Tag Archives: Rachel Simmons

Gender-Coloured Glasses

I work hard to listen carefully to my students. It shows respect for them and respect for girls’ voices, it gives me a chance to learn from and about them, and it gives me the chance to be a role model to them. Yet I confess, on occasion, I do deliberately interrupt them. One such occasion is when they say “We all think…” and I will interrupt to ask who “we all” is and how they know “we all” think that way. They rephrase, “My two friends here and I think…” and I go back into active listening mode. One of the highlights of the 2009-2010 Humanities 7 class was one February when a student said, “Most of us think…” and then looked at me slyly and said, “Did you notice I said ‘most of us’? (I smiled and nodded) See? I have been listening to you!”

My impatience with generalizations goes back a long way and runs deep. I remember taking my son (now 19) to play groups when he was three and listening to the other parents there (all moms). And I noticed there was a world of difference in how I reacted to statements like “Men don’t help with child care” vs. “Far too often, women still end up spending more time caring for children then men do.” The underlying sentiments are substantially similar. But one phrasing sits as an immutable pronouncement from on high which renders invisible an entire subset of a group of people, while the other expresses a general tendency even as it acknowledges variance.

Recently, one of my online friends shared a Christina Hoff Sommers article with me entitled “How to Make School Better for Boys.” The article intrigued me as father to a son even as it put me on my guard as a gender activist and girls school educator. Ms. Sommers didn’t disappoint on both counts, from one perspective pointing out the genuinely disturbing statistic that “Women in the United States now earn 62 percent of associate’s degrees, 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and 52 percent of doctorates.” Yet, in painting a picture of college admissions officers increasingly desperate to recruit men, she writes that “Officials at schools at or near the tipping point… are helplessly watching as their campuses become like retirement villages, with a surfeit of women competing for a handful of surviving men,” a statement that is deeply disturbing on a whole different level. And she completely dismisses the reality of a stubbornly persisting gender wage gap (for one example, men earn significantly more than women right out of college) by stating, “Even those who acknowledge that boys are losing in school argue that they’re winning in life. But the facts are otherwise.” I have no doubt that we need to take a hard look at how many schools are doing many boys a disservice. But I also have no doubt that broad generalizations that overstate her case and misrepresent those with differing perspectives are not helping.

The 2007-2008 Humanities 7 class entered our school at the tipping point between the perception that boys did better at school than girls and the perception that the opposite was true. Intrigued by newspaper headlines at the time, they designed a unit whose theme question was, “Are girls smarter than boys?” and engaged in research involving a number of other middle schools. Their findings – neither girls nor boys are inherently smarter, but it is more socially acceptable for girls to do well in school – both mirrored what would come to be the consensus explanation for the phenomenon and presaged an ever-increasing gender gap in schools.

The key phrase here is “in schools.” The achievement gap between boys and girls has widened in the last six years, and we are indeed at the point where many colleges are struggling to recruit men. That is unquestionably a concern. Yet, the existence of what Rachel Simmons calls “The Curse of the Good Girl” is unquestionably one of the factors in this phenomenon, and it shows girls are no better served by the current situation than boys.

What does this mean to us as students, teachers, parents, and alumnae/i of a girls school? I believe it means committing to the mission of our school, allowing and encouraging our students to develop their authentic selves and voices free of gender boxes and stereotypes (including those that Curse them), allowing and encouraging the same of ourselves. I believe it means encouraging all schools to reflect our mission with their own populations. I also believe it means working toward a society that will also recognize and react to who people actually are than whom they are perceived to be. And finally, I believe it means understanding that institutionalized patriarchy is not going anywhere anytime soon, and that hurts all our children – girls, boys, and also the often invisible population of people who do not identify according to the traditional gender binary.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School

One Step Further

Rachel Simmons, the author of the ground-breaking Odd Girl Out and best-selling Curse of the Good Girl, has just co-authored along with Kate Farrar an article in the Huffington Post entitled “The Confidence Gap on Campus: Why College Women Need to Lean In.” Many readers will recognize the reference to Sheryl Sandberg‘s brand new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. In the book, Ms. Sandberg argues among other things that women need to work to overcome “the stereotypes we internalize that hold us back,” (Sandberg, quoted in Adams) and “own their own ambition.” (Simmons and Farrar)

After presenting undeniable evidence that college women are not getting the leadership positions they have earned and deserve in as great a proportion as college men, Simmons and Farrar ask the women themselves what they need. Their answer? “Provide us the skills, supports and mentoring to build confidence to take risks and test our leadership on campus. College women want to be aware of and prepared for the barriers both on campus and as they enter the workplace.” (Simmons and Farrar) This sentiment echoes those expressed by many members of my 8th grade Life Skills class, namely that they are finding their voices, and they know they are being heard in our school. They want us to help them ensure they will be able to make their voices heard out in the world.

So both ensuring there is awareness of the inequity in the world and preparing girls and women to self-advocate is part of the solution. But we can’t place the entire weight of reform on women’s shoulders. True, only women can learn to self-advocate, and they must do so. At the same time, men and people of other genders need to join in as well. “This crisis of confidence in the face of unrelenting — and unfair — pressure is what Sandberg is shining a light on. Yet, she is being criticized for blaming women, when she is in fact indicting a culture that forces women to second-guess their own strengths.” (Simmons and Farrar)

Already, her book may be having some positive effects. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, has written of what he learned from the book: “I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make the progress we haven’t made in the last decade… After reading Lean In and listening to Sheryl, I realize that, while I believe I am relatively enlightened, I have not consistently walked the talk.” (Chambers, quoted in Upadhyaya) I’m sure others are out there, and with continued work, we can continue to change minds. The old boys network is real, and at some point in time, the old boys need to take the initiative to do the right thing.

That said, I would love to see us take these ideas one step farther. So often, it seems, we say we need to get more women into tech and into leadership positions at the highest level for two main reasons. One, to provide role models for younger women and girls. Two, to provide a viewpoint lacking in a male-dominated culture. We absolutely need positive female role models, and we absolutely need multiple viewpoints. However, knowing that the variance of ways of being within different genders is far greater than the variance of ways of being between men and women (usually, such statements are made within a binary concept of gender), we can also be aware that our real goal is not just including multiple genders in the workplace in truly equitable fashion, but also multiple viewpoints. In short, if our ultimate goal is to undermine and eventually do away with patriarchy and to claim equality and equity for absolutely all people, part of that goal may need to be acknowledging that gender is far more complicated than a simple binary system would lead us to believe – what we have traditionally called femininity and masculinity can be applied in differing ways not just to men and women but also to all people of all possible genders.

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Filed under Gender, On Education, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School, Women in media

Empowering Domesticity

During the week before break, as the Humanities 7 class and I were reading and discussing Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons, they asked if they could use their hand looms and work on their last “Art and Culture” project. I’ve always felt, and I know that research shows, that some people actually concentrate better on discussions when they are engaged in some task that does not require their full attention (doodling, squeezing a rubber ball, listening to music, knitting, etc.), so I readily granted their request. It led to a heightened sense of calm and community even as we had some of the longest and deepest conversations of the term. They asked Sara (their art teacher) and I whether they could continue the practice once art class was over, and Sara not only agreed but also quite generously offered to provide supplies. I of course was only too happy to grant their request.

One by-product of our school’s involvement in the Rays of Hope walk for breast cancer has been an increased interest in knitting as students work to help create pink scarves to be donated to cancer survivors, and some of the 7th graders had already been bringing knitting projects to class to work on during discussions. Meanwhile, a student survey showed that one of the top-rated topics in our new “Life Skills” course was cooking. As someone who enjoys cooking and used to enjoy knitting, I know firsthand the usefulness of these skills. Moreover, I’ve long felt that one can be feminist and still advocate for schools offering units and topics associated with Home Economics as long as one doesn’t associate those skills with only one gender. So I have been secretly glad to see these interests building, and I am quite happy to support them.

The day before we returned from break, Rachel Simmons posted a tweet linking to an article by Emily Matchar at “The Washington Post” entitled “The New Domesticity: Fun, empowering, or a step back for American women?” I clicked on the link and found the account of a young woman in the midst of canning, musing why she and “half [her] female friends… were heading back to jam-canning and knitting needles, both for fun and for a greater sense of control over what we eat and wear.” Fair enough, I thought to myself. It would be hard to argue with any of those goals. And in recent years I have read a good many articles noting, with one degree or another of bemusement, how there’s something about the holidays – perhaps nostalgia or a sense of tradition – that leads people (often women) to devote much more time and attention to cooking than they do at any other time of year.

However, Ms. Matchar continues to ask, “But in an era when women still do the majority of the housework and earn far less of the money, ‘reclaiming’ domesticity is about more than homemade holiday treats. Could this ‘new domesticity’ start to look like old-fashioned obligation?” She muses on whether this trend is a reaction to or an evolution of feminism, steadfastly refusing to settle on a single answer but rather presenting different perspectives on the question all the while leaving it open-ended.

I want all my students to be able to take care of themselves and to value caring for others. For those who marry or settle into partnerships, whether or not they start families, I would hope their life partners would share those attributes. I also want them to grow into their own authentic selves. So where does all this leave us? I find myself wondering if I taught at an all-boys’ school whether we would even be having this conversation. Merely to raise that question, of course, puts us instantly in familiar territory of the intersection of biology, culture, and our own individual values. Ultimately, as Ms. Matchar implies, there is no easy answer.

Or is there? When we get caught up in questions of what it means to be female and male, we entangle ourselves so deeply in a web of conflicting evidence and opinions that it is almost hopeless to unravel it and sort it out. If, on the other hand, we look at domestic skills simply as “life skills” that can serve all of us, then perhaps it becomes less complicated. I would have the same goals for my students wherever I taught – all-girls, all-boys, or coed. I have the same goals for my son. I would imagine a great many teachers and parents feel the same way. So why must it become so complicated?

In the end, as with so much we do in our school, it comes down to the culture in which we live. It’s one thing to ensure our students have the skills they need to be successful in life and that they know and can act as their own best selves. It’s quite another to ensure that our culture is ready to receive them on those terms.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uncategorized