Writings on the people, programs and philosophies behind BSS.

Leading the Way

Inspiring Gender Balance in Every Field

“Draw a scientist.” These three words, a seemingly straightforward prompt, formed the basis of a projective test on primary schoolchildren conceived by David Wade Chambers in 1983. You can probably guess how most of them – nearly 5,000 students from Canada, Australia and the United States – interpreted the question: they drew a man.

The famous study has been replicated and tested countless times since, including at BSS, where in a purely informal, unofficial context, it provides teachers like Genny Lee with a gauge of students’ ingrained stereotypes. Certainly between Grades 5 through 7, which she taught for several years, the outcome doesn’t much vary; most envision a balding man in a lab coat. It would seem that even for girls attending BSS, social and cultural conditioning inevitably seeps in.

Evolution of OpportunityYet Ms. Lee, who now teaches Grade 12 AP chemistry, expresses no discouragement, pointing instead to what she calls an “implicit” exercise as an opportunity to foster “explicit” understanding. To her current Grade 12 class, she poses the question: “How come you don’t see yourselves in that lab coat?” For all the continuous reinforcement, she is equally aware that
too much can backfire.

“At a place like BSS where the motto is ‘Girls can do anything,’ it can almost go in one ear and out the other,” Ms. Lee admits. “Approaching it implicitly is important because they need to have their own epiphany of ‘That’s me, I’m the scientist.’”

Indeed, across the entire school, from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 12, teachers are giving careful, constant consideration to how girls interpret and perceive the balance of men and women in all fields and situations. The younger grades may hear female pronouns used whenever possible, while female industry leaders may come to speak to students in their graduating year. The point, teachers say, is to draw attention to the issue while also normalizing it.

Ever since 2002 when BSS began integrating the Reggio-inspired approach, a version of the highly respected learning philosophy originating in Reggio Emilia, Italy, the curriculum has shifted in several ways. Most notably, it is now largely inquiry-based, so that students become active participants in shaping what they learn. STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) have been recast as more accessible – from obligatory robotics competitions in Grade 6 to learning about epidemiology in the wake of a present-day outbreak. Another advantage is that the classes are less reliant on textbooks, which means faculty are spared the task of adjusting any language that is largely male leaning.

This, says Grade 6 teacher Radhika Raj, helps to tailor her investigative studies curriculum so that it approaches a broad subject like Canadian history from a specific and resonant angle, such as marginalized people – and how they are represented in non-fiction, fiction and poetry. This past year, research spanned Canadian Chinese immigrants in 1800s, women and the vote, black history and Japanese internment and First Nations.

She points out that by the time the girls arrive in Grade 6, they are familiar with the notion of marginalization even if they do not identify it as such. “They are ready to ask deep questions and apply it to different contexts,” she says.

The free-flowing exchange of questions and ideas further encourages the girls to contribute. As such, the students will nudge class investigations forward themselves. “While I create the provocation, the students are the ones who become engaged and
then go off and do more research as a whole grade,” Ms. Raj explains, citing a moment when a discussion about Chinese communities transitioned into LGBT rights and
gay marriage.

Balance, Ms. Lee notes, deserves to be this broad in scope. “To me, it’s about balancing what science looks like in a diverse setting – not just the female component but also the cultural component. We try to say it’s about a thinking capacity – that someone who is artistic or musical can make for great assets in the science program; we’re trying to show that science doesn’t have to look a specific way.”

At the Kindergarten level, preconceptions have yet to gel. That’s why Amanda Humphreys, who has been teaching at BSS for 15 years, including Grades 3 through 6, notes the importance of coaxing conversations that might initially seem so evident. When a girl described dinosaurs as “boyish,” Ms. Humphreys, who is also a lead teacher says this kick-started a chat on why she felt that way. “They may not be able to articulate it but you can see it in their actions after,” she maintains. “We’re a girls’ school that doesn’t just have dresses and clothes; there’s the firefighter hat to infuse play with things that are gender neutral.”

When Ms. Humphreys arrived at BSS, she says she was awestruck by the way her Grade 6 class could articulate themselves. And that was before adopting Reggio-inspired practices. “In the past ten years, we’ve really pushed the envelope in terms of thinking about issues at the forefront of education now. These kids are learning
to be resilient – they are our future leaders and problem solvers.” Do they have grit and do they have all these pieces?

Ask business teacher Mary Ellen Moran and she’s likely to reply yes – with a caveat or two. Over her 15 years at BSS, she has taught accounting to Grades 11 and 12, financial securities, international business and an introduction to business course taken by girls in Grade 9 – which is to say, she familiarizes students throughout the Senior School with notions of entrepreneurship, financial literacy and business simulations.

Naturally, she contends with the ever-present reality that most industry leaders remain men. When referring to hypothetical owners and managers, she and her colleagues make a “conscious effort” to identify them as women. They often ask businesswomen to speak to classes, and they offer as many examples as possible of successful female entrepreneurs. Equally important, though, is to avoid forcing a female-centric perspective. A good idea developed by a man is still a good idea.

At BSS, the business stream is entirely optional, which means that students generally self-select into the classes – they take them because they are already interested (especially the higher-level options such as accounting). But Ms. Moran reminds students that this knowledge is beneficial, no matter what students decide to pursue. “I tell girls that everything is a business; you could be Taylor Swift and it pays to have business acumen. And if nothing else, the Grade 9 course shows what it’s like to be a consumer, because they’re going to be consumers their entire life.”

BSS offers the DECA club as an extracurricular program, providing girls with an additional, internationally recognized outlet to participate in pre-university business activities. While Ms. Moran, who worked in banking before pursuing teaching, believes that the school’s business foundation for students is as strong as ever, she concedes it’s merely a glimpse of what’s to come. “I think the girls know that they will have to work at it; they know that it’s not going to be a walk in the park. But hopefully they’re interested and see the opportunities – because the opportunities are myriad.”

Before they even get there, Ms. Raj singles out a salient reality check that puts everything into perspective: the ongoing inevitability of imbalance. “Some things we need to uncover and then work against – and that’s what fascinates me as a teacher. Sometimes the girls don’t even know what women have been through and what they’re going to face. And if they don’t know about pay equity, and they go out there, they’re going to feel really frustrated and they won’t know what to do. Whereas if they know ahead of time, they can feel empowered to overcome it.”

Which is to say, draw a scientist enough times and just maybe, you’ll become one.

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By Amy Verner

Amy Verner is a lifestyle journalist who divides her time between Paris and Toronto. She attended BSS between 1984–95.