Schoolgirls: Youngwomen, self-esteem, and the confidence gap
Schoolgirls: Young women, self-esteem, and the confidence gap
By: Peggy Orenstein
In 1990, The American Association of University Women conducted a national survey to find out the attitudes that three thousand boys and girls between the ages of nine and fifteen had about themselves and school. From their findings, they found that as young girls reach adolescence their self-esteem drops rapidly. It was also found that this loss of confidence was severe among ethnic groups. The survey also helped to support years of research evidence documenting gender bias in American Education. Peggy Orenstein in association with the American Association of University Women released her book SchoolGirls: Young women, self-esteem, and the confidence gap in 1994 in response to the survey report entitled Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America. In this book, Orenstein writes of her first hand experience with a behind the scenes look of adolescent girls’ everyday lives. The narrative explores the human side of the statistics found during the report as well as providing insight into how the education system often restricts girls from getting the experience they deserve.
The first two parts of the book take place at two California middle schools, which are fifty miles apart from one another, but they seem like two different worlds. Weston is a predominately “white suburban middle school with a reputation for excellence”, while Audubon is located in a “beleaguered urban community that is ninety percent ethnic minority, mostly poor or working poor” (p.xxii). “My criteria was simple,” says Orenstein, “I chose schools based on their racial and economic makeup and the willingness of the administrators, teachers, and students to participate” (p. xxi). Results from both of these schools in which Orenstein observed are presented in both sections. The third section of the book, is spent in a classroom where gender equity is practiced.
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The findings from Weston are separated into six chapters. The first of these chapters discusses how girls learn to be silent, inactive participants in the classroom. Orenstein points out that the ratio of talk in the classroom was approximately five boys to one girl. Chapter two shows how the hidden curriculum teaches girls to be submissive and deferential. Girls are seen as facing much contradiction. They are supposed to be outspoken, yet they face a thin line on just how far they should carry out this characteristic. In chapter three, an even more contradictory line is examined. Girls protest to being called a “schoolgirl”, but being called a “slut” is not a good thing either. They constantly have to supervise their intelligence and their sexual desire.
Throughout chapters four and five, the reader begins to feel the pain of the girls at Weston. Orenstein gives a touching narrative with disturbing stories of self-confidence and self-esteem issues involving sensitivity that turn the girls onto self-harming behavior. This behavior includes self-starvation like bulimia and anorexia as well as self-mutilation. Orenstein tells the reader that this is a common practice among this age because girls feel the need to express their feelings of powerlessness. This in return helps to alleviate the anxiety and the depression they are trying to cope with. The last chapter in this section takes a deeper look at sexual harassment at Weston. Both students and parents seem dazed by a teacher’s enforcement of the schools sexual harassment policies, because nothing like this has ever been carried out before. The girls at Weston however, will begin to have an easier time at school, and that’s the way it should be.
In the Audubon section of SchoolGirls, which is broken up into chapters seven through eleven, the reader finds some different observations about the girls at this middle school. At Audubon, the hidden curriculum teaches students that their potential relies more on their ethnic and class backgrounds then just their gender. Chapter seven shows the reader that gender politics is a huge part of Audubon’s everyday activities and that sexual harassment is overlooked. Orenstein declares that this hidden curriculum teaches boys that they can get away with harming girls during school.
In chapters eight and nine, the differences in the way that African-American girls are treated opposed to the white girls at Weston are examined. Orenstein observed that African-American girls have higher self-esteem and this in return labels them as causing disciplinary problems in the classroom. Despite their participation in the classroom, these girls are faced with less attention and acknowledgement from their teachers. Chapter ten brings to light Latina girls. These groups of girls are being subjected to gangs along with abusive relationships. In the final chapter of section two, topics like class and background are brought into light in comparison to the girls at Weston. Audubon girls have the strength to succeed, but they encounter more distractions as well as less guidance.
The third section of the book entitled Through the Looking Glass, focuses on a sixth grade classroom that practices gender equality. There are a new set of issues that are raised when teachers like Judy Logan make an effort to change traditional classroom practices dealing with gender. A number of activities are given to the reader that can be used by teachers at all levels. Orenstein makes it clear that gender equity in the classroom can be achieved, but one must put in the effort. The hidden curriculum that is found today needs to be reformed if gender fair classrooms are going to exist. SchoolGirls has brought to light very sensitive issues within a classroom. I believe Orenstein did a great job of with holding her own biases and opinions from the reader. This really helps us to draw our own conclusions from the girls’ experiences. She does however; provide the reader with important information about girls’ experiences as well as their behaviors, perceptions, and choices that go along with them.
Equality in the classroom is a subject that has been debated for years along with sexual harassment. We still hear of stories in the news about unfair situations that have undermined our country’s children. Our forefathers fought long and hard to give every person in this country the right to be treated equal. SchoolGirls: Young women, self-esteem, and the confidence gap brings to our attention that children are being treated unfairly. I believe that all teachers, current or aspiring, need to read this book. It is our duty as well as our job to provide a safe and fair learning environment to every student that walks into our classroom.
I also feel that as parents, it is up to us to teach our children that girls can be just as smart as boys and they deserve to be treated this way. Children look to adults to set examples and this is how they learn to act for themselves. In order for our children to act civilized, they must see the adults in their lives acting this way. In my opinion, the only way to achieve this goal is to provide the proper education. We must start young and adults can start by reading SchoolGirls. This book provides a great in sight into what some girls go through at such an early age.