Sorry, Hannah, You Can’t Study Albert Einstein

sexism4.jpgBelieve It or Not: Sexism still exists in classrooms today, and we wonder – is anyone paying attention? Consider these scenarios that we recently witnessed:

1. A girl comes home from school, crushed after learning that the role of Peter Pan in her class play can only be played by a boy. Girls must take on “girl” parts; boys must do “boy” parts. How ironic, considering that in all the major productions of this story, Peter Pan has actually been played by a series of actresses, including Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, and Cathy Rigby. Where is the challenge and fun in acting, if gender roles are not allowed to be explored? What kind of message does this send to children?

2. A girl is told that she can’t write a report on Albert Einstein, but must instead study a female scientist such as Marie Curie. The teacher has divided the assignment by gender. Although the teacher most likely had good intentions in wanting to expose the girls to female heroes and role models, the implications of dividing by gender are not simple. For one thing, most of the girls and boys were probably more familiar with the famous male scientists – simply because American history tends to ignore women’s contributions. It would be natural for the children to want to learn more about someone whom they already recognize.

When a girl in this situation is told she can’t study a certain famous person because she happens to be a girl, she is also being told, very subtly, that just being a girl is enough to prevent her from getting something she wants. Her enthusiasm for learning may be dampened. Redesigning the assignment so that girls and boys study both male and female scientists might be more effective. In this way, both girls and boys will be exposed to appropriate role models. When all is equal, there is less likelihood of complaints and objections. If it so happens that a boy objects to studying Marie Curie because she is a g-i-r-l, then this could be a perfect opportunity to teach the children about sexism.

3. A boy is told that he can’t choose to spend his money to get his nails polished during a lunchtime fundraising event at school, even though any girl can. He can pick from any of the other booth offerings, but not this one, because it is for girls only. Once again, a child is being told that gender is a basis for deciding what girls and boys can and cannot do.

Removing the Isms for Deaf Children: When incidents like the Peter Pan play, the Albert Einstein report, and the nail polish taboo, happen again and again over the years, they have a tremendous impact on how children think about themselves and the opposite sex. Not just girls, but boys, as well, end up paying an emotional price for sexism. Little by little, children learn that they are supposed to think and behave in certain ways, according to their gender. As noted by a teacher in this excellent article on teaching middle school students about sexism, girls often set lower professional goals for themselves, and both boys and girls easily fall into stereotypical thinking about male and female roles.

Deaf children already deal with audism, and will encounter more of it in their future. Our goal as Deaf adults should be to try to remove as many of the other “-isms”, including sexism and racism, from their lives. Parents and teachers can learn more about how to identify subtle sexism (in addition to racism and other -isms) by checking out these guidelines on screening books. Our goal, and we hope, yours, too, is for all Deaf children, girls and boys, to dream big, unoppressed by any “-isms’.

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