By Swara Tewari //
My third-grade teacher had a plastic treasure chest stashed under her desk. It was filled to the brim with prizes — Pokemon cards, mini monster trucks, water balloons, stickers and glittery pencil grips. To draw a prize from the treasure chest, you had to earn ten stars, which were given out for good behavior, like raising your hand, answering questions correctly, turning in homework consistently, or helping another classmate. All the things that constituted being a “good student.”
That whole year, I was obsessed with the idea of drawing prizes. I never missed homework, never talked in “silent time,” and always asked the kids at my table if they needed help after turning in my own meticulous work. My report cards came home with comments of high praise, with the words “hardworking” and “dedicated” thrown around a lot. After some reflection, I’ve realized that to me, it was never actually about the cheap, dollar-store prizes — they would usually end up buried in my sock drawer — rather, it was what they represented. Those prizes were tangible proof that I had, in some way, achieved the ideal that all little girls are socially conditioned to aspire to — the “good girl.”
Looking back, I see the patterns. It was always the girls in my class who earned more stars. It was always the girls who never forgot to raise their hands before blurting out answers and who got more impressive report cards. This trend carried over into middle school and high school. According to NBC News, girls get better grades than boys do at all ages, including in STEM subjects. However, despite performing better in STEM subjects, Built by Me STEM Learning reports that women enter STEM careers at far lower rates than men and are also far more likely to leave STEM jobs.
This discrepancy in the stats is baffling at first glance — why would girls be less likely to enter STEM careers if they consistently perform better in STEM classes? The answer requires us to examine how we raise boys and girls differently, from their first day in the classroom to their last.
We teach girls to keep their heads down and do their work, while boys are taught to ask questions. We teach girls to raise their hands and to never speak out of turn while boys are permitted to be loud and unruly. We teach girls to follow the rules while we encourage boys to think outside the box. We teach girls to aspire to perfection while we allow boys to take risks and learn from their mistakes.
According to Educational Psychology, a teacher is more likely to praise boys on correct knowledge, while girls are praised for good behavior. This demonstrates that in the classroom, from a very young age, boys are judged on their competency and on the merit of their achievements while girls are judged on their behavior. Every time a girl receives the perfunctory “good girl” as praise, this pointless social ideal of being well-behaved is reinforced.
This gap between how boys and girls are treated explains the dissonance in statistical trends. Girls work hard and follow the rules, which is why they consistently get better grades and perform better than boys in school. But then, sometime between the classroom and workplace, the rules are switched. In the workplace, good behavior and following the rules doesn’t earn brownie points. Rather, being assertive and offering outside-the-box ideas determines who is successful and wins the next promotion or raise. And suddenly, all the high-achieving good girls are entirely out of their element.
It is evident that the socially-constructed “good girl” ideal has to be entirely thrown out — it is a remainder of the systems put in place to oppress women from our collective patriarchal past and has no place in the 21st century. It has taught generations of little girls that being well-behaved is more important than the quality of their achievements.
Looking back, I wish I could tell my third-year-old self to forget the futile quest to earn stars. I can now clearly see the stars, points, and compliments I used to painstakingly collect during my school years for what they were — the remnants of a system created to subdue and control women.