Legislation seeks gender equality in education

February 13, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- No one calls them "coeds" any more. A dozen years have passed since women started to outnumber men on college campuses. Now, for the first time, more women than men expect to attend graduate schools as well.

Gone are the days when the educators of the late 1800s fretted that schoolwork would make women sick, diverting blood from their wombs to their brains.

Resolved, too, is the more nuanced debate of the 1960s over whether the presence of women on the tree-lined swards of academe would take the luster off pedagogic jewels such as Princeton, Yale or Dartmouth.

So, at a time when women are winning academic access and success as never before, why is Congress moving to pass a bill on equality of the sexes in schools?

The legislation, the Gender Equity in Education Act, which was passed by a House subcommittee last week after a challenge made it through committee, calls for an end to sexual harassment at all levels of education and asks teachers to treat boys and girls equally.

It also supports textbooks that eliminate sexist assumptions (boys are doctors, girls are nurses) and asks schools to inform parents, teachers and other staff members of the impact of buried assumptions about sexual differences in abilities.

It allows schools to use federal money for such instruction, but it neither requires nor finances it. The only section involving a significant amount of money, $250 million, applies to disadvantaged youth but does not specify the sex.

Supporters say the bill is needed because of factors such as girls' lower scores on national achievement tests, resulting in fewer merit scholarships for women than men.

They cite studies showing that teachers consistently channel women into fields of study such as literature and language and away from the advanced science and math that would give them more options in the working world.

They also note that women need four years of college to match the earnings of men with high school diplomas. And they say that studies show that teachers call on and encourage boys more often than girls, meaning that girls leave school without the assertiveness and self-confidence they will need in the work force.

Susan McGee Bailey, director of the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, says that changes are crucial despite the gains of recent years.

Citing income disparities and low test scores, she says women are leaving high school at a serious disadvantage. Yes, many go on with their studies, she says, and that should be celebrated. But they go on because they have to -- to even compete.

Patricia B. Campbell, director of a research company that evaluates math and science education, laughs at the notion that sexual parity might be at hand.

"Look," she said, "If you take the number of high school girls who wanted to go into engineering in 1972 and compare that with the figures now, you see a 1,300 percent gain, and that sounds fabulous. But in 1990, boys were still six times more apt than girls to want to go into engineering."

For lawmakers, the measure promises a vote for women's rights that comes with no big price tag, says Rep. Susan Molinari, a New York Republican and one of the bill's sponsors.

The goal, she said, is simple: to create "episodes of awareness" intended to prevent even the most subtle discrimination in publicly financed schools.

That, say many educators who specialize in women's issues, is a big first step toward truly equal education.

But critics rail that the whole matter was really resolved in 1972 when Congress outlawed sexual discrimination of any sort in public schools.

They say the Gender Equity in Education Act would create a new, unnecessary layer of bureaucracy in an already overburdened system. Some even see a more sinister hand at work.

The real purpose, explained a letter sent to members of Concerned Women for America, a conservative women's group, is to "deprogram what children learn in their homes."

Arguments in favor of the bill do not impress Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration who is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Washington public-policy research organization.

She has suggested in recent interviews and articles that American schools are actually among the most sex-balanced institutions in the world. The legislation proves only that Washington exists in a bubble of unreality, she says.

"How can you be a victim when you have succeeded?" Ms. Ravitch asked while calling up a computer file showing female gains in such traditionally male studies as algebra, geometry and chemistry. "When do we declare victory? When we are at 60 percent of the college population? When we are at 70 percent?"

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