Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Gender equity and geography bees

A professor in North Dakota has filed a lawsuit alleging that the National Geographic Bee is not making their contests equitable.
Professor Emeritus Eric Clausen (Minot State University) is naming the NGB as well as other entities and charging them with failure to make the geography bee more fair to girls. He filed a previous claim, which included an allegation that he was retaliated against for his complaints, that was dismissed (see our prior post here). This time he has added additional groups to the list of defendants including his own university.
The details offered in the above linked article are not that clear, and I cannot speak to the merits of Clausen's case.
But I can comment on a few things. First, the preponderance of male winners of the national bee is indisputable: only 2 female winners in the 19-year history of the bee. The North Dakota state contest has an overwhelming majority of male contestants. NGB has apparently looked into this, including commissioning a study by two Penn State researchers in 1996. But the study only found that there is a small difference in what girls and boys know about geography. The study is slated to be updated in the next year.
But really, that's it? I hope the conclusions went a little deeper than that and the article just left them out. But this section of the article worries me:

Beverly Sandness, director of the North Dakota bee, was asked if she had a theory on why boys have dominated the competition.

“No,” she said. “Everybody has their own, I suppose, slant on that. I’ve been in education since 1959 and some things are just hard to explain.”

Someone who has been in education for 52 years thinks that gender differences in the ways boys and girls experience the educational system in this country is just "hard to explain." I find that worrisome. I am NOT in primary education, but even I have a few theories as to why the boys might be dominating in these contests that has nothing to do with that so-called slight difference in what they know about geography. Maybe it has something to do with the performance aspect of the event, specifically what it means to perform your intelligence in front of both peers and strangers. This is a contest for students in grades four through eight. A time when girls are ingesting different messages about what it means to be a girl, when being smart is not as highly prized as being pretty, when beating boys might not be as socially acceptable.
These might not be issues NGB can completely alleviate. But they should at least be aware of the issues and be discussing them and their ramifications on NGB contests. Hard to say if a questionable lawsuit will get them there.