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Bias Persists Against and Among Girls

By Tiffani Razavi, TIE Staff Writer
Bias Persists Against and Among Girls

Report finds girls hold each other back
A group of researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently reported findings from a study of almost 20,000 middle and high school students, indicating that gender biases persist among teens and some parents.
The report addresses perceptions of leadership and gender, examining both explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) biases among adolescent girls and boys, as well as parents.
The overall focus of the project, known as “Making Caring Common,” is on developing young people’s ability “to appreciate and care for those who are different them – and biases are commonly a major obstacle to appreciation and caring for those of different genders, races, and cultures.” This particular piece of research helps to determine the extent to which such biases exist in school communities.
The study was conducted during the 2014-15 academic year with participants from over 50 schools in the United States and Canada, including approximately 2,800 students from seven international schools. The authors note that all basic results remained the same when including data from international schools in their analyses.
The report indicates that teenage girls simultaneously hold and are the subject of gender biases, both explicit and implicit. The analysis of explicit bias findings is summed up as “powerful boys and nurturing girls,” but the results are subtle. Girls did not express a gender bias for leadership in general, but a significantly higher percentage expressed preference for male political leaders over female, whereas in the nurturing professions such as childcare directors, women were preferred.
Boys reported a bias towards male leadership in general, particularly in politics, but also preferred female leaders in caring roles. The authors comment, “That a significantly higher percentage of both boys and girls prefer male political leaders can clearly matter a great deal in political elections at every level, which are often won by small margins.”
Although the report emphasizes the presence of bias, it is worth noting that, for most of the survey questions, more than half of the participants reported no preference. In other words, biases may persist, but among a minority of students.
Analysis of implicit bias shows that white girls are least preferred in peer leadership roles, with the strongest preference for white males. Findings suggest that the gap is explained mainly by biases held among white girls against each other, as they report a lack of support for white female leadership, and a preference for white males taking on such roles.
Furthermore, significantly more participants reported that girls are bothered by other girls’ successes in school more than by boys’ achievements, and more than boys are bothered by the success of either gender. Mothers participating in the study also tended to prefer male leadership (the sample size of fathers was too low for meaningful analysis).
What attitudes and assumptions underlie these biases of girls against each other? Some students during focus groups or interviews mentioned that, because many girls have low self-esteem, they may assume that other girls have little self-esteem and so would not make effective leaders.
One participant commented, “Girls wouldn’t vote for themselves, so why would they vote for another girl?” Others suggested that girls are too “dramatic” for leadership roles.
Other factors identified include competitive attitudes among girls, lack of trust between girls, and the notion that girls just aren’t nice. The report acknowledges that multiple influences shape these perceptions, including media and cultural images and attitudes, and the beliefs and approaches of parents and educators.
The authors express concern for girls that biases such as those they have identified “may corrode their relationships and sense of justice, sap their confidence in their leadership potential, and dampen their desire to seek leadership positions, especially in high-power fields.”
However, they also point out that awareness of bias is in itself a step towards correcting it, and that there is much that can be done to curb these biases and help children get past them. Parents and educators both have a role in fostering an environment in which girls can develop their leadership potential, starting with an honest self-check of personal biases and practices that might be unwittingly reinforcing stereotypes.
Schools can also consciously combat the peer-group tendencies that might be holding girls back. For example, in its effort to create healthy community norms, one girls’ school encouraged students to frame their own expectations. Fifth to eighth graders defined a “community of kindness” in practical terms, such as “Avoid the drama! NO RUMORS,” “Lose the sarcasm,” and “Don’t be a bystander.”
Reports from faculty members one year later indicate that students have embraced these maxims and quote them when unkind behaviors occur. There is a noticeable change in student vocabulary, says Middle School Head John Carpenter. “That tells us that we have succeeded in penetrating the student culture of our school.”
The involvement of children and teens in the discourse about women and leadership is essential to both preventing and reducing the biases that hold girls back. Both boys and girls can be taught to spot and challenge stereotypes and discrimination; educators and parents can share findings and promote discussion about gender equity at school, at home, and in society at large; and steps can be taken to encourage the participation of girls in quality programs designed to promote female leadership.

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