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Sociologist explores gender at high school

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Sarah Goodkind, associate professor, School of Social Work, Department of Sociology, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program, presented the lecture “Are My Pants Lowering Your Test Scores?: Blaming Girls for Challenges Facing Boys” Thursday afternoon in the Cathedral of Learning.  Donny Falk | Staff Photographer

Sarah Goodkind, associate professor, School of Social Work, Department of Sociology, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program, presented the lecture “Are My Pants Lowering Your Test Scores?: Blaming Girls for Challenges Facing Boys” Thursday afternoon in the Cathedral of Learning. Donny Falk | Staff Photographer

Sarah Goodkind, associate professor, School of Social Work, Department of Sociology, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program, presented the lecture “Are My Pants Lowering Your Test Scores?: Blaming Girls for Challenges Facing Boys” Thursday afternoon in the Cathedral of Learning. Donny Falk | Staff Photographer

By Lianna Rana / For the Pitt News

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`In a Pittsburgh public high school, girls and boys spent a school year segregated.

Sara Goodkind, a sociology professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department at Pitt, learned through student interviews that the gender-segregated classes led to internalized sexism and inappropriate behavior, such as girls acting out against one another and being overly affectionate toward male students.

The school Goodkind studied, Westinghouse Academy, a public school in Pittsburgh for  grades 6-12, voted to try single-sex classes in 2011.

Westinghouse Academy returned to integrated classes the following year after the Women’s Law Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania Greater Pittsburgh Chapter threatened to file a federal civil rights complaint against the school board for sex discrimination.

On Thursday, Feb. 25, Goodkind presented her findings about Westinghouse to about 100 Pitt students, discussing the effects of sexism and school policies, including misplaced blame on women for men’s behavior, internalized devaluation of women and the sexualization of young women, especially students.

Goodkind will publish an article of her findings later this year, although she does not know where yet.

Through a series of interviews with parents, teachers, administrators and students, Goodkind found that administration created the strict dress code and sex-segregated classrooms to separate the male students from the girl’s distracting clothing and behavior. During that year, Goodkind worked with a team of undergraduate and graduate students from Pitt, as well as students recruited from the high school.

“[The school board] wanted to eliminate distraction and harassment from the opposite sex, address different learning styles of boys and girls and remedy the inequities in opportunities faced by students of different socioeconomic statuses,” Goodkind said.

First-year Pitt student Anne Luongo said she attended the lecture after reading articles of girls being sent home for “showing their collar bones or other ridiculous things like that.”

“[The presentation] definitely gave me a better perspective of the situation as a whole and the other factors that play into the way girls dress and how boys react to it,” Luongo said.

Although the Pittsburgh school focused on grades and test scores, Goodkind said the assumptions behind dress codes feed into a larger systemic problem.

“I think that in our society more broadly, this is a part of a broader phenomenon that has been ongoing for a long time where we hold girls accountable for boys’ behavior when we talk about sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Goodkind said.

Sexist policies damage people of all genders, said Gabby Yearwood, a Pitt professor who teaches human sexuality courses in Pitt’s anthropology department.

“It characterizes men as being unable to control their behavior instead of saying that men are socialized into this perspective,” Yearwood said. “It privileges heterosexuality and assumes that boys are always attracted to girls and that they are so attracted that they can’t pay attention in school.”

In 2014, a ban on leggings at Haven Middle School in Evanston, Illinois, sparked a national social media protest.

The slogan “are my pants lowering your test scores?,” which girls displayed on shirts, pants and signs at the middle school, went viral online. According to Ms. Magazine, 500 people signed a petition against the ban, and the school eventually conceded, although it still required students to wear skirts or dresses over the leggings.

Goodkind said dress codes put too much emphasis on the power of attire, ignoring other factors at play in the high school, such as systemic racism and living in a low-income community.

At Westinghouse, Goodkind found, 97 percent of students were African-American, and 82 percent qualified for free and reduced lunch.

Goodkind told the audience that future teachers and mentors grow up and learn in the same system that promotes hegemonic masculinity and rape culture.

“Male mentors and coaches grew up embedded in masculine norms,” Goodkind said.

Goodkind said her future research will focus on the kinds of messages that coaches and teachers tell girls. She plans to work with high school girls in Pittsburgh, half of whom will be athletes, to pinpoint differences in how they learn about masculinity and femininity.

Goodkind said she is working toward a day when society values and respects girls and women for who they really are, “not just as someone’s girlfriend or wife or mom, but people.”

“I don’t mean to blame the boys, there are lots of challenges facing boys,” Goodkind said. “Girls are not among them.”

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Sociologist explores gender at high school