Heschel’s Unaddressed Gender Disparity in STEM

By Mariel Priven ‘19


After a recent test in my math class of six boys and three girls, my teacher distributed our tests, which were marked up but ungraded. She told us to assign numerical values ourselves to get a sense of how we did, and that she would score them herself that night. The next day, she pulled me and my two female classmates aside and informed us that we had all given ourselves lower grades than we had actually earned, while all of our male peers had given themselves the grades they deserved or higher. Even though I’d expected something to this effect, hearing the actual numbers confirm this instinct was jarring nonetheless.

Although in this particular class there are only three female students, throughout my high school experience, whether male students made up the majority of the class or not, there has been a persistent male-centric atmosphere in my science, technology, and engineering (STEM) classes. Boys in my classes are quick to shout answers, crack jokes about fellow peers or even the teacher, and roll their eyes when they deem a question or concern of mine to be “dumb” or obvious.

The discussion-based and student-focused learning setting at Heschel often creates a more relaxed classroom setting, with norms like calling teachers by their first names or having the liberty to walk into the teachers’ room without a formal appointment. However, I’ve noticed that this informal setting has exacerbated this problematic gender dynamic in classes, especially those taught by female teachers.

For most of my high school career, such an atmosphere primarily affected the female students. After all, the loud jokes and eye rolls when my female peers and I ask for clarification have resulted in our growing belief that our contributions are worthwhile only if they are flawless, and a subsequent fear of participating unless we are completely certain that this is the case. This belief most recently manifested itself in our overly harsh grading of our tests. Even our teachers accommodate for this lack of confidence by cold-calling on only boys to answer questions on the board, perhaps subconsciously concerned about creating an additional opportunity for gender-based ridicule.

In addition to the detrimental effects of these phenomena to my female peers’ and my own self-esteem, they have also contributed to the overconfidence of many male students. Over the past few years, while students are in the middle of taking math tests, several boys will routinely yell “easy money!” to stress how easy the material is for them. Furthermore, in class, they will often shout correct answers before other students finish the problem, or discourage their female peers from asking a question. Even more upsettingly, a male peer told a female classmate that the only people who belong in their advanced math class understand the material immediately and don’t need to ask questions. When she asked him who those people were, he listed only the boys in the class. She responded in defense of the female members of the class, citing their high scores on the previous test. He answered, “Yeah, but how long did you study for it?” This response plays into the incorrect assumption that if one needs to work to understand the material, she is not good enough. Even more significantly, it illustrates the way in which, regardless of girls’ scores and proven abilities, gendered assumptions can cause boys to believe that female classmates don’t deserve to be there. This anecdote clearly displays the lack of encouragement that so deeply undermines the confidence of girls in STEM classes and increases their hesitation to trust their instincts and intellectual abilities. Had I not been so frequently mocked for my incorrect answers, perhaps I and the other girls in my class would have more opportunities to practice the material and learn from our mistakes, and therefore be quicker to familiarize ourselves with the material. This problem doesn’t start here; it starts early on, but the Heschel High School has a responsibility to stop this trend, or at least address it more consciously.

More recently, this environment has contributed to the growing disrespect for teachers, especially female STEM teachers. This disrespect persists despite the fact that the entire math department is female, and three of the five science teachers are as well. Students – both male and female – tend to make jokes and misbehave in many classes, regardless of the teacher. Over the past few months, however, certain comments have become blatantly impudent, specifically towards female teachers. When asked where a student was that he did not have his calculator when doing his homework, my classmate quickly responded to my female science teacher, “your mom’s house.” Stunned that someone would say that to a teacher, the entire room fell into an uncomfortable silence. Despite this incredibly rude comment, the teacher brushed it off and the class quickly resumed as if nothing inappropriate had occurred. This disrespect is further demonstrated when male students draw phallic symbols on the board at the start of each class, scream names for genitalia in the middle of a lesson, and play around with the Smart Board, setting its timer to 69 minutes. The lack of discipline has only fed male students’ sense of entitlement.

Though this male-dominated atmosphere around STEM is most definitely not unique to Heschel, I had hoped that a community as welcoming and pluralistic as Heschel’s would foster an environment in which female students are encouraged to pursue STEM as part of the norm. Though I believe most students would affirm that their female classmates are intelligent and capable of studying science and mathematics post-high school – though I know very few girls who intend to do so – few are aware of how impactful the eye rolls and “your mom” jokes can be. As male students continue to make these jokes or to loudly discredit a teacher’s knowledge based on an error on the board, I cannot help but recognize that my female classmates become more and more hesitant to participate in class.

As a senior planning to go to college next year, I am increasingly disturbed by the ways in which my education in this environment has affected my will to be an active participant. Though I hope that I’ll be able to brush aside the comments made and continually remind myself that I am allowed to make mistakes, this growing atmosphere of disrespect towards women in advanced STEM classes will negatively affect female students as they leave Heschel and enter spaces in which they must have the confidence to speak up to earn success. It appears to me that this behavior, even when it extends to affect teachers, has not led to any discipline; therefore, Heschel is not addressing the issue as necessary. Though this classroom environment may be specific to my grade, if the behavior continues unchecked, students and teachers will come to accept it as the norm. If we hope to see a change in this toxic atmosphere, Heschel must step in and educate students and teachers not to tolerate this sexist conduct.

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