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Girls' lives, taking shape

Greeting a couple of goblins at the door on Halloween, a woman heard not "trick or treat" but one costumed kiddo proclaiming to the other, "Look, she's dressed as a secretary!" The woman, who had just come home from work, was still wearing her office clothes.

The woman wasn't insulted; there's nothing wrong with being a secretary, and perhaps the child's mommy was one. What was disturbing was why "scientist" or "banker" or "reporter" didn't just as easily pop into this elementary schoolgirl's head at the sight of a woman dressed for work.

Disturbing, but not surprising. The young girl wasn't too young to learn that women can aspire to the same careers as men, or that women have made great contributions in a variety of fields. She even wasn't too young to understand the concept of stereotyping, which limits people based on spurious distinctions.

She wasn't too young to learn, if only she were being taught.

A study commissioned by the American Association of University Women that analyzed major research on girls and education concludes that girls are victims of bias in the classroom and in the material taught them, and that these experiences can have lifelong, damaging consequences. Blatant and subtle instances of discrimination against girls are shaping their lives and, by perpetuating the cultural model that girls count for less, the lives of boys as well.

The report, titled "How Schools Shortchange Girls," found among other things that teachers pay more attention to boys, steer girls away from math and science careers, and avoid teaching about some of the most pervasive problems girls will have to face. Curricula often sidestep "well-being" issues that would benefit girls and boys, from sex education to the value of expressing feelings to the role of power assigned by gender.

Schools bear great responsibility because they are institutions with captive audiences; students are forced to listen to the messages teachers send, no matter whether they are presented in the context of yesterday's values, in order to survive and move on. Unfortunately, the price of surviving instruction that routinely doesn't reflect their experiences is low self-esteem.

Yet what are teachers but products of the culture? Female and male teachers pass along the biases with which they have been infused all their lives, as do administrators and parents. Public policymakers, who wield the greatest power to make changes that could help alleviate such inequities, function off the same flawed foundation.

Educational sexism, foists harmful restrictions upon children, who then grow up to continue the cycle that shapes and hinders girls' lives. From preschool to high school, girls gather information that helps them make life choices. If their education teaches them explicitly or tacitly that they must conform to narrow roles and forgo treatment and opportunities considered the norm for males, they'll be well-prepared to accept the real world but ill-equipped to change it.

The association report makes 40 far-ranging, effective recommendations to help bring gender equity to public schools, incorporating teacher training, improved curricula and a national agenda that is inclusive to the experiences of women. Political and educational leaders should act upon them with haste.

Building a new cultural model is no small challenge. Reshaping the educational system, for girls' and boys' sakes, is an important way to begin.