I am very interested in hearing more about these inadvertent sexist syntaxes. I constantly strive to eradicate biased behavior from myself, and since I am planning to become a math/science teacher, this issue has become even more important to me. I am especially concerned with the attitudes that today's young woman have toward mathematics and I certainly want to make things better, not worse. Could you maybe do an Ask an Applied Mathematician post about fairness in the classroom?
Sure, Tony. I am not an educator myself, but I have been educated, and based on my experience I have a few ideas of what not to do:
BAD IDEA #1:
When introducing the different sets of numbers (e.g. the reals, the integers, the complex, the irrational numbers), end the lesson by discussing your favorite set of numbers: Cindy Crawford's measurements. (True story, happened to my sister at a math/science/technology high school magnet program.)
BAD IDEA #2:
When male classmates humiliate your best pupil, making fun of her for being female and being interested in joining the computer club, stand idly by and let her take care of it herself. (Happened to me in 7th grade.)
BAD IDEA #3:
Frame an otherwise entertaining story about computing the power usage of your computer within the context of your math-illiterate wife blaming you for the high power bill. For extra bonus points, explicitly tell the students that women can't do math. (This happened in a classroom I was observing.)
BAD IDEA #4:
When handing back exams, place the person's exam on their desk, but then grab it back, leaf through to problem number three, and exclaim, "Oh yeah, don't do problem number three [this way]. Only a stupid person would do it that way." (True story, I was the "stupid person" in question, although it goes without saying that you shouldn't do this to anybody, independent of their gender.)
Of course I think you are not likely to do any of the above, based on what I know of you. But there are subtler things that can occur to discourage girls in the math/science classroom.
The classroom should be a safe place, a place where no one is judged on their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., and I would encourage you to strive for that. I think that girls will thrive in a class where they feel safe from harassment, intimidation, etc. coming from their peers. I know that I performed a lot better when I knew that the teacher would come down hard on the people who made fun of me outside of class. I also felt a lot more comfortable when I knew the teacher wasn't going to pick on me, either. Basically I guess I liked the teachers who were benevolent dictators.
There's a phenomenon known as stereotype threat, in which people, when reminded of their status as members of traditionally underperforming groups, perform worse on exams. They don't even have to believe that any stereotypes about their groups are true; they still perform worse than they would have if they hadn't been reminded. The more the differences are played up, the worse the members of the threatened group perform. It even works on white males, if they're told just before taking a math test that Asians perform better on the test. Stereotype threat accounts for at least some of the underperformance that we see in the scores of certain groups on standardized tests, such as the SAT. But it does not account for all.
Unfortunately, society reinforces the idea that women cannot do math in many ways. There was the talking Barbie who declared that "Math is hard!" There are the pajamas for toddlers I saw at the store; you could choose from the "boy" designs with astronauts, athletes, and engineers, and the "girl" designs with ballerinas, pop stars, and fashion models. And the toy section with a doctor's kit aimed at boys and a nurse's kit aimed at girls, despite the fact that in this country, there are more women in medical school than men. And the articles in the newspaper depicting particle physics as a fun game that men play. And the online brochures for math and science departments, depicting their glorious department full of white (and sometimes Asian) men.
There's not much that you can do in the classroom to counter the sexism ingrained in our society. But you can make your classroom a safe space, where the sexism gets checked at the door. And taking at least a little bit of time to discuss the accomplishments of women mathematicians, and women scientists could at least help the girls who are interested in math and science feel less like freaks.
I think this is probably a very incomplete answer, and I wish I could make it more complete. I'm cross-listing this entry with the scientiae carnival, in hopes that others will contribute more ideas for you. Comments are very welcome.
Got a question for the Applied Mathematician? Leave it as a comment, or e-mail me!