The Depth of the Water: Sexism at Acalanes

By Anne Thiselton-Dyer, Arts Editor

// We swim in the deep water of sexism. Engulfed in it, we acclimatize to a culture that makes it easier for some individuals to stay afloat while others sink beneath the waves. Gender inequality — a spectrum covering experiences of varying offense, frequency, and severity — is ingrained in our history and in our society; its appearance on the Acalanes campus looks the same as in the rest of the world. This is normal. This is water. We cannot see it because we are submerged. 

By Zoe Edelman

  Acalanes celebrates Women’s History Month in March; we celebrate a history of battles won for basic rights like voting and body autonomy. However, we have not yet drained the mindset that created these conflicts. A power imbalance persists, the water ebbs and flows, and will continue to without acknowledgment. 

   Sexism on campus is not a polarizing topic. Out of the many individuals Blueprint interviewed about sexism, all believed that sexism exists to some degree today. After all, gender inequality remains a global issue and Acalanes is no exception.

   “I don’t think that our campus is much different than the national statistics on sexism. I’m sure that it exists and it’s probably similar to the district as a whole,” Acalanes principal Travis Bell said.

   Sexism does not originate in schools, nor is it a school-specific issue. Instead, subconscious gender biases and low-level microaggressions manifest into a blatantly sexist culture. Often, a preconceived yet subconscious belief system guides their treatment of others.  

   “I think sexism is prevalent but a lot of the culture is male-dominated, so it’s not really talked about a lot,” senior Lauren Stadt said. 

   Subtle forms of sexist behavior create a breeding ground for a new, discreet strain of sexism that presents itself today, including at Acalanes. 

   “I wouldn’t say that I see it overtly happening, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening in some form,” Acalanes athletic director and math teacher Randy Takahashi said.

   The issue lies buried under the guise of progress, causing inequity in treatment and unfair expectations for students and staff members. 

   “I don’t frequently hear outward, clear speech that sounds sexist or is intentionally hateful, but I hear and see and experience much subtler statements and actions which imply a hierarchy of gender,” AP Environmental Science teacher Jada Paniagua said.

The Tributaries

    Sexism is a lesson taught by a misogynistic culture long before students set foot on campus. Tributaries of preconceived gender biases meet to replicate that culture at Acalanes. Such creed influences many aspects of student life, despite not being a belief system in which students actively partake.

   One grievance that female students voiced was an increased pressure to do well in school. Stadt attributes this divide to gender stereotypes about intelligence.

   “Some teachers expect a certain amount of work coming from girls; women are ‘better at school’ because we work harder because we have to in order for people to validate us,” Stadt said.

   Junior Lexi Sofield reiterated Stadt’s observations.

   “It’s just because I’m a hard worker that they address me differently. I’ve kind of seen that some teachers view men a little differently than women but usually, girls always do the work and that’s not always the case with guys,” Sofield said.

   However, the observed double standard works both ways. While female students can be expected to perform better in school, males typically receive more flexibility through the benefit of the doubt, according to senior Nicole Wan. 

    “When a girl is stupid, everyone thinks, oh wow, she’s a ditz. But when a guy is stupid it’s like, aw, he’s cute. Because of that, it is less cool for a guy to be good at school or to be a perfectionist than it is for a girl to be totally on top of her game,” Wan said.

   As a result, some girls feel that they have to work harder in order to prove themselves.

   “Acalanes has very high standards and everyone is expected to get good grades, but I feel like girls are expected to get higher grades than the boys,” sophomore Maya Stelzer said.

  While often girls feel expected to perform better in class, teachers and students also observed female students as less willing to take up space.

   “I’ve had students talk to me about how in several classrooms, that boys tend to be louder and classrooms are set up in such a way that the person that is the loudest, the most confident, or the most aggressive is that voice that we hear the most,” English teacher Cathy Challacombe said.

   Senior Noah Kline agreed with Challacombe’s observations. However, he notes that many factors feed into classroom dynamics; one cannot for certain discern whether power imbalances are a result of individual personalities or gender expectations, especially because one often subconsciously informs the other. 

    “Guys are usually just more straight forward and more often full of themselves,” Kline said.

   History teacher Joseph Schottland also observes this difference in students and attributes it to a naturally occurring personality difference between genders.

   “Whether or not they know the right answer, guys are naturally more aggressive. I don’t think that makes them better or worse,” Schottland said.

   Sophomore Vanessa Watts experienced a similar phenomenon.

   “The guys are always picked first by teachers and get called on more,” Watts said.

   Challacombe also observes that young women are often less comfortable than young men advocating for themselves, contributing to a power imbalance in the classroom. Another contributing factor to that imbalance is an uneven gender distribution in classes. 

   “There are classes that, factually, more boys take than girls, and vice versa,” chemistry and environmental science teacher James Poling said.

   Stereotypically masculine classes such as STEM subjects, autoshop, or woodshop consistently have more male signups. 

   “I took engineering in eighth grade and there were seven girls in the class of twenty-eight,” Stadt said.

   Not only does uneven distribution such as the one Stadt described discourage girls from taking those classes, but those that do are far outnumbered, setting a tradition that the majority of students are unlikely to break.  

  “As a male, I think a lot more of the scientific classes are geared toward me, which is more encouraging. It makes it easier to sign up for one,” sophomore Graham Klingler said. “It’s not explicit sexism, it’s more years of mainly boys taking STEM classes, like woodshop. Working with wood and building things is traditionally a ‘manly’ thing to do.”  

   Teachers’ expectations and the classroom environment created by its composition affect not only class participation, but also academic performance, according to Eileen Zurbriggen, Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

   “Psychologist Robert Rosenthal did compelling research decades ago that showed that teacher expectations affect student performance. Students do worse when their teachers expect them to, and they do better when their teachers expect them to,” Zurbriggen said. 

   Like any other social inequity, sexism in an educational environment is difficult to pinpoint when one does not actually experience it firsthand. 

   “The male experience is there not having to be a different experience,” junior Jonas Buchel said.

   Buchel explained that as a male student, he can not truly gauge how prevalent sexism is because it does not happen to him. Because sexism is less likely to take the form of hate speech, discrimination, and the like, many students have trouble identifying it. 

   “It’s prevalent in teachers and also male students. I wouldn’t say it is obvious though,” Wan said. “It’s microaggressions and small disbelief that sexism even exists, which I interpret as mild disrespect because most people don’t realize sexism exists until they experience it.” 

The Watershed

   While microaggressions spring up between teenagers, this “different experience” for females is not isolated to the student body. Although staff members’ professional experiences differ from those of students, sexism infiltrates how teachers present themselves, run their classes, and interact with students.

   “It’s this very fine ridge that one balances on. If I am too feminine, I am not considered academic enough and if I inhabit characteristics that a lot of my male colleagues are celebrated for — being the big personality or being really strict — then quite often there are repercussions for that as well,” Paniagua said.

   According to staff, the way that male and female teachers must behave in order to maintain respect from students and coworkers is not the same.

   “I think that there is more latitude given to a male and there is an age variable that you have to take into account. But there is more latitude given to the male running the class than the female,” Schottland said.

  While some staff members felt comfortable voicing their experiences with sexism on campus, other individuals wished to protect their anonymity. Upon request and in order to maintain anonymity, Staff Member 2 will be referred to using they/them pronouns. 

   Staff Member 1 felt that other members of the Acalanes community could be offended by her take on the dynamic between her coworkers and students, and Staff Member 2 explained that they were not comfortable going on record for a similar reason, citing a campus culture that discourages communication that would necessitate confronting sexism.

   “I feel like the culture here of those in charge discourages honest communication and encourages a presenting of a united front that everything is okay,” Staff Member 2 said. “Some people would rather pretend like this isn’t a problem. I think that they would acknowledge it as a problem, but I’m not sure that any change would come from that acknowledgment. It’s easier to just not do anything.” 

   Byproducts of a sexist culture persist regardless of whether administration addresses them; for example, male teachers are generally allowed to be harsher and less emotionally available, while emotional labor is almost an expectation for female teachers. 

   “Female teachers have harder times getting a certain amount of respect from boys. I think that men can have a harder time being emotionally available sometimes — they might seem kind of curt, write off students, or be a little hard,” art teacher Robert Porter said. 

   Sexism appears in subtler forms, such as an emphasis on praising physical appearance over professional expertise.

  “I’m complimented on my appearance but not on my teaching, not on my ideas, not on my dedication to my craft,¨ Paniagua said.

   Female teachers have a stricter code of conduct in terms of how they could interact with students while male teachers typically have more flexibility.   

   “I think the expectation would be that one gender, a female-gendered staff person, would be more expected to handle more of the emotional issues that may arise with students,” Staff Member 2 said.

   The expectation of traditionally feminine sensitivity to emotions is not upheld for male teachers. 

   “I’m supposed to be more sensitive to the kids’ needs, but if a male teacher is very strict, no one says anything for us. We have to be that compassionate,” Staff Member 1 said.

  In addition to expectations of sensitivity that are not upheld for everyone, female teachers must consider many aspects beyond their course material to maintain appropriate respect from students. 

   “When students are prioritizing my work, I’m always a lower priority to their male teachers. I have been told that I need to be more strict, that I need to behave like certain teachers. It’s almost always a male teacher that they’re comparing me to,” Staff Member 1 said.

   Male teachers are seen as “examples” for their equally if not more qualified female teachers to follow. This is a reflection of a societal assumption from which Acalanes is not exempt. Paniagua described experiences in which both male students and coworkers questioned her credibility in her subject.

   “I am sure that these men, who are good men and kindhearted men, would be horrified to consider that that’s how they view it. I don’t think that most men would ever consider that that is how the interactions feel and appear to their female colleagues,” Paniagua said.

   She does not believe that these actions are the result of malintent but instead of a collective mindset that assumes a man’s opinion is more valid than a woman’s, regardless of expertise. 

   “It’s just the lack of respect for time. It’s being interrupted. It’s the eyes glazing over when you start speaking with any kind of emotion,” Anonymous Staff Member 2 said.

   Because sexist beliefs are primarily the result of a collective mindset, experiences are not identical across the board. Both the form and degree to which sexism leaks into the classroom vary based on the approach of teachers and whether they adjust curriculum to combat or work with the dynamics that accompany a misogynistic culture.

   “I actually think that girls have certain strengths and that guys have certain strengths. It’s a bit of a teacher’s responsibility to adjust their teaching styles and be very aware of that,” Schottland said. 

The Source

   The root of the problem lies in the fact that individuals have no reason to notice the extent to which sexism seeps into every aspect of life if it is not something they directly experience. Consequently, many people do not notice that they are submerged; those that do keep swimming.

   “Sexist attitudes and behaviors have gotten, in some ways, more subtle. When I was in high school, the language that you would use to insult someone or make them feel bad about themselves if they were a different gender from you, were gender non-conforming, or did not appear as the gender they identified as, the words used were really crude and awful and disgusting,” Poling said. “I don’t hear that language as much anymore, but I still see behaviors that put people like that down.” 

   This double standard victimizes all genders when the expectations set out for individuals do not fit the way they wish to participate.

   “It’s also not just the opposite sex expecting one thing. It’s a collective expectation of something. So it’s not any gender-specific fault,” Kline said.

   Since their experience with it is different, male and female views on sexism are bound to differ. 

     “I don’t think it’s sexist to say girls are different than guys because, biologically, they are. The sexist thing is saying that one is better than the other,” Schottland said.

   While blatant sexism — hate speech, discrimination, and other behaviors stemming from the assumption Schottland described — is easy to put a finger on, sexism takes a more complex and less identifiable form on the Acalanes campus. 

   For instance, ingrained gender bias comes out to play in terms of how the community views sports teams. Watts described a difference in attitudes towards girls sports versus boys sports.

   “The girls sports teams are not really talked about and not many people show up,” Watts said.

   Though it is unlikely that anyone is purposefully neglecting girls’ sports teams over boys, those teams generally take a lower priority.

   “Take a look at how our boys and girls sports are attended. In a head to head comparison, the boys’ sports tend to draw more of a crowd than the girls’ sports. So is that because there is any kind of effort made to make that happen? No, I think societally that’s just happening. It’s gotten much better as far as closing that gap, but we’re not anywhere near there,” Takahashi said.

     Individually, such incidents are minor and perceivably harmless. Collectively, they symbolize a culture content with accepting and normalizing sexist beliefs.

   “There’s no intentional harm being done, but it is these fully ingrained mindsets of what it means to be male or female — what work is male work, what work is female work — that are just so ingrained into what our society is,” Paniagua said.

   Very few complaints regarding sexist behavior by students or staff have made it to the punitive level. 

   “It’s not getting cases of someone using practice or language that’s so obviously inflammatory that it’s easy to act on. When we have, we’ve tried to act on it,” associate principal Mike Plant said.

   Mistreatment cannot always be attributed to gender bias; a variety of factors influence one’s experience on campus, including racism, homophobia, ageism, and more. As a result of the ambiguous nature of many incidents, it’s hard for administration to get directly involved, according to Plant.

   “It’s a really complicated issue and that there’s a gray area for most people in terms of acknowledging gender versus them acting in a way that it can be construed as prejudice against a certain person. I do sadly think that that kind of activity probably does go on. When administration has had that directly reported to us, we do care about that,” Plant said. “The problem is a lot of it is covert enough that it’s not reported.”  

   Associate Principal Andrea Powers believes that Acalanes has made more progress than some other high school campuses in this regard.

   “People here have been more willing to dialogue with me about it,” Powers said.

   There are a variety of opinions about progress made around sexism on campus from both students and staff.

   “I believe we are one of the better areas when it comes to sexism,” sophomore Kenny Hilton said.

   However, barriers to having discussions about gender inequality stem from a fear of accusations of sexist behavior. 

  “I would think that women are probably not scared to talk about sexism on campus. They’re probably looking for an outlet for that,” Staff Member 2 said. “I don’t know how comfortable men would feel about talking about sexism on campus because I think that they would be afraid that they would somehow be called out.”

   Without an active conversation, it can be difficult for victims of sexism to identify the root of the problem and for those who aren’t victims to even realize it is one. 

   “I don’t see it that much on campus, but I don’t really pay attention to that much. As a cisgender white male, I’m not typically a victim of sexism,” Klingler said. 

   Powers described an epiphany she had when she realized the extent that sexism dictated her surroundings.

   “Until you see it or until you actually really feel it or witness it, it’s hard to be able to grasp it. For a long time I was definitely someone who didn’t see it,” Powers said. 

   Zurbriggen emphasized the reluctance some people feel engaging in discussions about sexism. When a conversation concerns a complicated topic like sexism, the line between a productive dialogue and an accusation of the behavior in question blurs. Ostensibly, few Acalanes boys were willing to talk to Blueprint about sexism.

   “I think the number one reason boys are unwilling to have discussions about this topic is that they don’t want to be attacked and made to feel ashamed. Discussions that can meet boys where they are at, that start from a place of believing that boys are good people, not monsters, and that all of us are hurt by patriarchy and sexism, can help make it safe for boys to talk, without minimizing the pain and harm the sexism causes girls,” Zurbriggen said.

The Outlet

   Explicit sexist behavior has not been eradicated on campus, but changes in recent years have challenged its existence. Acalanes recently won an award from the AP College Board for Female Diversity in STEM. Acalanes is one of 639 institutions nationally that offer AP courses to win the award. This award could signal a step towards empowering female students and Acalanes’ fight to combat long-persisting stereotypes about women as inherently less intelligent in math and science. 

   Additionally, Acalanes is inviting representatives from the League of Women’s Voters to speak to students about the history of women’s suffrage and the importance of voting for all regardless of sex on March 20.

   “We felt like that would be really good coming off the heels of the March third primary and our election simulation,” government teacher Kristen Anderson said.

   These are small steps that slowly alter the overall campus culture towards less biased attitudes. 

   According to Zurbriggen, modern society has moved in the direction of implicit sexist attitudes rather than explicit sexist behavior. Though, explicit forms of sexism still exist. 

    “It is no longer illegal for women to vote. There are no longer jobs that are specifically advertised as men’s or women’s. Extreme sexist comments are less frequent than they once were,” Zurbriggen said. “At the same time, the Equal Rights Amendment has still not passed. There is still bias in pay rates, with women earning less than men. Powerful men still sexually objectify and sexually harass women. There’s nothing ‘implicit’ about any of that.”

   Schools may not be the source of misogyny, but that does not mean it is not their responsibility to address how it infiltrates campus culture. Students may bring their preconceived notions to class every day, but education provides the chance for reexamination.

   “If we’re not actively engaging trying to minimize areas of bias that are showing up, we’re never going to change the game,” Bell said.

   Acalanes High School Union District Superintendent John Nickerson believes that such an effort is already taking place.

   “I think the staff is somewhat conscious of different biases that might exist and make an effort to remove kind of explicit or implicit sexism,” Nickerson said.

   Wan said that this consciousness is what allowed her to identify the reasons she was treated differently than her male peers.

   “If I had just come to Acalanes and didn’t really understand the environment, I probably would’ve just thought, this is my fault. But as I was educated more by a lot of our socially liberal teachers, which I do really appreciate, I think that we’ve normalized the idea to always look out for these things. I think that’s something that we should all try to do,” Wan said. 

   Though students may contribute to a misogynistic culture while at Acalanes, it is not the students’ responsibility to eliminate sexism behaviors in their teachers and peers. That said, gender inequity is one of many heavy topics that schools have the option to confront collectively, along with issues of race and LGBT+ discrimination. Powers believes that on the individual level, staff are willing to discuss this issue.

   “I have not met one male staff member on this campus that’s like, what are you talking about? I feel that there might not be an understanding and that it’s not at the forefront of people’s thoughts that we need to talk about it, but we as a staff have to start dialoguing in a way where everyone is willing to listen, hear, and be understood,” Powers said.

   Widespread discussion and confrontation of sexism on campus has yet to happen. However, teachers are combating these norms through the voices they choose to present in their curriculum. Due to the formal exclusion of women from higher education for most of history, most female contributions students get the opportunity to learn about come from less than one hundred years ago. A representative curriculum is difficult to develop from a history of inequity.

   “I attempt to increase the diversity of voices in my classroom in any way possible. Our textbook does not facilitate that well,” Paniagua said. 

   Along the same lines, the district implemented a policy requiring all English classes to teach the work of at least one female author.

   “That was in response to some of our classrooms that would have no female authors. But wouldn’t it be interesting if the language said you need to make sure you have at least one male author? And I don’t think it says that. I think it was addressing a traditional bias where much of the literature was, to be very narrow, dead white European male authors,” Nickerson said.

   Powers believes that the most effective way to combat gender inequality is to encourage dialogue about it, something she says is already beginning to happen at Acalanes. In order to continue this conversation, she plans to start a women’s affinity group, a forum for women to discuss issues of sexism on campus and in wider society.

  “It’s a space for women to dialogue and connect on issues that we feel on our campus, but also just being a female in this society,” Powers said.

   Although intentional changes in curriculum and dialogue are small steps towards altering a campus culture dictated by a history of inequity, we do not yet know how to break the surface. This is the water. It is normal and we are still submerged.

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