that limits their professional playing field. In response to the “Gap”, teachers emphasized that both sexes should strive to be resilient and maintain positive attitudes. Lindsey related the “Gap” to the double standard often misapplied to sexism. She said, “Sexism is constricting to both sexes. Boys are kept from expressing their emotions, they have to suck it up. ‘Girl Up’ is a play on ‘man up.’ We all need to be rethinking stereotypes, that is—what it means to be a man or woman.” By bringing unheard teacher perspectives into view, MSJ Girl Up has opened up avenues for honest and open dialogue about sexism on campus.
Full Quotes: (Used in article)
“’Oh wow, you’re the only guy. You’re the only male.’ As if it was some sort of burden I carried, like ‘Oh yeah, I’m the only one doing all the work [sic].’ As though females, they’re somehow feeble. It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard that from both males and females.” – Principal Zack Larsen
“There are situations in which girls don’t feel like they can speak up. They feel as if guys carry conversation. As a teacher, I reach out and bring those voices out so everyone can be heard equally.” –English Teacher Sandra Cohen
“Sexism is constricting to both sexes. Boys are kept from expressing their emotions, they have to behave like this and suck it up. ‘Girl Up’ is a play on ‘man up.’ Girls don’t need to be more like guys, guys need to be like girls. Girls do have different qualities than guys, and sometimes that’s good. But we all need to be rethinking stereotypes, and what it means to be a man or a woman.” –English Teacher Cherylle Lindsey