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We've Come a Long Way--Maybe: New Challenges for Gender Equity in Education

by Renee Spencer, Michelle V. Porche & Deborah L. Tolman - 2003

The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between school-wide gender equity efforts and seventh grade girls' and boys' educational outcomes and psychological functioning. In this paper, we detail the components of the study, which included documenting that this school did in fact have a gender equitable environment; measuring students' perceptions of gender equity in their school experience, academic achievement, self-esteem, and gender ideologies; and conducting classroom observations, focus groups, and individual interviews with a subset of this sample. Our findings from these efforts yielded an unexpected and intriguing contradiction. Overwhelmingly, teachers and students reported in surveys that they perceived their school to be gender fair. Yet classroom observations and interviews with students bring into view serious differentials in how boys and girls experienced, behaved and were treated in their classrooms. The students read these differences in classroom behaviors as reflecting inherent or natural differences between boys and girls; thus, these differences were experienced as equitable. The article concludes with a discussion of how these findings raise questions about, and issue challenges for, current conceptions of gender equity in schools.

In the three decades since the 1972 passage of Title IX, the federal antidiscrimination in education law that created a mandate for equal access to educational opportunities, there have been numerous programmatic changes in our nation’s schools designed to ensure parity for girls’ education and to enhance gender equity in general. As a result of these efforts to open doors, we have witnessed significant growth in girls’ participation and achievement in math, science, and sports (AAUW, 1998; Bae, Choy, Geddes, Sable, & Snyder, 2000). And now, at the turn of the century we find a new emphasis on boys’ concerns, specifically in language arts (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). The measures of success in our efforts to redress educational inequities have largely been at the level of tracking national trends in enrollments and comparisons of academic achievement derived from grades and national test scores (e.g., NCES, 2000; AAUW, 1992; 1998). Yet despite a flurry of research on the state of gender equity in schools (Bailey, 1993; Foley & Boulware, 1996; Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Schmurak & Ratliffe, 1994), and the subsequent calls for widespread implementation of gender equity programs and policies, there are few empirical studies that describe how educational changes have directly affected individual student outcomes related to gender equity. In this article, we present an investigation of such efforts in one middle school, and how this microanalysis provides a foundation for a larger macroanalysis of gender equity within a larger gendered social context. At the core of our paper is an inquiry about the ways and extent to which the mantle of responsibility and change demanded by legal mandates for equity in education can influence social change.

The passage of Title IX significantly boosted what was then a small but growing recognition of pervasive sex discrimination in higher education at that time (Sandler, 2002). This legal mandate, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational programs, also turned significant attention to systemic inequalities in the educational experiences of boys and girls at the primary and secondary levels. At a time when the denial of civil rights and women’s rights was being made visible and change was being demanded, it is not surprising that the first step in the production of gender equity was conceptualized as the equalization of educational access and resources, a much-needed correction to the now-visible imbalances. Educational and legal interventions were developed to facilitate improvements in girls’ academic achievement, including encouraging girls’ participation in upper level math and sciences courses, as well as access to opportunities in sports and other extracurricular activities (Klein, 1985).

Researchers began to document inequities in educational practices and policies, such as lack of equal representation and stereotypic presentation of males and females in curricular materials (e.g., Smith, Greenlaw, & Scott, 1987) and differences in both the amount and type of attention teachers gave to male and female students (e.g., Sadker & Sadker, 1984). The pervasive problem of sexual harassment in schools and classrooms was also identified (Stein, 1995). Much attention was devoted to determining whether and to what extent differences existed between boys’ and girls’ academic performance, as measured by grades, test scores, or participation in upper level courses in math and science (Friedman, 1989; Hogrebe, Nist, & Newman, 1985; Hyde & Linn, 1988; Mullis & Jenkins, 1990; Mullis, Owens, & Phillips, 1990).

Further, gender differences in psychosocial functioning began to be identified and linked with the gender-based inequalities in the educational system (AAUW, 1992; Phillips, 1998; Sadker & Sadker, 1994). The provision of equalizing efforts was increasingly thought to hold the potential to contribute to improvements in girls’ psychological functioning, particularly increases in their self-esteem, which in turn would enhance girls’ sense of competence and ability to achieve on various fronts (AAUW, 1992; Orenstein, 1994). The common wisdom was that girls and women were not reflected in the curriculum, and therefore could not envision themselves as succeeding in male-dominated domains any more than they could imagine their portraits on the school walls next to those of Thomas Edison and Alfred Einstein. Innovations that highlighted strategies for girls’ and women’s history and experiences to be incorporated into the curriculum, and into everyday pedagogical interactions, were hypothesized to yield more gender-equitable educational experiences. Additional efforts were focused on teachers’ classroom management, geared towards giving girls more opportunities to participate actively and to have equal ‘‘air time.’’ With hindsight, it seems that there was an implicit understanding that gender equity would be the outcome of a process requiring both individual and social change.

While the equity aspect of gender equity, and the concomitant changes that were necessary to achieve it, had been articulated, the gender part was left implicit; thus, it was assumed that there was consensus on what was meant by, and what constituted, gender. In evaluating efforts to forward gender equity, it appears that the term gender functioned primarily as a signifier distinguishing male and female bodies or persons and the roles and activities that society had come to associate differentially with each. However, the psychological dimensions of gender, and the subsequent individual and social psychological changes that this perspective on gender would demand in order for equity to be possible, appear not to have been articulated, and thus not explicitly incorporated into the original implementation. We suggest that a crucial step in the progression of efforts toward gender equity is the incorporation of a conceptualization of gender as a set of social constructions and societal assumptions about the possibilities and limits of male and female experience and behavior. That is, as a set of ideologies into which girls and boys are socialized in myriad unseen ways.

In the area of gender development, there has been an increased reliance on the concept of gender as a social construction and a departure from the notion of gender as innate personality traits located by nature in male and female bodies. This epistemological stance frames gender as socially-derived (and thus mutable) concepts of ‘‘masculinity’’ and ‘‘femininity’’ that constitute cultural scripts demanding and organizing socially appropriate behavior, qualities, practices, identities and expression of emotions, needs and desires (Berger & Luckmann, 1990; Simon & Gagnon, 1986; Gergen, 1985). In recent years, it has been put forth that gender can be seen not only as gender roles-perceived socially appropriate male and female behavior-but also as gender ideologies-hegemonic beliefs about normative behaviors and practices that are associated with, enactment of which construct one as, a normal, appropriate and acceptable male or female member of society (Connell, 1995; Hudson, 1984; Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 1993; Tolman & Porche, 2000). Thus, gender ideologies provide the organizing framework within which prescriptions for normative behaviors are derived. Gender ideologies, as with other forms of hegemonic ideologies, can become oppressive. In general, behaving in ways that demonstrate compliance with conventional gender ideologies are rewarded, whereas defiance or resistance is often punished. From a developmental perspective, children learn to be ‘‘engendered’’ through gender socialization. At the same time, individuals may have agency and access to alternatives to oppressive ideologies, enabling them to resist and withstand the pressures to conform (Friere, 1970; Ward, 1996).

Thus conceived, the centrality of gender ideologies as a key feature of school experiences has been documented empirically (Lee, Marks, & Byrd, 1994; Lesko, 2000; Thorne, 1993). Several studies have now shown how gender ideologies organize behaviors for both boys and girls in the last year of elementary school (Thorne, 1993; Walkerdine, 1990) and continue to become heightened through middle school (Mandel & Shakeshaft, 2000; Shakeshaft, 1997). Eder, Evans, and Parker (1995) found that in middle school, when children cross into adolescence, norms associated with heterosexuality as a social institution, including notions of proper femininity and masculinity, are the primary organizing principles of school culture. Eder (1997) has also documented how in one middle school, in which she and her colleagues conducted a year- long ethnography, ‘‘learning how to be male was closely tied with learning how to be more aggressive’’ (p. 98). Further, links between gender ideologies and academic achievement have been suggested, as for example in the finding of one study in which girls who rejected traditional gender roles had higher math achievement (Armstrong, 1985). Gender ideology has also been identified as a factor in adolescents’ psychological health (Brown & Gilligan, 1992; Tolman, 1998). Tolman (1998) found that early adolescent girls who had more conventional femininity ideologies were also more likely to have lower levels of self- esteem and higher levels of depression.


Such research examining the role that beliefs about gender play in shaping the school experiences of both males and females has been utilized to argue for the importance of implementing curricular and policy changes. However, change at this level has been lagging. Stromquist (1997), in her comparison of gender equity policies across advanced industrialized countries, noted that while national level policies in many countries have focused on ensuring equal access, ‘‘(T)here is a constant avoidance, whether conscious or unconscious, of more complex curricular issues such as modifying the types of knowledge transmitted and including new visions of a more gender-egalitarian society’’ (p. 38). Indeed, the role of gender ideologies in gender equity in education has received little attention in research on the United States.1

For the present study, we were asked to extend our collaboration with a school district in which we were conducting a longitudinal study on the relationship between gender ideology and adolescent sexual health (Tolman, 1999; Tolman, Spencer, Rosen-Reynoso, & Porche, 2003) by formulating a research project to examine the impact of their concerted efforts toward making their middle school a more gender equitable environment. We decided to take this opportunity to also examine the role that gender ideologies may play in the efforts toward gender equity. Specifically, we suspected that gender equity initiatives were likely to have some influence on students’ gender ideologies, and relatedly that constructions of gender equity may benefit from the incorporation of more explicit questions about how adolescents negotiate norms of masculinity and femininity.

The goal of this project was to gain a preliminary understanding of the contribution of gender equity to academic and psychosocial outcomes for both boys and girls. School personnel identified the seventh grade as both a crucial time in their students’ gender development, reflecting findings in developmental psychology (Galambos, Almeida, & Petersen, 1990; Katz & Ksnasnak, 1994), and as the grade in which more focused efforts toward gender equity began to be implemented in their district. Working collaboratively with a group of teachers, curriculum specialists and administrators, we catalogued the gender equity efforts in this school, identified a core school-based research team (which included the school principal, a curriculum counselor and four seventh grade teachers), and developed a set of research questions to be pursued.

We predicted that, based on educational and developmental goals for successful school experiences, we should expect to see higher levels of academic achievement and self-esteem among students who are the recipients of gender equity efforts. Recent studies of perceived fairness in school settings along gender lines suggest that these perceptions may mediate student outcomes (Nichols & Good, 1998). Based on feminist


Figure 1.

The Role of Gender Equity on Adolescent Student Outcomes

arguments and our own work on gender development, we included a hypothesis that gender equity efforts should produce less conventional-or more ‘‘resistant’’-gender ideologies. We expected that such shifts, in conjunction with equal access, would lead to more equitable educational experiences for both boys and girls, addressing disparities in math and science as well as language arts.

Given the theoretical links between gender equity efforts and increased self-esteem for girls, we proposed a model that would extend to both girls and boys (see Figure 1). This model reflects a pathway from gender equitable practices to academic outcomes, as meditated by psychological health. Gender equitable practices and gender ideologies are likely to have a bi-directional relationship, in that beliefs and practices would build on each other and one does not necessarily have to precede the other. The same is true for gender ideologies and psychological health, and for psychological health and academic outcomes. However, we test these relationships in light of our supposition that active promotion of gender equitable practices will foster resistance to conventional and potentially constraining gender ideologies. In addition, these practices should promote greater psychological health in the way of healthier self-esteem, and more positive academic outcomes, by creating school environments in which students are more fully able to realize their strengths in all areas and are not restricted to bifurcated gender-based domains. Thus, we tested the following hypotheses:

1. If girls and boys perceive fair treatment by their teachers, such that no one appears to be the recipient of undue rewarding or punitive actions based on gender, and expectations for academic and behavioral competence are not based on gender, then students’ femininity and masculinity ideologies would be less conventional.

2. Less conventional ideologies would be positively related to psychological health, in the form of adolescent self-concept as well as internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Psychological health, as conceptualized for this study, is fostered by strengths of individual characteristics rather than internalization of the need to meet masculine or feminine ideals.

3. Psychological health would be positively related to academic outcomes, and would in fact act as a mediating factor between gender equity and academic achievement. Positive academic outcomes would include the freedom to pursue, and excel in, a variety of content areas.

4. Conventional gender ideologies would be negatively related to academic outcomes, and psychological health would act as a mediating factor between gender ideologies and achievement.

In addition to testing these hypotheses statistically, we gathered qualitative data in two of the seventh grade classes to explore these early adolescents’ experiences and understandings of the gender equity efforts being implemented in their classrooms.



Participants for this study were drawn from the full seventh grade class of students and the entire teaching, counseling, and administrative staff of a centralized middle school (Grades 6 to 8) in one northeastern school district. Depending on the specific research questions being explored, different constituencies of participants engaged in a range of data collection efforts.


School administrators strongly encouraged anonymous participation of all teachers and counselors (as well as themselves) in a survey administration, yielding a final count of 85 staff that completed surveys. The mostly female staff (78%) included novice teachers as well as veterans with over 40 years of classroom experience (15 years on average). We were unable to gather additional demographic information for this survey, although the school principal was a white woman and we observed that the majority of teachers, counselors, and administrators were white. Men were more often represented in administrative positions than in teaching positions.


The sample for the student survey component of this study was drawn from the seventh grade class (135 girls and 114 boys). All seventh grade students were invited to participate, yielding a response rate of 71%. Participants were diverse in ethnicity (60% White, 15% Latino, 4% African American, 4% Asian, 5% other, and 12% biracial) and socioeconomic status (47% having ever received some form of public assistance, including being eligible for free lunch; 52% of students reported that their mothers had some college education or higher).

A subset of these seventh grade students (14 girls and 14 boys) participated in classroom observations and also in focus groups, and 8 of these students (4 girls and 4 boys) were interviewed individually. This group of 28 students comprised the students who were in one of two classes taught by the math/science teacher and the social studies/language arts teacher with whom we were collaborating. Given our interest in understanding how students experience efforts toward gender equity, we selected these classes on the basis of the teachers being identified as highly committed to gender equity (e.g., actively constructing gender-fair curriculum in their classes, had attended conferences on gender equity and brought information back to their area teaching team, collaborated with the research team in the development of this study), and also these teachers’ willingness to allow their classes to be observed (66% of teachers responded positively to allowing observers in their classrooms). This strategy, intended to maximize the opportunities to observe students’ responses to, and understandings of, such efforts, also limited our ability to develop a more in-depth understanding of the classroom experiences of the students in this school more generally and did not allow us to make comparisons across classrooms. Rather, these data offer windows into the students’ experiences in what were generally regarded among teachers and administrators as two of the more gender equitable classrooms in this school. These students were diverse in ethnicity (21 White, 3 Latino, 3 bi- racial, 1 Asian) and socioeconomic status (33% had at some time received some form of public assistance, including having been eligible for free lunch; 44% of students reported that their mothers had some college education or higher).


Evaluating a gender-equitable environment: Teachers and staff. We began by documenting the gender equity initiatives that were in place in this school in an effort to assess the school’s claim that they offered a gender equitable environment. While no distinct or universally agreed upon standard has been established, policies and practices that are considered to promote gender equity have been identified (e.g., AAUW, 1992). These include the use of gender-fair curricular materials and curricula that include and address issues of power and social justice, opportunities for school staff to attend professional development programs focused on gender equity practices, regular discussions of gender equity policies and practices in staff meetings, and a clearly defined and enforced sexual harassment policy (AAUW, 1992; Irby & Brown, 2002). Working with the school principal and the Head of Curriculum Development, we evaluated whether the curriculum and school practices and policies addressed these key areas. We examined curricula, informally interviewed administrators and teachers involved in curriculum development and implementation, and reviewed relevant written policies and practices. Through these efforts, we determined that the school’s efforts reflected all of these requirements.

We then surveyed the teachers and staff on their own perceptions regarding their classroom practices, curricular efforts related to gender equity (e.g., use of nongendered language, equal representation of men and women in lessons), and involvement in gender equity initiatives in the school. Both forced-choice and open-ended questions were used for this survey. While teachers were enthusiastic in their support of our gathering data from students, they were resistant to answer questions themselves. This is understandable for several reasons. First, it was difficult to convince staff that our survey was not an evaluation of their teaching, nor would their responses be seen or used by their supervisors. Our original goal was to test relationships of reported classroom practices to reported outcomes of students in those classrooms. However, given strenuous requests for anonymity (rather than simply confidentiality), we were unable to link these variables together analytically. Secondly, although teachers are mandated to uphold the statutes of Title IX, they expressed a support and adherence to equity efforts much beyond what is simply required by law. So, for some, taking a survey asking them how well they integrated these equity efforts into their practice was experienced as demeaning and offensive.

We encountered difficulty in locating survey questions to measure gender equity adequately, although concurrent to the design of this study measures have been produced that evaluate fair practices in general (see Nichols & Good, 1998). Using a combination of modified questions from a guide designed for teachers’ self-reflection on their gender equity practices (Wheeler, 1993) and a series of items that we created for the survey, we developed four measures of gender equity practice:


Work with Students measures teacher practices promoting gender equity.

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics for Gender Equity Composites from Teacher Surveys (n=85)


Cronbach alpha





Work with Students: self-reports of teacher practices to encourage boys and girls to do their best in ways that ignore traditional gender roles, not expecting stereotypical behaviors of male and female students


2.37 to 4

(1 to 4)



Climate: assessment of whether boys and girls, male and female staff treat each with respect, and whether sexist behavior is discouraged


2.29 to 4

(1 to 4)



Environment: assessment of equal male and female representation for student and adults leaders and non-biased treatment of students


1.25 to 4

(1 to 4)



Classroom: classroom environment and curriculum support gender equity.


2 to 4

(1 to 4)



2. Climate assesses general school conditions and behaviors reflecting gender equity.

3. Environment assesses equality in representation in leadership positions and nonbiased treatment of students.

4. Classroom assesses atmosphere and curriculum support for gender equity (see Table 1).

Surveying the students. Discussions with school personnel helped to determine that it was at seventh grade that gender equity initiatives became pervasive, thus we evaluated the effects of gender equity through the administration of a short survey to seventh grade students (135 girls and 114 boys) at the beginning (Fall: Time 1) and at the end of the school year (Spring: Time 2). Comparing measures at the two time points allowed us to check stability of student reports; however, for hypothesis testing we used a lagged effect approach in which predictors of perceived gender equity at the beginning of the year were tested for associations with psychological and academic measures collected at the end of seventh grade.

Measures. The student survey included several established measures of gender ideologies and psychological health, a measure of student perceptions of teachers’ efforts toward gender equity developed for this study, and basic demographic information (including race/ethnicity and maternal education level).

The Adolescent Femininity Ideology Scale (AFIS; Tolman & Porche, 2000) consists of two subscales: Inauthentic Self in Relationship (ISR), which measures how girls believe they should act and feel in their relationships, and Objectified Relationship to Body (ORB), which measures the degree to which girls have internalized objectification of their bodies. Each subscale consists of 10 items on a 6-point scale. Mean scores were computed for both subscales, with higher scores indicating more conventional ideologies. The AFIS was administered to girls only.

The Adolescent Masculinity Ideology in Relationships Scale (AMIRS; Chu, Porche & Tolman, in press) consists of 10 items on a 4-point scale, which measure internalization of masculine norms about what constitutes appropriate behavior for males within interpersonal relationships. Mean scores were computed with higher scores indicating more conventional gender ideologies. The AMIRS was administered to boys only.

The Attitudes Towards Women Scale for Adolescents (AWSA; Galambos, Petersen, Richards, & Gitelson, 1985) consists of 12 items on a 4-point scale that measure attitudes about women’s gender roles. A mean score is computed with high scores indicating less conventional attitudes.

The Harter Self Perception Profile for Adolescents (Harter, 1988) was used to measure internalizing factors of psychological health. Three domain-specific self-esteem subscales (Scholastic Competence, Behavioral Competence, and Global Self-Worth) were used.

An Index of Acting Out Behaviors adapted from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (ADD Health; Resnick et al, 1997) was administered, allowing us to assess externalizing factors of psychological health. Respondents indicated the frequency with which they engaged in 13 behaviors, ranging from ‘‘lying to parents’’ to ‘‘using weapons.’’

Academic achievement assessments were obtained in the form of fall and spring semester grades for each student. A mean grade point average was computed for each student by combining grades on core academic subjects.

Perceived teacher fairness. We were unable to link the anonymous teachers’ reports of their practices with students’ perceptions of these practices; thus, we determined that student perceptions were the next best approach. We adapted several of the teacher survey items for use with students and developed additional questions yielding a Perceived Teacher Fairness measure consisting of items using a 4-point Likert response scale. These seven items described teacher behaviors related to opportunities provided to girls and boys, as well as patterns of discipline. Three items are reversed for scoring; all items are added together and divided by seven to calculate a mean score.

Understanding gender equity in the classroom: Observations, focus groups, and interviews. To document the process of how a gender equity environment affects gender ideologies and to explore the meaning of this environment from adolescents’ perspectives, we gathered multiple forms of qualitative data. We conducted observations in the classrooms of two seventh grade teachers identified by school administrators as particularly committed to gender equity. We also conducted focus groups and individual interviews with the students in these classes (n = 28).

One day per week over the course of 2 months, we conducted focused individual observations of the students and teachers in these classrooms, recording their body language, facial expressions, and behaviors throughout the class period and measuring frequency and types of teacher-student interactions using a modified version of the INTERSECT system (Sadker & Sadker, 1984), developed to measure sex bias in teacher-student interactions in the classroom. Collection of these data was triangulated through the use of two observers who alternated between conducting the individual student observations, which were recorded in narrative form, and tracking the frequency of teacher-student interaction. One observer coded the student-teacher interactions while the other simultaneously conducted the individual student observations. At the end of each observation session, the two classroom observers compared their modified INTERSECT coding sheets to reach on-going agreement in how interactions were to be coded. Additionally, the narrative recordings of observations were examined to determine which students had been observed individually and to discuss what had been recorded, including any impressions and emerging patterns that were being noted. These narrative observations were also discussed with the rest of the research team between observation sessions, here again, to identify patterns to and articulate and challenge developing interpretations. The frequency statistics derived from the modified INTERSECT codes allowed us to determine whether the teachers in these two classrooms were generally equally calling on, and encouraging the classroom participation of, the boys and girls. The narrative data derived from the individual observations were used to inform the development of the focus group and individual interview protocols and provided a context for the interpretation of these data.

To document the meaning that adolescents were making of gender equity efforts, the classroom observers also conducted gender-segregated focus groups with all of these students (two boys’ groups and two girls’ groups, with an average of seven students in each group) and individual interviews with four of the girls and four of the boys (these eight students were selected by the teachers), asking them about their experience in these classrooms, how fairly they believed they were treated, and how they felt about themselves and their abilities in these classes. These focus groups and individual interviews were conducted in private rooms in the school building. Protocols were developed for the focus groups and interviews, but the project staff asked the participants follow-up questions, often based on their knowledge of the students derived from their experience observing in the classroom, yielding co-constructed narratives about these students’ experiences in school (Silverman, 2000). Thematic analyses were conducted on the transcriptions of the tape-recorded focus groups and individual interviews.



Overwhelmingly, the teachers reported that gender equity was a priority in their teaching. Only one faculty/staff responded that gender equity was not a priority, while 26% described promoting gender equity as ‘‘somewhat important’’ and 73% described it as ‘‘very important.’’ About half of the staff felt they received strong support from supervisors and colleagues in their efforts to promote gender equity in their own classrooms. The vast majority reported that adults in the school responded appropriately to sexist comments uttered by students (89%) and that sexual harassment policies were enforced ‘‘often’’ or ‘‘most of the time’’ (93%).

Although staff responses varied, teachers tended to rate themselves quite positively overall in terms of the four measures of gender equity practices developed for this study (Table 1). On the whole, the staff was most positive in self-reports of their work with students, rating themselves consistently high in their encouragement of nonconventional gender roles for boys and girls at the school. They also gave themselves strong marks, on average, for creating a respectful school climate and using gender-fair materials and curriculum in the classroom. They were more critical of efforts at equal representation at the school, citing a tendency for over representation of males and females in certain areas.


However, some staff seemed reluctant to provide a candid self-appraisal of teaching practices, as indicated by written anonymous feedback. About 10% of respondents wrote explicitly that they felt the survey was ‘‘offensive’’ and ‘‘insulting’’ because asking about gender equity practices was in itself ‘‘pre-suppos[ing] that we are less than a top quality faculty.’’ One faculty suggested that asking teachers to describe how they incorporate gender equity into their teaching ‘‘assumed biased and uncaring’’ teachers. In carrying this point further, several teachers stressed that gender equity efforts were no longer necessary:

Overall, I strongly feel that the fight for gender equity in the public schools is over. It ended with a focus on equity issues in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. I know this because, without question, my best and brightest students are girls. Also, my bosses are female and most of my peers are women. The real fight about gender equity is in private business (including private schools). That is where your organization should be focusing your efforts.

I do not feel that gender equity is personally that important in my classroom.

There are far too many other important issues I need to incorporate into my teaching day.

I think a big deal is being made out of this issue and it is being blown out of proportion!!

In contrast, there were a number of teachers who reported that gender equity efforts were still quite necessary and that they spent time reflecting on gender issues among their students:

I found many questions were biased, possibly assuming that gender equity strongly exists in this school. There may be inequities here that may be a reflection of the world around us but on the whole, our staff works to promote gender equities and it is reflected in the class curriculum.

I find the dynamics of my two classes affects how I teach and relate to students on gender lines. When we have world language and I have a small group of predominantly female students, the girls are more engaged and the boys are more respectful of them. When the same students are in the entire class with more boisterous boys those girls are more reticent and less likely to volunteer even when I pose non- threatening questions.

Despite disagreement about the degree to which gender equity is, or is not, a problem in the school, teachers expressed pride in their work, dedication to their students, and reported strong efforts in providing fair treatment to all students, regardless of gender or race (several staff noted more pressing concerns for minority students than gender equity). Gender equity itself was defined in various ways by staff, as many commented on the subtle difference between equity and equality: ‘‘identical treatment is not always the most equitable or beneficial’’ and ‘‘while I believe men and women are different, we should all be given the same chances to achieve/ learn.’’ Rules for how to treat students and treat other staff were clearly established at the school and there was no evidence that any staff felt these rules were not abided by. At the same time, themes of inherent differences between males and females, even while striving to ensure a school environment with equal opportunities for both, began to emerge in our data.

The strong and in some cases contentious response we received to this survey may be attributed to several different factors. In the previous study of adolescent sexual health among the eighth grade students in this school, we had collected data only from the students. Here, the research lens was being turned on the teachers by a group of researchers largely unknown to most of them and who may have been perceived as being closely aligned with the school administration. Although we stressed to the staff that the survey was not meant to be an evaluation of performance, it was nonetheless interpreted that way by many of the teachers. Further, given the strong emphasis by administrators on gender equity, it could be argued that there was a perceived ‘‘correct’’ answer to the survey questions, given this environment, particularly for those teachers’ whose own values were not as closely aligned with the stated values of the school. Social desirability should be noted as a potential challenge to scale validity. Finally, for some the survey itself seemed to represent one more extra thing, on top of many others, these already overburdened teachers were being asked to do.

Because of the anonymous administration of the staff survey, we could not use these teacher measures to test for relationships to student outcomes in this pilot. We have developed a preliminary set of questions that could be further developed and used in future studies which allow for the linking of classroom/teacher-level data to student-level data.


To test our first hypothesis, we evaluated associations between students’ Perceived Teacher Fairness and various measures of gender ideologies. For Hypothesis 2, we tested correlations between Perceived Teacher Fairness and measures of psychological health. For Hypotheses 3 and 4, we tested

Table 2. Perceived teacher fairness at time 1 (n = 249)

In this school, MOST of the teachers:

All µ (SD)

Boys µ (SD)

Girls µ (SD)


Ask boys and girls to do the same kinds of things to help (for example passing out papers).








Treat girls differently when boys are around.








Treat boys differently when girls are around.•








Equally encourage boys and girls to volunteer answers in class.








Give boys and girls similar opportunities to participate in class activities.








Discipline boys and girls fairly - not favoring one or the other.








Pay more attention to the boys in their class than they do to the girls.








Perception of Teacher Fairness Score






t-test differences indicating significantly higher mean scores: *p<.05, **p<.01

•Items reversed for scoring.

associations between measures of equity, ideology, psychological health and academic outcomes. Based on the correlational findings, we used multiple regression to test full mediated models.

Perceptions of Teacher Fairness

Overall, students reported on both the Fall and Spring surveys that teachers treated them in a fair and equitable manner, on average reporting

‘‘agreement’’ or ‘‘strong agreement’’ with items indicating teachers’ equitable practices (taking into account reverse scored items; see Table 2 for details of scale items). There were several exceptions to this trend: 1) at the beginning of the year, girls were more likely to rate teachers as being gender fair on items describing opportunities for classroom participation and implementation of discipline; and 2) boys were more likely to report

Table 3. Correlations between perceived teacher fairness and gender ideology


Teacher Fairness





Time 1

Time 2

Time 1

Time 2

FIS: Inauthentic Self in Relation




FIS: Objectified Relationship with Body




Masculinity Ideology Scale




Attitudes Towards Women Scale





Note: High scores on the Attitudes Towards Women Scale for Adolescents indicate less conventional gender ideology. Otherwise, high scores indicate more conventional gender ideology.

*p<.05, **<.01, ***p<.001

that teachers treated boys differently when girls were present. These small but significant differences remained at the end of year for survey items describing treatment of boys when girls were present and for perceptions regarding discipline. For scores on the scale overall, girls gave consistently higher Perceived Teacher Fairness ratings than did boys at both time points (F = 7.92, p<.01), but there was no significant change over time in ratings from either boys or girls (F = 0.38, p<.50). Reliability tests showed adequate internal consistency (Nunnally, 1978; alpha = .74), suggesting that these items are measuring a single construct of gender equity despite these small but significant differences between boys and girls on several of the items. The mean scores were moderately correlated [r(230) = .36, p<.0001] with an item used in the national longitudinal study of adolescent health (ADD Health; Resnick et al., 1997) to assess students’ general experiences of teacher fairness in their classrooms (‘‘the teachers at this school treat students fairly’’), providing support for the construct validity of this measure. Face validity is supported by general use of these items in their original format as a self-assessment for teachers (Wheeler, 1993).

Teacher Fairness Related to Gender Ideologies

Boys and girls who rated their teachers as more fair had less conventional gender ideologies (see Table 3). For girls who responded to the Femininity Ideology Scale, only Time 1 scores on the Objectified Relationship to Body subscale had a significant negative relationship to Perceived Teacher Fairness. For boys, more positive perceptions of teacher fairness were negatively related to conventional beliefs about masculinity (AMIRS) at both

Table 4. Correlations between perceived teacher fairness and psychological health outcomes


Teacher Fairness





Time 1

Time 2

Time 1

Time 2

Self Esteem:


 Global Self-Worth





 Scholastic Competence





 Behavioral Conduct





Acting Out/Risk Taking





* p<.05 ** p<.01 *** p<.001

time points. For both boys and girls, Perceived Teacher Fairness scores were positively related to less conventional attitudes towards women’s roles, this relationship was much weaker for girls.

Teacher Fairness Related to Psychological Health

There were also gender differences in the association between students’ perceptions of teacher fairness and measures of psychological health (see Table 4). At both the beginning and end of the year, we found no association between girls’ perceptions of teacher fairness and either the Scholastic Competence or Global Self-Worth domains of self-esteem. However, at Time 1, girls who perceived their teachers to be more fair reported fewer acting out and risk taking activities, including skipping school, fighting, teasing others, taking drugs, or drinking (Index of Acting Out Behaviors). This relationship was no longer significant at Time 2. Boys who perceived their teachers to be fair tended to report higher self-esteem in Scholastic Competence and Behavioral Conduct domains at Time 1 and higher Global Self-Worth at Time 2. In addition, boys who perceived their teachers as more fair reported fewer problems in school, and were less likely to report engaging in acting out and risk taking activities, at both survey administrations. These findings suggest that perceiving teachers to be fair along lines of gender may contribute to the improvement of boys’ psychological health, in terms of self-concept (internalizing behaviors), while it does not appear to have the same association for girls. Gender equity is also negatively related to acting out and risk taking for both boys and girls (externalizing behaviors).

Table 5. Correlations between gender equity, gender ideology, psychological health measures and student academic achievement











GPA Spring




Teacher Fairness





Scholastic Competence






Acting Out Behaviors











































* f<.05, ** f<.01, *** f<.001

Testing Mediated Models to Predict Academic Achievement

To test for a mediated model we must first show that the independent variables (perceived teacher fairness and gender ideology measures) are associated with both the dependent variable (student grades at the end of year) and the mediators (scholastic competence and acting out), and that these mediating variables are related to student grade outcomes. Once these relationships are established, final tests must show that the significant relationship between the independent and dependent variables is no longer significant when the mediator is included in the model (see Baron & Kenny,1986). In addition, the difference in regression coefficients must itself be significant, as determined by tests using confidence intervals. For this analysis we fit regression models using measures collected in the fall to predict academic achievement at the end of the school year. In narrowing the scope of variables representing psychological health (internalizing and externalizing components), we chose Scholastic Competence as the most salient measure of self-esteem along with the Index of Acting Out Behaviors.

Table 5 shows that perceived teacher fairness is positively related to scholastic competence, negatively related to reported acting out behaviors, and positively related to students’ year-end GPA. Of the gender ideology variables, only Objectified Relationship to Body subscale of the AFIS (girls only), and Attitudes Towards Women for Adolescents (for the full sample) met these same criteria. For these sets of variables, we then fit a series of multiple regression models to test whether a significant drop in the relationship to student GPA occurs when measures of psychological health are added to the model (see Tables 6 and 7).

Table 6. Regression coefficients associated with gender equity (perceived teacher fairness) in the models predicting academic achievement (grade point average for core academic subjects), as mediated by psychological health (each measure separately and then combined), controlling for race/ethnicity (Latino or not) and level of maternal education


Model 1:

Total effect of gender equity on achievement

Model 2:

Direct effect of gender equity with mediator(s)

Model 3:

Direct effect of gender equity with mediator(s)

Model 4:

Direct effect of gender equity with mediator(s)



















Maternal Education









Teacher Fairness









Scholastic Competence







Acting Out Index






Indirect effect through mediator(s)













(3, 183)


(4, 183)


(4, 183)


(5, 183)






~p<.10, *f<.05, **f<.01, ***f<.001

Table 7. Regression coefficients associated with gender ideology, operationalized as the AFIS: Objectified relationship to Body subscale and the attitudes towards women for adolescents scale, in the models predicting academic achievement as measured by grade point average


Model 1A:

Total effect of gender equity on achievement

Model 2A:

Direct effect of gender equity with mediator(s)

Model 1B:

Direct effect of gender equity with mediator(s)

Model 2B:

Direct effect of gender equity with mediator(s)



















Maternal Education




















Scholastic Competence





Acting Out Index




Indirect effect through mediator













(3, 95)


(5, 95)


(3, 177)


(4, 185)






~p<.10, *p<.05, **p<.10, ***p<.001

The inclusion of each measure of psychological health, scholastic competence and reports of acting out, did significantly change the relationship between perceived teacher fairness and student grades in the regression models. However, examination of the change using confidence intervals did not show that the drop itself was significant. An additional test with both internalizing and externalizing measures of psychological health was conducted, but with similar results. In testing psychological health as a mediator of gender ideology, only the Objectified Relationship to Body subscale of the AFIS came close to meeting the necessary criteria to support this relationship. Controlling for race/ethnicity and maternal education level, the ORB approached significance in relation to academic achievement. When scholastic competence was added to the model as a mediator, the regression coefficient for ORB dropped significantly, suggesting that psychological health may act as a mediator between gender ideology and academic achievement for girls.

Summary of Quantitative Findings

There are a number of reasons why we might not have established these proposed mediated models. In the first sets of mediation tests, we examined the influence of gender equity. Perceived teacher fairness by itself is a limited measure of the many facets of gender equity that may occur at the middle-school level. The relatively small sample size may have lacked adequate power for identifying the relationships proposed in the model. Our inability to link teacher surveys directly to student surveys also weakened the study. A preferred alternative would be either to assess teacher practices as they relate to students outcomes in individual classrooms or to assess school climate and practices as they relate to student outcomes in individual schools.

In the second sets of mediation tests, we examined the influence of gender ideology. Although we had a number of measures to choose from, only the Objectified Relationship to Body subscale of the AFIS warranted further investigation. Here again, sample size is an issue, as the analysis is restricted to girls who responded to the femininity ideology scale. Even with a larger sample that might reveal a significant effect of gender ideology mediated by psychological health, we would have to assume only a small effect of this predictor. In addition, we might posit that this pathway is more relevant for girls than for boys.

These findings offer quite a provocative view of how gender equity practices, as perceived by students, may affect their gender ideologies, psychological health and academic achievement. The gender differences we found challenge our original hypotheses in a number of ways. At the beginning of the year, both girls and boys rated their teachers from the prior year as fair; and this fairness rating at the end of the year (rating the current-year teachers) remained stable. At the start of the year, girls who rated teachers as more fair had less conventional gender ideology (on two femininity measures). However, by the end of the year, this relationship was much weaker, even though their ratings of teacher fairness did not change significantly. This might indicate a critical timing of gender equity initiatives for girls or the fact that other oppressive messages about femininity ideology in middle adolescence overpower the more positive messages about equity. For boys, the magnitude of the relationship between gender equity and gender ideology wobbles, but the direction of the relationship and the fact of its significance is stable for both Time 1 and Time 2. Considering research on gender intensification that indicates heightened masculinity for boys as they move through middle school (Galambos, Almeida & Petersen, 1990), these results invite greater investigation into the increasingly egalitarian attitudes of boys that may result from gender equity policy and practice. Overall, these results offer tentative support for our hypothesis that gender equity efforts help to encourage resistance to conventional gender ideologies.

We conclude that gender equity seems to contribute to academic achievement and psychological health, albeit in different ways for boys and girls. In terms of academic achievement, gender equity appears to be good for girls and neutral for boys. In contrast, gender equity appears to contribute to an increase in boys’ psychological health and a decrease in risk taking, while it does not do so consistently for girls. These interesting results were illuminated by our qualitative findings.


The general perception of the seventh grade students that their teachers are gender fair was corroborated by our classroom observations in two of these classrooms. We found that while boys initiated classroom interactions with teachers by raising their hands or calling out more frequently than girls did, these two teachers were successful in their efforts to call on boys and girls in equal numbers (Table 8). Consistent with the students’ general self-reports and our observations of this particular form of fairness, most of the girls and boys who participated in the focus groups and individual interviews reported that they believed that their classrooms were gender fair. Typical student statements included, ‘‘She treats everyone as equal,’’ ‘‘No matter what, they’re all equal,’’ and ‘‘I feel like we’re treated equally, because if she calls on a girl first then she’ll probably call on a boy next and then a girl again.’’

Table 8. Initiation of student-teacher classroom interactions by gender



(n = 372 interactions)


(n = 536 interactions)

Student Initiates by Raising Hand



Student Initiates by Calling Out



Teacher Calls On Student



However, in our focused classroom observations of individual student behaviors, we witnessed other kinds of differences in how girls and boys behaved and how teachers responded to these behaviors that challenge, and even contradict, the other assessments of fairness. For example, we noticed girls consistently tended to be much less vocal during classroom lessons, to work quietly and independently in same-sex small groups, and to take charge of co-ed activities. In contrast, the boys consistently tended to be more vocal in class discussions and to demand more teacher attention - and the attention of the girls-while working independently, as well as when working in small groups. The teachers responded to these different levels of demand by spending more time with the boys when they were working independently or in small groups. We observed these differential patterns in behavior on the part of the students and the response of differential treatment by the teachers every time we visited both of these classrooms. These patterns suggest a lack of fairness that sits outside the discourse of fairness centered on fair treatment-in the form of equal opportunities that have developed for teachers, students and researchers. We interrupted both girls’ and boys’ gender fairness discourse in group and individual interviews by asking them to respond to the discrepancies we observed: Were they aware of these discrepancies? What did they think about them?

We found that they also observed these differences in classroom behaviors and read them as reflecting inherent differences between boys and girls. As such, both boys and girls thought that the greater amount of time teachers spent working with boys individually or in small groups was ‘‘fair,’’ because boys need (rather than deserve) more attention by virtue of being boys. Girls said that boys are ‘‘louder,’’ ‘‘more disruptive,’’ ‘‘more outgoing,’’ while girls are ‘‘more shy than boys’’ and ‘‘normally quiet.’’ Boys said that girls are ‘‘smarter,’’ naturally faster at their schoolwork, better listeners, and are easily embarrassed and therefore do not like too much attention, while boys ‘‘want more attention,’’ are more outgoing,’’ and ‘‘don’t study as much.’’ We were struck by the ways these differences were naturalized: that is, by the absence of any conception of gender as a social construction, of such behaviors as gender ideologies in practice.


We heard the girls describe feeling virtually policed by both the boys in their class and their teachers through what the girls themselves felt to be subtle, unspoken expectations that they be well behaved, smart, and helpful to the boys. Several girls stated that they felt that teachers were nicer to ‘‘smart girls’’ and that they try to be quiet in their classes to ‘‘keep goody- good’’ with the teachers. The girls also articulated that they felt that boys expected them to help them with their work and they feared repercussions from both the boys themselves and their teachers. For instance, one girl stated, ‘‘Sometimes we’re afraid that if we get the answer wrong we’ll get made fun of [by the boys]’’ and another added to one girl’s attempt to describe what happened if they did not help the boys by saying ‘‘You can’t say you don’t know because you don’t know what they’ll do. They’ll like throw a look at you or something,’’ and a third girl added, ‘‘Yeah, they’ll call you like . . . they’ll call swear at you and stuff. You little beep.’’ The girls reported that when they worked in small groups with the boys, they ended up doing most of the work. If they did not, they expected that they would receive a poor grade which, from these girls’ perspective, would lead to the teacher being disappointed in them.

The boys’ reports confirmed the girls’ observations that the boys expected extra help. The boys said that they needed it, because the girls ‘‘work like much faster than us.’’ They then added that the girls were typically paying closer attention when the teacher was giving instructions, knowing that they could simply ask the teacher to come by and help them individually after she offered her instructions to the whole class. The boys stated that they preferred to work in mixed gender groups, because ‘‘the girls can help us’’ and ‘‘then you get like a passing grade.’’ However, they reported that not all girls were willing to help them. They distinguished between the ‘‘snobs’’ who did not help them out and the ‘‘smart’’ and ‘‘nice’’ girls who did. One boy reasoned that while girls must be ‘‘born smarter,’’ because ‘‘in elementary school and middle school they’re like way smarter than boys,’’ this difference somehow must shift over time, as ‘‘when it comes to like high school and college, I think boys start to get even smarter because like most of the famous scientists are like the boys.’’ These reports raise questions about girls’ and boys’ differential behavior and treatment in the classroom. These were experienced as equity by the students, because of their beliefs about the nature of boys and girls, that is, their gender ideologies.

Interrupting this naturalization of male/female differences that rendered gendered differentials in the classroom ‘‘fair’’ was one girl’s critique. She offered the perspective that the boys had developed these behaviors and expectations over time. In her view, because their behavior was learned, they could be responded to differently. Tracing the difficulties back to elementary school where some boys may ‘‘start out quiet,’’ this student suggested that over time boys get ‘‘louder and louder’’ in the classroom.

Student: Well, I think guys feel like they need more attention than girls, but they don’t. They only need the, they only need like equal attention. But guys just need more attention than they can deal with. Like they’re happy at sports games when there’s thousands of people around them. As they’re being pushed into lines and falling flat on their faces. They’re happy there. But girls are like ugh … they’re not having fun there and stuff. Cuz we like attention, but not as much as guys do.

Interviewer: So is it going to be fairer if the boys get more attention than girls because they feel like they need more?

Student: Um, no, I think everyone should get the same amount of attention, just I think guys should be able to control themselves.

Interviewer: Uh huh. But how do we get that to work?

Student: I think that um, there should be like two teachers in the classroom. Like the main teacher and then, not really an aide, but someone who’s just as good as the other teacher. And like there’s the one teacher to work with like all the girls and then there’s one teacher to work with all the guys and certain groups and then so the groups that need the attention can get the attention. The groups that don’t need the attention will get less attention you know.

This girl’s solution suggests that from her perspective many boys’ solicitation and reception of on-going attention from teachers in the classroom had become so entrenched that it would take two teachers to respond fairly to differing student needs.


Together, the quantitative and qualitative findings present an intriguing contradiction. Everybody, teachers and students, reported in all venues that they generally perceived their school to be gender fair. Yet classroom observations and student reports, in what were arguably among the most gender equitable classrooms, point to serious differentials in how boys and girls behaved in, were treated in, and experienced their classrooms. That is, coincidental with the array of gender-fair practices perceived by students in the school, the same students did observe inequities between boys’ and girls’ experiences in the classroom. These skilled teachers’ adept, but unwittingly unbalanced, management of the boys’ high levels of activity and demands in their classroom had the unforeseen consequence of dovetailing with girls’ perceptions about boys’ inherent needs. The girls had concluded that they were less in need of their teachers’ time and attention and this belief seemed to be continuously reinforced. Further, the belief that boys simply were not as smart or not as able to focus their attention in the classroom contributed to many of the boys and girls in these two classrooms holding the expectation that the girls would help the boys when they were working together in small groups, or in some cases, even do the work for them. Without a framework within which to examine and critique these differentials, the students had concluded that these ‘‘gender differences’’ were inherent and unmovable.

Teachers and students all reported, and our observations in two classrooms confirmed, that the major gender equity initiatives identified in the literature, such as equal gender representation in curricular materials, teacher efforts to call on boys and girls equally, and equal access to resources and extracurricular activities were reported by teachers as being consistently implemented. The students viewed these efforts as contributing to, perhaps even constituting, fairness in the classroom. However, the findings from this study indicate that these boys and girls continued to have disturbingly different experiences in the classroom, with girls feeling greater pressure to conform, behave and perform, and boys evidencing greater freedom and acceptance of mistakes as an expected and accepted part of the learning process. We did begin to question whether the greater latitude we observed being given to boys in the classroom, most notably in the expectation that boys would need extra help from the teacher, may have been subtly and inadvertently interfering with these boys developing greater self-discipline, focus, and independence in their learning styles. Finally, these data indicate the importance of how girls and boys interact with one another, not just with teachers, in generating such inequities and inequitable classroom processes.

The use of multiple methods in this study yielded more accurate, detailed, and complex findings than we would have obtained using any single method. The quantitative and qualitative data paint different, and at first glance discrepant, pictures of students’ experiences of gender equity. Had we relied solely on survey data, we would be reporting simply that students’ perceive their teachers to be fair, that perceived teacher fairness is associated with less conventional gender ideology, and that these perceptions are differentially associated with academic achievement and psychological health for girls and boys. Had we done only classroom observations, without conducting focus groups and individual interviews, we would not have been able to identify the role that students’ gendered beliefs play in rendering inequities ‘‘fair.’’ The classroom observations allowed us to structure the focus group and interview questions around specific events we had observed, contributing to our ability to get underneath these students’ understanding of their classrooms as fair.

In future studies, multi-level modeling with large samples would allow for tests of associations between teachers’ gender equitable practices in classrooms and their respective students’ beliefs and attitudes about teacher fairness and gender ideology. Similarly, comparisons could be made between schools. An important component to be added would be evaluation of the teachers’ and other staff members’ gender ideology beliefs as a potential influence of classroom practice. Finally, the collection of qualitative data from a larger group of classrooms, and in other school settings such as the cafeteria and in the hallways, would offer insight into a fuller range of students’ school experiences.


We set out in this project to evaluate the impact of gender equity initiatives on middle school children’s outcomes. Our expectation that gender equity initiatives would be associated with less conventional gender ideology was tentatively, though not pervasively, borne out. Gender ideology appeared to have a small effect on outcomes, respective to statistical analyses, though its impact may in fact be larger as reflected by the qualitative data. Discussions of how gender ideologies are socially constructed and shape what is understood to be normative behavior for each gender were not incorporated in the gender equity efforts that we observed, nor are they given much attention in the field of gender equity in education at large in the United States. We suspect that this is in part due to an assumption that such understandings will emerge through the efforts in place to support and induce gender equity, however such osmosis was not occurring. Perceived teacher fairness may in fact diminish stereotypic beliefs about how girls and boys are supposed to be and behave. However, in the absence of explicit awareness that gender and gender differences are social constructs-a set of ideologies normalizing specific behaviors and needs for boys and for girls-such differential treatment gets constructed as ‘‘the way things are.’’

Why does gender ideology matter so much? This study illustrates how unchallenged gender ideologies can undermine efforts aimed at diminishing differential treatment, behavior and opportunities based on gender by rendering what is unfair to seem necessary, natural and normal. Though girls are currently not only doing as well as boys, but are in fact surpassing their male peers in all academic subject areas, at least in middle school (NCES, 2000), we wonder whether their beliefs about how they ‘‘naturally’’ behave (are shy) and what they can be expected to need in the way of support and guidance (nothing), may undermine their future academic and later career performance, as well lead to adverse psychological effects. For boys, believing that they are ‘‘naturally’’ less talented and more boisterous and thus disruptive leads to a diminished sense of their own responsibility for their education and contributes to a sense of entitlement that keeps gender inequities alive. Several of the boys in our study made the assumption that despite their poor performance in school, things would be ‘‘all right’’ for them in the future. We were struck by this seeming blind faith in the future and had the distinct feeling that these boys may later confront unexpected closed doors. We were particularly concerned about the working class boys who were less likely than their middle class counterparts to find themselves with opportunities and resources for higher education. Efforts toward gender equity must also attend to the longstanding areas of poorer performance among boys, such as lower achievement in language arts and higher rates of behavior problems in schools (MacKay, Fingerhut & Duran, 2000; NCES, 2000).

This study has led us to conclude that the current conception of gender equity as equal rights, equal access, and fairness, though having served the crucial purpose of providing equal opportunities for girls and boys, may be too limited. Our findings indicate that even in a school with a demonstrated commitment to gender equity, significant disparities between girls’ and boys’ experiences remain. The ‘‘that’s just the way things are’’ belief expressed in both boys’ and girls’ responses and descriptions of their experiences, combined with students’ increasing conventionality of gender ideology-even with a consistently high perception of teacher fairness- indicates that efforts toward gender equity as we currently understand, conceptualize, and operationalize them are insufficient. Without explicit attention to gender ideology, current gender equity efforts may not only fail to ameliorate gender differences, they may in some cases have the unintended consequence of intensifying aspects of them. Without revealing and challenging gender as socially constructed, gender equity efforts may unwittingly be undermined for many students. A new approach, or perhaps a next step, in the process to generate gender equity, which incorporates the acknowledgment, analysis and challenge of conventional gender ideologies as fundamental, is warranted.

Our findings support a shift urged by Lee (1997) to a definition of gender equity in education as ‘‘the absence of gender differences in educational outcomes’’ (p. 139), with an understanding of outcomes as including participation, performance, and experiences. Identifying and questioning gender-based differences in participation, performance, and experiences encompasses and incorporates issues of access. Yet it draws our attention to other concerns as well, including the role that gender ideologies play both in shaping educational practices and policies and in how such efforts are received by teachers and students alike.

We were struck by the insidiousness of the behaviors observed and the ready-made explanation of ‘‘that’s just the way things are.’’ But to reveal and challenge the covert gender ideologies that underpin them can be an incendiary process, as it taps into each of our notions of, and values associated with, not only how things are but how they ought to be with regard to gender. These beliefs, like those associated with race and other forms of diversity, are deeply rooted in social histories that are filled with marking and using difference as a justification for subordination. Equal access can be legislated. Mandating equal outcomes and equitable treatment is trickier business as these require us to confront and challenge long-held beliefs and assumptions and hold the potential for dangerous misunderstandings and partial or poorly thought out fixes that may only make matters worse.

Finally, we began our investigation by asking whether staff at this middle school were engaged in gender fair practices, and to what degree gender fairness related to students’ gender ideologies, psychological outcomes, and academic achievement. While our answers were both encouraging and disappointing, it is important to keep in mind that schools are but one facet of the lived experiences of adolescents. The school context, and the learning environments produced therein, are themselves influenced by a greater social context as are school personnel, who bring with them an added layer of familial and cultural background. Mandated changes in one domain can move progress along only so much. Students in this study expressed a conviction that boys and girls should be treated fairly without regard to gender. The majority reported that such was the case in their school. However, they also expressed a contradictory belief that boys and girls are intrinsically different, in such a way that calls for differential treatment.

Ideology by its very nature may be difficult to change, most likely a process that happens over a lifetime or through generations. Legal and institutional mandates are also slow to be instated, but once they are, behavioral changes may occur more quickly because of the threat of sanctions, even though such changes may reflect fear of repercussions rather than real change in beliefs. Our hope is that programmatic changes in curriculum and delivery of instruction can facilitate changes in conventional gender ideologies, however incremental, so that they will at some point begin to match up with mandated change. School is but one possible venue in which socialization of gender ideologies occurs, and research investigating the effects of gender equity should consider these other influences in order to accurately assess the impact of gender equity efforts.

The authors wish to thank the middle school students and staff who participated in this research project and Lynn Sorsoli, who was instrumental in data collection efforts. We also extend our gratitude to the anonymous reviewers for their insightful and helpful comments, suggestions, and questions. Funding for this research was provided by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.


1 There has been more of an examination of gender ideology in work on gender equity in Great Britain (e.g., Arnot, David, & Weiner, 1999) and Australia (e.g., Connell, 1993; Yates, 2000).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 9, 2003, p. 1774-1807
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11564, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 3:36:04 AM

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About the Author
  • Renee Spencer
    Boston University School of Social Work
    E-mail Author
    RENEE SPENCER is an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. Her research focuses on adolescent development; in particular, how strong relationships with adults foster positive youth development and how gender shapes adolescents’ experiences. Her publications include ‘‘On the Listening Guide: A Voice-Centered Relational Method’’ with C. Gilligan, M. K. Weinberg, and T. Bertsch, in P. M. Camic, J. E. Rhodes, & L. Yardley (Eds.), Qualitative Research in Psychology (2003), published by the American Psychological Association; and ‘‘Someone to Watch Over Me: Mentoring Programs in the After-School Lives of Children and Adolescents,’’ with J. E. Rhodes, in J. L. Mahoney, J. Eccles & R. Larson (Eds.), Organized Activities as Contexts of Development: Extracurricular Activities, After-School and Community Programs published by Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Michelle Porche
    Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College
    E-mail Author
    MICHELLE V. PORCHE is a research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College. Her research interests include cognitive and socioemotional factors related to school achievement for children and adolescents. Her publications include ‘‘From Preschool to Middle School: The Role of Masculinity in Low-Income Urban Adolescent Boys’ Literacy Skills and Academic Achievement,’’ with S. Ross and C. Snow, in N. Way & J. Chu (Eds.), Adolescent Boys in Context, published by New York University Press, and ‘‘Project EASE: The Effect of a Family Literacy Project on Kindergarten Students’ Early Literacy Skills,’’ Reading Research Quarterly (2000), with G. Jordan and C. Snow.
  • Deborah Tolman
    Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College
    DEBORAH L. TOLMAN is a professor in the Human Sexuality Studies Program at San Francisco State University. Her current research program on adolescent sexuality includes developing positive and comprehensive models of male and female adolescent sexual health, the relationship between adolescents’ television viewing and their sexuality, including the role of gender ideology, and theorizing female sexuality development. Her publications include Dilemma of Desire: Teenage Girls and Sexuality, published by Harvard University Press; ‘‘Sowing the Seeds of Violence in Heterosexual Relationships: Early Adolescents Narrate Compulsory Heterosexuality,’’ Journal of Social Issues (2003), with R. Spencer, M. Porche, and M. Rosen-Reynoso; and From Subjects to Subjectivities: A Handbook of Interpretive and Participatory Action Research Methods (2001), with M. Brydor-Miller published by New York University Press.
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