The Beginning of Biases
Attitudes about female behavior start from the moment a baby is swaddled in pink. Girls experience these gender stereotypes to varying degrees throughout their childhood and they become fully institutionalized in our education system. As soon as a girl starts school, she encounters subtle (and sometimes blatant) messages about her academic abilities and future potential. Students of color and those from low-income families face additional biases that limit their opportunity.
Even in the elementary school years, girls face barriers that ultimately hinder their achievement, particularly in math and science. These barriers are reinforced throughout middle and high school. As a result, when they enter college, women gravitate toward college majors that prepare them for lower-paying fields, and away from the STEM fields that lead to higher paying jobs. And although women have surpassed men in earning degrees, research shows that women are disproportionally represented in 6 of the 10 lowest-paying college majors, while 9 of the 10 highest-paying majors (all in the STEM fields) are dominated by men.
What’s more, female students face sexual discrimination, harassment and assault. A 2011 AAUW survey found 56% of female students experienced sexual harassment. This contributes to higher rates of mental health issues among girls, who are more likely than boys to be depressed or anxious about school performance, appearance, behavior and social interactions.
Addressing educational inequality requires an intersectional approach: understanding how discrimination based on race, gender, class, orientation and ability compounds to create additional barriers for many students. A majority of U.S. schools are highly divided by income and race – anchored in a long history of racism, discrimination and segregating school and housing policies. And studies show students in higher-income areas generally have access to higher-quality, better-funded educations.
Teaching for Tomorrow
To ensure a future of equal opportunity — and equal rewards — in the workforce, we need to start with our educational system. It is critical to remove gender-based barriers that keep not only girls but all students from pursuing their dreams and reaching their potential. Schools must teach with an eye toward tomorrow’s economy: The fastest growing, most well-paid sectors require technology, math and science expertise that many students — especially female students and students of color — are not getting. The education system also needs to support the demand for soft skills, such as problem solving, self-directed learning, communication, collaboration and creativity.
The gender pay gap — and the lack of women in leadership roles — are not problems that suddenly surface when women enter the workforce. The roots of the problem run deep and correcting it entails understanding the barriers and biases that begin and persist in our educational system.
With relatively so few women succeeding in math and science careers, girls have fewer role models to inspire their interest in these fields. Get the facts on how girls and women are held back from pursuing STEM careers.
Women hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in the U.S. — close to $929 billion. When compounded by interest and the gender pay gap, this is an incredible threat to women’s economic security long past graduation day. Get the facts.
Where We Stand: Education & Title IX
AAUW supports a strong system of public education that promotes gender fairness, equity, and diversity, including vigorous enforcement of Title IX. Learn more about the specific policy measures we advocate for.
Know Your Rights on Campus
The rights of students, faculty and staff are protected by law, yet many campuses fail to safeguard against gender discrimination, harassment and assault. Use AAUW’s Legal Advocacy Fund resources to make sure you know your rights.
Education Gives Women Dignity
Education is everything. Education empowers. Education gives us dignity. Education liberates the girl child.
There are lots of ways to get involved with AAUW’s work to advance gender equity. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of women and girls.
Sign up to get timely action alerts
If you prefer, text “AAUW” to 21333 to get AAUW action alerts via text.