In 1991, the AAUW announced the disturbing results: "Most [girls] emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image." Anne Bryant, then executive director of the AAUW and an expert in public relations, organized a media campaign to spread the word that "an unacknowledged American tragedy" had been uncovered. Newspapers and magazines around the country carried the bleak tidings that girls were being adversely affected by gender bias that eroded their self-esteem. Susan Schuster, at the time president of the AAUW, candidly explained to The New York Times why the AAUW had undertaken the research in the first place: "We wanted to put some factual data behind our belief that girls are getting shortchanged in the classroom."
At the time the AAUW's self-esteem results were making headlines, a little-known journal called Science News, which has been supplying information on scientific and technical developments to interested newspapers since 1922, quoted leading adolescent psychologists who questioned the validity of the self-esteem poll. But somehow the doubts of the experts were not reported in the hundreds of news stories the AAUW study generated.
The AAUW quickly commissioned a second study, How Schools Shortchange Girls. This new study, carried out by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and released in 1992, asserted a direct causal relationship between girls' (alleged) second-class status in the nation's schools and deficiencies in their level of self-esteem. Carol Gilligan's psychological girl crisis was thus transformed into a pressing civil rights issue: girls were victims of widespread sexist discrimination in our nation's schools. "The implications are clear," said the AAUW; "the system must change."
Education Week reported that the AAUW spent $100,000 for the second study and $150,000 promoting it. With great fanfare, How Schools Shortchange Girls was released to uncritical, even enthusiastic, media. The promotion proved to be spectacularly successful, generating more than 1,400 news reports and a flurry of TV discussions of the "tragedy" that had struck the nation's girls.
Susan Chira's 1992 article for The New York Times was typical of media coverage throughout the country. The headline read "Bias Against Girls Is Found Rife in Schools, with Lasting Damage." The piece could have been written by the AAUW's publicity department. Indeed, the entire Times article was later reproduced by the AAUW and sent out as part of its fund-raising package. Chira had not interviewed a single critic.
In March 1999, I called Ms. Chira and asked her about the way she had handled the AAUW report on diminished girls. There was a long silence. "I don't want to talk about this," she finally said. I tried delicately to broach the question of why she had not sought out critics. "I see where this is going....I wish you the best of luck. Goodbye," she said, taking the journalistic equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.
But she called back a few hours later, saying she was prepared to answer my questions. Would you write it the same way today? I asked. No, she said, pointing out that we have since learned so much more about boys' deficits. Why had she not canvassed dissenting opinions? She explained that when the AAUW study had come out, she had been traveling and was on a short deadline. Yes, perhaps she had relied too much on the AAUW's report. She had tried to reach Diane Ravitch, the former assistant secretary of education and a known critic of women's advocacy "findings," but had not been able to.
Had Chira been able to reach Ravitch, or any number of other experts on sex differences in education, she would quickly have learned that the report was at the very least unbalanced: it highlighted studies in support of the "shortchanged girl" thesis and downplayed studies that contradicted it.
Six years after the release of How Schools Shortchange Girls, the New York Times ran a story that, for the first time, questioned the validity of the report. By then, of course, most of the damage to the truth about boys and girls was irreparable. This time the reporter, Tamar Lewin, did reach Diane Ravitch, who told her, "The AAUW report was just completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might have been the right story 20 years earlier, but coming out when it did it was like calling a wedding a funeral....There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys."
Copyright © 2000 by Christina Hoff Sommers
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