Hidden Sexism & How It Shapes Our Girls

Kara Powell | Mar 15, 2011

Last week my husband sent this article from Slate to me and a handful of our friends who have daughters. Entitled “Psych-Out Sexism,” the article shares some important research on the power of the gender of the teacher in encouraging male and female students to pursue (or avoid) engagement in the fields of math and science.

A few of the paragraphs that most got my attention were:

“The psychologists asked female students studying biology, chemistry, and engineering to take a very tough math test. All the students were greeted by a senior math major who wore a T-shirt displaying Einstein’s E=mc2 equation. For some volunteers, the math major was male. For others, the math major was female. This tiny tweak made a difference: Women attempted more questions on the tough math test when they were greeted by a female math major rather than a male math major. On psychological tests that measured their unconscious attitudes toward math, the female students showed a stronger self-identification with math when the math major who had greeted them was female. When they were greeted by the male math major, women had significantly higher negative attitudes toward math.”

Even who greets you makes a difference!

In another experiment, researchers looked at how the gender of the teacher made a difference in the sheer quantity of questions asked:

“At the start of the semester, 11 percent of the female students attempted to answer questions posed to the entire class when the professor was male, and 7 percent of the female students attempted to answer questions posed to the entire class when the professor was female. By the end of the semester, the number of female students who attempted to answer questions posed by a male professor had not changed significantly: Only 7 percent of the women tried to answer such questions. But when classes were taught by a woman, the percentage of female students who attempted to answer questions by the semester’s end rose to 46.”

The implications for churches are rather obvious. What are we doing to make sure that our kids are exposed to teachers and leaders of both genders? Regardless of your theology of women in leadership, what are you doing to make sure that kids of both genders are exposed to adult role models of both genders?

If you’re a youth leader, this article would make for a great topic of discussion at an upcoming staff meeting or even informal coffee with a leader or two. Who do you have up front in your ministry? What messages are you sending by that? What’s good about those messages? What’s maybe not-so-good?

If you sense a gender imbalance in your teachers and up-front leadership, what can you do about that?

In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll share my own personal story of how meeting a woman in full-time ministry was pivotal to my belief that the Lord could be calling me to the same.

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.


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