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For Girls, 'Very Nice' Is Not Always 'Very Good'

February 20, 1992|DIANNE KLEIN

My husband announces that he's just read a front-page newspaper story and that it is terrifying. I haven't picked up the paper myself, so I am thinking along the lines of a more conventional disaster: the environment, the weather, the latest consumer scare.

But the story is about a study commissioned by the American Assn. of University Women. It is called a "landmark," based on two decades of research about the public education of our nation's girls.

The study says that girls are systematically being shortchanged, given fewer and less attractive choices than are boys. It says females are still stereotyped, that standardized tests are biased against them, that more of them are being sexually harassed and that science and math remain largely male preserves.

And it says that teachers just plain pay more attention to the boys.

The quickest way to turn a man into a feminist is to give him a daughter. In our case, my husband and I have two.

"I can see how it happens," my husband says. "It's the way that life is."

Then he goes on to describe the goings-on at his office, where the employees report to him. He mentions women who are doing their work quietly, competently, with little complaint. This is a manager's dream. It is also an easy way to be overlooked.

It's the people who make their presence known , for better or for worse, who get my husband's time.

Now flash back to American schools, the early years. The girls sit quietly, the boys have ants in their pants.

" Sigh ," a visitor from outer space might emote. "When will the boys settle down?"

The answer is that most of them never will. Boys are taught from the beginning that settling for anything can mean missing out on something better down the line. They are taught to speak up, to develop a confident tone, to win.

Girls get a different message. The bottom line: Get along. And please , whatever you do, don't forget to raise your hand to ask permission first!

Our older daughter brought home her report card from kindergarten the other day. It's a new design, with no grades, but with linear scales indicating student progress toward several goals. As best we could understand, it looked like our daughter was doing well.

The teacher wrote at the bottom of the report that she thought our daughter was a "very nice little girl." At the time, I thought that was good. Now I am not so sure.

When is very nice not very good?

That's a question at the root of the AAUW report. It's a subtle paradox that can be misunderstood. Many teachers say sex bias does not exist in public schools, or at least not when they are in charge of a class.

Yet volumes of research show that it does. I have seen it myself, even in the classrooms of teachers I respect.

Pronouns do not always have to be male. Women are not some sort of Other, deviants from the norm.

How about some stories where the women are strong, the heroines of a tale? The AAUW report says only one of 10 books most commonly assigned in high school English classes was written by a woman.

And girls aren't always keen on competing for attention if boys are in the mix. Maybe this should be taught. Teachers must draw the girls out, even the ones who are "no trouble at all."

If a wheel doesn't squeak, how can you know that it is turning at all? Inside the classroom and outside, being too nice can mean that you are ignored.

Unfortunately, many women don't discover this until they are all grown up. The truth is getting along also means putting up. And always playing by the rules means that you'll always be confined by them too.

A minister I know sometimes operates under a different motto. "Never ask permission, always ask forgiveness," he says. His wife told him about that.

(Parental discretion advised before passing that pearl along.)

In the long run, I am not really worried about my own daughters' sense of self-worth, so crucial to getting the education that they need in school.

At home, my husband and I treat our daughters with respect. We will offer them everything we can, inspire them to be fighters, teach them to ask rather than to assume.

We need the schools to back us up.

Dianne Klein's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Readers may reach Klein by writing to her at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7406.

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