Playing Along: Why some students succumb to gender stereotypes and others don’t


By Sarah Asch and Markita Schulman

Senior Lauren Killingsworth grew up in a household where gender did not determine her interests. “For me, growing up with two brothers, basically all I played with was legos and construction toys […] which might be why I’m more interested in science and math,” Killingsworth said. Because her childhood lacked stereotypical gender roles, Killingsworth was able to freely explore her passions. “[My parents] didn’t assume that I wouldn’t like science or math because I was a girl.” This led her to pursue science camp in elementary school and discover her passion for the subject at Tam, where she has taken a multitude of higher level science courses. “You’re not consciously aware of [this difference] when you’re younger, but it shapes what we see at Tam.”

So what is it that can be seen at Tam? Perhaps most marked is the persistence of many classic gender imbalances. A variety of classes have a history of being dominated by female or male students. Evidence strongly suggests that discrepancies in enrollment and participation are the symptoms of differing cultural expectations for boys and girls, which begin affecting students from early childhood.

Junior Judah Van Zant has noted differences in gender behavior within the classroom. “You never see that girl that’s like a classic ‘washer’ guy […] sitting in the back like ‘yeah whatever.’’’ For Van Zandt, this stereotype doesn’t reflect intelligence, but rather the effort a student is willing to put forth. “It seems like girls will work harder to get their homework done or be more serious about studying for tests and for grades a lot of the time. That’s what matters [to them].”


Implications of this stereotype may align with performance. According to Tam’s 2012 School Accountability Report Card, 24 percent of male students received a “not proficient” score on the English-Language Arts portion of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) while just 7 percent of female students scored similarly. A majority of female students, 72 percent, were categorized as “advanced,” though just 49 percent of male students scored in the same category. The disparity was slightly smaller in the mathematics section, where 20 percent of male students and 17 percent of female students were categorized as “not proficient.”

English teacher Mike Lavezzo’s observations correspond with this statistical evidence. “There is [an achievement gap] at Tam and we’ve seen numbers across the board that bear it out,” Lavezzo said. “Tam guys tend to have a lower average GPA, their test scores are lower, and there are more disciplinary problems with guys.” He attributed this disparity to cultural factors. “A lot of guys come into Tam and their vocabulary, their sentence structure, and their ability to read words per minute is behind. I think the reason for that is those guys were not held accountable for those skill deficits at an early age. They are being cut too much slack.”

CAHSEE scores indicate that Tam has a history of female students outperforming and even out-graduating male students. According to a 2012 New York Times article titled “Why Men Fail,” boys in elementary and high school earn three-quarters of D’s and F’s, and only 40 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees go to men. Another New York Times Link-crew-pie-newarticle published in 2006 revealed that “men now make up only 42 percent of the nation’s college students.”

Apart from these long-term, quantifiable effects, social expectations can also influence immediate enrollment across gender lines. According to music teacher Spiro Tsingaris, this is quite apparent at Tam. “[Who signs up has] a lot to do with other students and their potential influence,” he said. “For example, in choir for a period of years we had a couple of guys that were really strong singers [who] were also pretty socially well known, so lots of guys were part of choir, and it was a lot more evenly spread out between male and female. Occasionally we have a good group of guys, but maybe they’re not as outgoing or as popular, so they don’t bring as many of their friends into the group. I think there’s a social element there as to what’s ‘cool’ to do and what’s not.”

Lavezzo agreed, citing some of the social implications of academic success. “I think it’s more socially acceptable at Tam for a guy to slack, than for a girl,” he said. “There are more girls who put pressure on each other to do well, and if they stop doing well it would look bad. In effect, for a lot of girls doing well in school is ‘cool.’ But there is a culture of guys [who have] opted out and they’ve come [up] with their own way to make that statement okay.” However, Lavezzo also noted that this generalization does not apply to everyone. “It’s important to point out that at Tam for both sexes the desire to achieve is very high,” he said.

Another issue also stems from expectations in school, specifically the notion that boys will excel in math and science, while girls will perform well in history and English.

A study conducted by Steven Spencer at the University of Waterloo gave a math test to two mixed-gender groups of undergraduates. Before the test, one group was told that women typically don’t do as well on math tests as do men. The women in that group scored lower on the test while the men performed the same.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY: Senior Grace Lightner conducts a lab in AP Chemistry.  Photo by: Cate Wilmoth
SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY: Senior Grace Lightner conducts a lab in AP Chemistry.
Photo by: Cate Wilmoth

At Tam, however, this finding does not necessarily match up. Math teacher David Wetzel said that while there have been gender enrollment imbalances in certain sections, overall enrollment in these non-AP math classes evens out to about half and half. For example, this year’s Honors Advanced Algebra class is comprised of 17 boys and 10 girls while this year’s Honors Pre-Calculus class consists of 13 boys and 15 girls.

AP-Chem-pie-newStill, a more marked difference can be found in this year’s AP Chemistry, where there are nine girls and 19 boys enrolled, despite the fact that 30 girls and 31 boys are taking Honors Chemistry, and non-Honors Chemistry has a total of 43 girls and 36 boys enrolled.

The classes with the largest gender imbalances are electives. Tsingaris, who has taught all of Tam’s music classes, which include Concert Choir, Guitar and Percussion, String Orchestra, Advanced Band, Intermediate Band, and Jazz Band, in his 14 years at Tam, has observed that male and female rates of enrollment in most of his classes tend to fluctuate, but jazz band consistently has more males while choir has more females.

“There were a couple years where there were no females [in Jazz Band] and this year there are four, I believe. A couple of them are really strong, some of the strongest musicians in my class, so that’s really good to see,” Tsingaris said. “I’ve never had a choir that was fifty-fifty, but I have had a little bit of a better balance [than we have now].”

For junior Stephen Rivest, the gender imbalance in Jazz Band ultimately has little effect on the atmosphere. One place where he has observed gender divisions, however, are in individual choice of instrument. For example, the vast majority of flute players are female while trumpet players tend to be male.

One predominantly female class is Peer Resource, with four boys and 16 girls currently enrolled. Peer Resource teacher Tim Morgan thinks that there are several reasons that so few boys take the class. “Peer Resource is a class where people are trying to help others,” Morgan said. “ I feel like a lot of females in high school want to help more. There is a societal expectation that girls need to be more empathetic than boys and that boys who are empathetic or nurturing are seen as weak.” According to Morgan, the male students who do enroll are equally helpful and thoughtful, but there are significantly fewer males than females, which is something he would like to change. “A better balance would be more beneficial because guys and girls can learn from each other,” he said.

Precalc-pie-newThis is a sentiment shared by Link Crew advisor and English teacher Abbey Levine. Currently the Link Crew zero period class has 7 boys out of 28 total students. The Link Crew program overall is 71 percent female.

FRESHMAN SUPPORT: Senior Link Leaders Kate Shlough (left) and Ryan Boscoe (right) lent a hand at Freshman Orientation. Photo courtesy of: Grace Pender
FRESHMAN SUPPORT: Senior Link Leaders Kate Shlough (left) and Ryan Boscoe (right) lent a hand at Freshman Orientation.
Photo courtesy of: Grace Pender

“In an ideal world we would have half and half,” Levine said. “We could do a better job reaching the [freshmen boys] if we had more guys.” According to Levine, this year Link Crew is trying to target more boys from diverse backgrounds in order to be more demographically balanced in the future.

Similarly consistent with traditional gender roles and stereotypes, Automotive Technology (Auto Shop) has always enrolled more male students than female students. Lisa Miller has been teaching Auto Shop since 1996 and describes the class as consisting of “predominantly boys.” This semester’s classes are no different, with a 14 percent female enrollment; the highest percentage of girls in Auto Shop over Miller’s 17 years at Tam has been 22 percent.

While there are a multitude of imbalances, the unifying root among them continues to appear to be cultural expectations. Physiology and Integrated Science teacher John Black pointed to a few possible causes of gender inequity in different electives or subjects, including the lack of male and female role models in certain fields. “I think in science specifically and probably in math as well, there are more males than females that work in those fields,” Black said. “I think that it’s just a historical trend that there are more males than females in science.”

Last year, Killingsworth took AP Chemistry as a junior with only three other girls. Despite having less female scientist role models and science or math related toys targeted at her, Killingsworth was not daunted from pursuing her interests. “I’ve always enjoyed logical reasoning and figuring out how things work,” she said. “I’m a very curious person.”

Miller thinks that there are many reasons for the lack of girls in Auto Shop, one of which is the perception that Auto Shop is a vocational class and will do more harm than good on college applications. According to Miller, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as there have been female Auto Shop students from Tam accepted to Stanford, among other competitive schools. “Auto Shop makes you stand out,” Miller said. According to Miller, in an era where students are taking more and more AP classes, Auto Shop is a unique class on any transcript. When asked why so few girls enroll, Miller said that “often someone has discouraged them from taking the course. This is quite unfortunate and lies in misperceptions of what the Auto Shop environment is really like and what the course really has to offer.”

Counselor Sarah Gordon had a suggestion about how to draw students to classes where their gender is a minority. “It’s all about marketing your program,” Gordon said. As of now, the primary way to learn about different elective opportunities is the annual “New Parent Night,” to which many electives send representatives. However, Gordon said a better forum for students to learn about electives opportunities would be in a Club Day format. “When we’re doing scheduling in March wouldn’t it be a great idea where people could set up booths of their electives?” she said. According to Gordon, this would allow students to get a better sense of the elective classes available to them.

Gordon’s proposal has potential, but until Tam implements a concrete solution, many believe that keeping the gender conversation going is crucial. Dr. Claire Ernst, who taught Women’s History last year, thinks the topic of gender should be an open conversation. “Talking about [gender] should be a positive thing,” she said. According to Ernst, many teachers at Tam are aware of the role gender can play in their classrooms. “I think it’s always good when [the initiative] comes from the students, to be honest. It’s more authentic,” she said. “I think that’s part of the hesitation. Anytime the faculty or the adults says ‘here’s an issue we want to talk to you students about it’ then it’s the adults telling the students what to think. The more it comes from the students, the better.” ♦