Underlying structures in high school perpetuate sexism


Nikki Suzani, Features Editor

In the diverse community of Palo Alto, where girls are encouraged to go into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) professions, it can feel as if schools have all but erased internal biases. This false assumption, which fails to take into account real-life experiences of girls in the district, could not be further from the truth. Underlying issues with class structures, extracurricular activities and even student comments help to maintain unseen biases against girls in education, hurting their overall quality of learning. Students should recognize and call out every sexist comment and structure that is perpetuated within high schools, and work together to combat even the smallest microaggressions. 

Particularly in class, girls often find it more difficult to get their voices heard, making it more challenging for them to understand the content. A 2008 study by Northern Illinois professors Jennifer Schmidt and Lee Shumow focusing on high school science classes found that teachers are 43% more likely to spend time explaining basic concepts to boys than girls. A 2002 text by David Sadker further supplements this, showing that boys are also more likely to speak up in class discussions, even if they don’t understand the content as well. This comes from internalized concepts of gender that many teenagers are taught from a young age: girls are told to sit still and look pretty rather than take command of their own education.

These inherent stereotypes can be showcased in group projects, where girls often find their contributions overshadowed by boys. According to Deborah Tannen, boys have a tendency to ignore girls’ comments on co-ed group projects, preventing them from playing an impactful role and learning. Personally, I notice that girls tend to pull back during these co-ed projects and allow boys to lead, depriving them of valuable leadership experience as well as the learning that comes through working on difficult aspects of a project. 

Meanwhile, clubs, especially those that involve competitive activities, often unknowingly allow for greater levels of sexism, either from parent judges or from high schoolers themselves. According to a VBriefly article analyzing 89 national circuit Lincoln Douglas debate tournaments, girls are 4% less likely than boys to win preliminary rounds. In my personal experience, parents who judge debate rounds tend to characterize girls as “aggressive” whereas boys are referred to as “assertive,” and girls can receive ballots focusing more on their attire rather than their speaking (I once lost points for not wearing high heels!). This can discourage girls in the activity–the same VBriefly article found that girls who debate in sophomore year are 2.5% less likely to debate as juniors in comparison to boys in the same situation. 

Moreover, students in these competitive activities can commit gross displays of sexism with limited repercussions. Former Public Forum debater Megan Munce’s article Alright Let’s Talk, highlights the concept of “Good Debate Syndrome” (GDS), an idea where mostly male debaters are placed on a high pedestal of attractiveness simply by being good at debate. They then are able to use this idea to harass female debaters, all under the guise of GDS. In a 2016 Washington Post article about sexism in debate, a junior in debate spoke about being told by her male opponent that she could win a round if she “opened her legs.” 

This has held true even in the affluent, liberal Silicon Valley. A male debater at a nearby all-boys school once texted me that he would get me drunk on wine and when I wake up, “make [me] trust [him] [that he didn’t take advantage of me.]” Another, at a separate school, invoked “GDS” after I told him that I thought his partner was good at debate, humiliating me and making me feel uncomfortable. During cross examination, an opponent once said “why are you so mean to me?” when I assertively asked a question, another debater took screenshots of my personal, private chats with a different boy at his school and posted them on a debate group chat–the list goes on. All of these actions contributed to me having mixed feelings about tournaments and almost getting pushed away from the debate space, like many girls end up being. The fact that, until this year, I was the only varsity girl policy debater in my grade at Gunn (out of almost 10 total varsity sophomores last year), and that only 3 out of the 16 state qualifiers in our policy debate league were female this year, proves that this competitive activity ends up biased in favor of males. 

Model United Nations (MUN), another competitive activity that Gunn offers, has a similar dynamic. In a 2017 article by Rose Jacobs entitled MUNecdote: A Woman’s Role in Model UN, Jacobs mentions an advisor telling her to “tone down [her] intensity” because she was a girl. Unmoderated caucuses in conferences often see students flocking towards the tallest male in the room, rather than girls who might know more or have important ideas to contribute. This is an issue, as it leads to girls getting fewer awards because they have failed to show they can “control the room,” all due to internal biases held by the students around them. Erin Renzi’s article entitled Being a Girl in Model United Nations, also shows how, like in classes, girls tend to get called on less, giving them fewer opportunities to impress the chairs and to speak their minds. All of these are fundamental issues with activities that Gunn students are involved in, but oftentimes they aren’t called out or discussed.

Finally, students, even in everyday interactions, continue to fuel sexism in harmful “jokes” which are meant to demean; furthermore, they’re rarely called out for it, which allows them to continue. While playing video games with a group of friends this past weekend, I was told that “my opinion doesn’t matter because I’m a woman,” while my friends laughed in the background. Even when asking for advice on this column, I was told to “ensure I wasn’t a stupid feminazi” and asked if I “hated America” for wanting to write this. Yes, these are jokes, but when they are consistently told, the concepts become internalized more and more, causing greater insecurities for all the girls who have to hear them. I remember a friend telling me that he could “see that girl’s p*ssy through her shorts”–when I called him out on it, he laughed and quickly moved on. Personally, I’ve been asked to “send nudes” on Snapchat from boys at school that I don’t know. When I refuse, it’s played down in a similar way, as a “joke” that simply failed to land. It’s not funny. That shouldn’t be acceptable behavior, especially among juniors. 

So, what do we do about all this? The first step is to speak up. Continuously call out comments that are rude or discriminatory. If girls are comfortable with it, they should make a point to take charge in group projects and keep their hands raised, even if the teacher calls on all the boys first. The only way to change these structures is to set new examples, and that can only be done through “being aggressive” about change. A difference cannot be made until we fight back against the very structures that push us down. 

This responsibility doesn’t rest solely on girls, however. Everyone should take a second to moderate the language that they’re using and look at the ways they’re allowing for sexism to continue: either by making sexist comments or simply flocking to that tall male in an unmoderated caucus. Ultimately, it is up to students to set examples of acceptable behavior and recognize their own biases. Until that day, girls will continue to be made uncomfortable and pushed out of spaces of learning.