Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Discrimination and lots of footnotes

Recently, a male friend of mine got accused of sexism at work.  It was during an exit interview, and he was a bit flummoxed by the whole thing, so he asked me to play gender referee and talk it through with him.

Now to be clear, I don't think he's sexist.....but three years worth of therapy school render me pretty incapable of responding to something like "hey an employee on her way out the door accused me of being sexist" with anything other than "hmmm.....how do you feel about that?"*

Anyway, we were talking it out, and I mentioned that in feminist theory, there are really a few different types of sexism.  I've covered the benevolent vs hostile sexism issue before, but the kind I was thinking of in this case is direct vs indirect sexism.**

Direct sexism is pretty obvious: treating men and women differently in the same situation.  Indirect sexism however is a little more subtle, especially in the workplace.  One of the types of behaviors it includes is when people discriminate against those who have a particular characteristic/set of behaviors, but those characteristics/sets of behaviors tend to be possessed largely by one gender.*** The example would be say, someone who hates everyone over 5'10''.  In theory it's equal opportunity dislike, but in practice it will cover a lot more men than women.

Now I'm not aiming to be a women's studies class here, so you can ponder for yourself if you feel that indirect sexism is an issue or not.****  However, I bring this up not to talk about the workplace, but rather so I can pivot 90 degrees to talk about education.

Recently I've seen some good stuff talking about gender and education.  A few weeks ago, James (who does some great dives in to various studies and you should read his stuff, btw) at I Don't Know, But... did an interesting post about the use of non-cognitive measures in education, and if that ended up biasing things against boys vs girls (non-cognitive measures being things like being neat, orderly and helpful).

Today, Althouse linked to this piece talking about the same study and some perspective on how non-cognitive skills could actually quite accurately play in to grades (example: the ability to pass in legible homework).

Both posts address some interesting questions on research related to my description of indirect sexism above.  In either case, are we studying sexism, or are we studying discrimination against traits that are linked to gender?  Does it make a difference in how we study or approach these things?

There's some evidence that teachers discriminate across gender lines against behavior that disrupts orderly classrooms, but with classroom management being part of their job, would this really be discrimination?  If a woman cries***** during a tense meeting at work, is losing respect for her discrimination or just a reaction to unprofessional behavior?

I'd be interested to hear what some of my teacher readers think.  Is there a problem with education for boys, or there just a set of unhelpful traits?

*The instance of me using some variation of the phrase "how does that make you feel" shot up over 1000% over the course of getting my master's degree.
**I may have these names wrong, or be missing a nuance.  Third wave feminism makes me sleepy.
***This relates to a running joke of mine that I've said on the few occasions when I've been in discussions about my preferred gender for my obstetrician "I don't care if they're male or female...I just want one who's actually been through childbirth"
****My brilliant answer?  It depends.
*****When I worked in the ER, crying at work was something that actually happened to both genders.  Even the men had to occasionally lock themselves in the bathroom for a bit of a time out/regroup.  The child abuse cases tended to do everyone in.


  1. Thanks for the vote of confidence. I'm not a teacher, but let me toss this into the mix. What should grades be for?

  2. Remembering Anthro 102, all cultures educate their young in those things they will need in adulthood. That's really the only purpose. Until recently, that has been a pretty clearly-defined set of skills and knowings in any group. Even in the more complex societies of the West, there was not a lot of variety. Farmers had farmers, millworkers had millworkers, clerks had clerks, and if a child wanted some other direction in mind it was usually drawn from what he could see around him. American schools started with the idea that children should be able to read and do arithmetic. Each group also sought to imbue the children with the values they thought necessary: piety, hard work, and the list of virtues the group needed from them, such as honesty, chastity, loyalty. As things got more complicated, the schools tended to become more generic, and had to download much more abstract thought, civics, and other word-based teaching. This increasingly meant blackboards, sitting and listening, following directions in a group: The Classroom.

    Things are even more complicated now, and I think The Classroom is obsolete. Yes, the teacher needs boys to not disrupt the classroom. But is that the fault of the boys - or of our design for their education? I don't know what we replace the classroom with, but why is our energy going into preserving the model?

    1. Yes, we do seem to be a bit adrift at the moment. What are we aiming for? What qualities help us get there?

  3. Its difficult for me to reply to this question without launching into an educational analysis and critique. As such I decided that I can answer the question based on my experience only, my answer, no. A phenomenal teacher grows and inspires both genders equally well.
    I suppose the question then becomes, "How do we get and keep more phenomenal teachers in the classroom?"