Gender out of balance in high pressure classes

During a major discussion in IB English class, the hands of 5 girls and 1 boy shoot up. Ten minutes later, another 5 girls and 1 boy share their ideas. By the end of the block period, 15 girls and only 3 boys have contributed to the conversation. Is this because all males hate talking in class discussions? No, it’s because there are only 5 of them in the class.
Simply put, there are more females than males in many IB classes this year. Girls should definitely be pushed to challenge themselves and take advanced classes, but what about boys? Why aren’t nearly as many boys taking classes like IB Biology or IB English? A “challenging” class looks different for everyone, but rigor of class becomes important when applying to colleges.

“I don’t want to rely on some stereotypes about girls, like they meet deadlines, [and] they’re diligent. That is true of some, but not true of all, and [it is] definitely true of [some] boys, but not true of all,” said IB English teacher Laura Davidson, whose first period class consists of 11 boys and 26 girls. “It feels uncomfortable for me to think of stereotypic gender behaviors that could be fostered through the years [and] lead to this divergence in high school.”

In their High School Transcript Study (HSTS), the U.S. Department of Education found that a higher percentage of both male and female graduates completed a midlevel or rigorous curriculum in 2009 than in 2005 or 1990.

The difference is that in 2009, approximately 49 percent of females and 43 percent of males completed mid level courses. In addition, 14 percent of females and 12 percent of males  completed rigorous courses. Is the case similar at Sequoia? Take a look at the numbers for IB English and IB Biology classes (only paying mind to this year).

“In general, I want to support and encourage students to pursue their academic interests. It may happen that one year there are more females that are interested in biology than males, and that’s not a problem,” said IB Biology teacher Sarah Chu, whose classes combined have 12 males and 24 females enrolled. “I think historically, females have not been encouraged and supported to pursue sciences, and specifically, math-intensive sciences, like physics.”

Gender gaps in the Sequoia classroom go both ways.  Although in the study, females were also found to have a higher GPA average than males, they do not perform as well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), specifically in math and science courses at every level of curricula.

“I think that what people do really well—and I attribute this to the maturity of the students that I teach right now—is that we are aware. Our classroom community recognizes that there is more of one gender than another in the room,” Davidson said. “I think that Sequoia does a really good job of encouraging everyone to be in whatever classroom they think would best fit their needs.”

Giving students access to the classes they need to succeed is vital to creating more of a gender balance in high level classes. Sequoia is mindful of this; however, where do imbalances originate? Why are there less than half the amount of girls of guys in IB English?

“The stereotype of girls is they’re neat and well-organized,” junior Gabriel Guzman said. “If guy[s] see a bunch of girls who are organized and really want to pass IB class[es], they’ll be discouraged from taking [them] because they don’t feel like they can do what girls can do.”

Societal and stereotypical pressure probably does play some sort of role in the motives behind what classes students take. Despite this, there’s uncertainty surrounding all the causes of gender gaps in the classroom. There’s not a clear answer as to why they exist, but that doesn’t mean Sequoia can’t continue to work to improve.

“Just as much as we encourage [males] to be present in IB classes, we also make it so that English I [to] English IV [are] rigorous experiences in and of themselves,” Davidson said. “As teachers, we use this term—the zone of proximal development—[which] means that something is challenging for you, but it’s not outside of the realm of possibility. Always hitting that perfect sweet spot, where the student is safely challenged, is the answer. That’s what we’re all striving for.”

The types of classes people take is based both on their choices and needs. Perfect balance will probably never be reached, but that’s not the goal. A student, whether male or female, should be given the opportunity to take the subject levels perfect for them.

“I don’t really focus on gender. In IB classes, I try to focus on passing the class and being successful,” Guzman said. “For guys to be more into IB, they should not feel discouraged. They [should] just try, put a lot of effort into school, and focus less on outside distractions.”