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Teachers' bias can hold girls back

Time spent in the classroom can affect women’s long-term earning potential, a new study has found. Unconscious bias among well-meaning teachers can have long-lasting effects.

The United States National Bureau of Economic Research’s paper On the origins of gender human capital gaps: Short and long term consequences of teachers' stereotypical biases has revealed that teachers demonstrated a bias towards boys and against girls in mathematics and science fields.

“The respective effect on girls is negative and statistically significant”, the study says.

The study found that teachers’ responses towards students affected their performance in mathematics, but extended to other subjects as well.

It also found male students actually benefited from teacher bias, showing a connection between teacher bias and successful completion of advanced maths and science in high school. Teacher bias against women had the opposite effect on female students, actively minimising female completion of science and maths subjects. Further, seeing their male peers receive teacher encouragement actually negatively affected their enrolment in advanced courses later in life.

“These choices have important long-term implications for occupational choices at adulthood, because successful completion of advanced courses in maths and science in high school is a pre-requisite for post-secondary schooling in engineering, computer science and so on,” the study says.

Professor Iwona Miliszewska, head of the school of information systems and accounting at the University of Canberra, has worked in IT both in academia and the private sector for 40 years. Professor Miliszewska says she has seen teachers display gender bias casually and regularly.

“You see it all the time in schools, boys are good at maths, girls are good at hospitality – teachers emphasise that," she says. "Or at university lectures when the AV system doesn’t work. To whom do you think the teacher will refer in terms of seeking assistance? Not to the girls in class. This suggests technical matters is the boys’ role.

Children at an early age are not aware of stereotypes yet. They do not have these preconceived ideas. You want to get them while they are still brave to the limit; that is the time to actually do it.

Professor Iwona Miliszewsk, Head of Canberra University's School of Information Systems and Accounting

She says it also doesn’t help that IT and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) classes are often not taken seriously by educational institutions – at least at the lower levels – and as a result, unqualified teachers are often tasked with leading classes.

“ICT (Information and Communication Technology) has been treated as the ugly sister for a great many years, so if you had a teacher who taught Phys-Ed and hospitality, they’d be looped in to teach ICT too,” she said.

The CSIRO is running a program, partnering industry professionals with ICT teachers to improve capabilities, but the success of the program will depend on the number of participating schools and the enthusiasm of the private sector to lend their time. Rural and regional Australia will continue to suffer a teacher shortage, let alone find qualified IT professionals to familiarise students with coding and other IT skills.

Ironically, the US National Bureau of Economic Research’s study has shown that girls outperform boys in maths in external exams, whereas boys outscore girls in internal exams, “implying that teachers over-assess boys relative to girls”. Older and single teachers are seen to favour boys over girls.

“The estimated effect of teachers’ bias on boys’ outcomes is positive – this indicates that teachers’ over-assessment of boys’ test scores increases their achievement at a later age”, the study says.

The opposite is true of girls.

“These results imply that the overall stereotypical biased environment in the classroom that students are exposed to in primary school increases boys’ probability of receiving a matriculation diploma and their total number of successfully completed matriculation exam units while lowering that of girls.”

Worse, the study also shows that even though girls outperformed boys overall in year 12 subjects, “it does not translate into better labour market outcomes for all girls”.

The study authors said the focus on maths was important because it was shown to be a good predictor of future income.