Musings on the judgements teachers make about their female students (and a sneaky Taylor Swift reference)

I am a teacher. Which to me seems a faintly ridiculous statement to make because it conjures up someone with far greater knowledge and teacherly-attitude than I could ever hope to have. The other day a student asked how to spell liquorice, and I couldn’t remember. Would that happen to a Real Teacher? (My investigations suggest you can spell it two ways).

That caveat aside I am, for all intents and purposes, a teacher. Just like the ones that you used to have, who would say things like “students if you’re not quiet now we can do this at lunchtime” (sometimes I say this!). One of the discoveries of being on the other side of the staffroom door is that teachers are, despite teacherly-attitude to the contrary, exactly like everyone else. This means that we don’t really want to stay in at lunchtime in order to instill some discipline in our uncaring students. Sadly it also means that teachers are beset with the usual prejudices. Just as within the rest of the world in our schools young women are repeatedly judged by their looks.

This week I was waiting for a student to join one of my classes. Every time I talked to another staff member about her they said some variety of the following “You’ll love her, she works so hard. Also she is very pretty.” Sometimes the fact that she was pretty came first! This made me feel increasingly uncomfortable. Her prettiness is clearly unimportant in her academic abilities but still it was remarked upon. It seemed the other teachers were unable to stop themselves from mentioning it.

In the above example the other teachers seemed to be suggesting that this student was worthy of greater attention from her teachers because of how she looked. Attention is a keyword when talking about beautyism in the classroom because a whole lot of teaching is based on getting and keeping the attention of your students. Furthermore, being the idealistic teacher that I am, I believe students who get more of my attention are more likely to succeed at school.

It is wrong that we grant greater attention to female students who are good looking. However, pretty girls who distract male students attention in class are also quickly judged unworthy of teacher attention. As with everywhere, it is desirable to be “pretty” but only if you’re pretty in certain ways.

Attention seeking behaviours of boys are deemed cheeky. Boys who act the class clown are maybe reprimanded and sometimes punished with detention, but invariably teachers will make an ongoing effort to get them engaged in class work. If you are a pretty girl who distracts the attention of the male students in your class, in my experience you are not so lucky. Teachers in the staffroom will talk about the length of your skirt and the colour of your makeup, they will even explicitly call you out for being a slut. And guess what? They won’t help you catch up in class.

Disclaimer, disclaimer: Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data. These are just my (limited) experiences of teaching and talking to other teachers. In fact, on the macro level the data is against me, everything I have seen in the last twenty years of education research suggests that girls out-perform boys in almost all subject areas. Furthermore, maybe I am putting too much stock in the importance of having the attention of a teacher. There are also issues around class that intersect with gender in this area (there is at least another blogpost in that, probably a book).

However, my experience has been that school systems often work to reinforce and perpetuate the societal norm that women and girls should be judged on their looks, and that there success is dependent upon them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of reinforcing this. Difficult teenage girls are fairly terrifying. Plus, they can totally remind you of when you were in high school when you were the one with the sneakers and she is clearly the kind of girl that had the high heels and the shorts skirts. So, one promise I’m going to make as a young teacher is not to reinforce this idea, not to support the pretty girl just because she is pretty and not to stop helping the difficult girl. If anything we should all be working not to confirm the ridiculous distinctions made by Taylor Swift songs, surely?

14 thoughts on “Musings on the judgements teachers make about their female students (and a sneaky Taylor Swift reference)”

  1. I have been a university tutor for about 7 years. Because of the issues raised in this post I find that I actually have to consciously force myself to help the pretty girls in the class, because I am prone to over-correct for my predisposition to help them more than the other students.

  2. This is a good post, and accords with my experience of teaching.

    I find, in university level maths at least, the outright sexism of the sort you described isn’t all that prevalent amongst the teaching staff (with some notable exceptions), but the damage of that sexism has already been done. Young women in undergraduate mathematics tend to underestimate their maths abilities, while young men tend to have a more realistic view of their level of accomplishment. This can lead to perfectly competent young women to drop out of maths because ‘I am bad at it’, where as a young man with similar grades will stay in the course because he (rightly) believes that he is good at maths.

    Always keep in mind, however, that the plural of anecdote is not data.

      1. No, but that is because heaps of engineers do first and second year maths, and the gender ratio in engineering is much larger.

        I don’t have the numbers, as was implied by my last sentence, but I would be surprised if they didn’t show that the drop out rate for girls is initially higher, if you confine yourself to BSc students studying maths.

        Anecdotally, I can think of several girls who were either close to dropping out of maths, or who did, because they were getting the sorts of grades that I sometimes did. I can’t think of a comparably large percentage of the guys in maths who felt that way. It’s not *data* data, but as Paul Krugman says (and how the quote actually runs), the plural of anecdote is data.

        And before you disagree with that last point, I will refer you to DeLong’s first and second laws of economics.

        Also I totally saw a study done once, like a real one, that showed the higher up the academic ladder you go in the sciences, the fewer women there were, percentage-wise.

        1. Unfortunately the DEEWR data cube lumps the sciences together. But for what it’s worth, we can approximate retention rates over an n-year degree by dividing the number of course completions in year x by the number of commencing students in year (x-n+1).

          I’m not sure if I can embed images in comments, but here goes:

  3. You mentioned that the data is against your experience here, as there is a performance gap between girls and boys. But one possibility to consider too is that the effect you’re talking about is real, and as a result the data is picking up a performance differential between girls and boys that is lower than it might otherwise be.

    Alas that these things are almost impossible to test, which makes life hard for social scientists.

    1. I think it’s also relevant (well, maybe – I’m a bottle of wine down at this point) that the differences are on average. Perhaps there’s a greater variance (or other difference in distribution shape) in results for girls because the “pretty-slutty” (I mean mentioned as pretty and perceived as slutty but that was too long to say – but then I felt so bad typing the short version I went ahead and did this parentheses thing and now look at me) girls are given less attention. Or a longer high score tail because the “pretty-but-not-slutty” (same disclaimer) are given more attention.

      The upshot of this is: MOAR DATA. Also, mad props for the plural of anecdote line; and also (another also!) merely because the data doesn’t show that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem. Problems can be found based on data (e.g. we know there is a glass ceiling because of the data, not because of observed practice) or because of observation (as in this case).

      BAM. (I don’t know what the bam is for).

  4. I actually just left teaching for another job, but this article reminds me so much of the stereotypes I may or may not have given in to as a young teacher. While a girl’s prettiness didn’t consciously come into play in how I related to my students, I was very aware of how my colleagues and I treated our students based on their sex, specifically when it came to disciple. People tried to engage the boys who were class clowns but got frustrated with the shy girl in the back. Boys could handle harsher punishments while the girls got off easier, sometimes if they looked like they were about to cry or because they stayed mad about it longer.

    When I started in the classroom, I was shocked that I had to struggle with myself when I thought I was turning to old notions about how boys and girls should be treated. It was easier to go along with the patterns that were the norm. I can’t tell you if I did a good job of trying to bring a little more equality in my classroom, but I can say that I was aware of it and that I tried. And I think that’s the first step: trying to make people aware that these problems exist and they could be adding to them without even noticing.

    1. I think it’s often when we come into unfamiliar environments that we fall into these default patterns of thinking and behaving – I totally agree that a commitment to self-awareness in this area can make all the difference.

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