WOMEN'S access to education and their academic accomplishments are at an all-time high in the United States. More females than males are going to college, and a recent survey of college freshmen shows that more women than men plan to earn advanced degrees.
Yet, last week, the US House of Representatives passed the Gender Equity in Education Act, calling for retraining of public-school teachers to combat educational biases against girls.
Bill supporters say it's needed because girls score lower on national achievement tests and are behind in math and science.
``At a time when our economic competitiveness depends on the recruitment of qualified engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, teachers - almost always without realizing it - treat girls differently and unconsciously veer them away from these important career choices,'' says Rep. Susan Molinari (R) of New York, a bill sponsor.
But critics say the legislation is unnecessary, citing Title IX, passed in 1972 to outlaw sexual discrimination in public schools. ``Twenty years ago, you could have made an argument for this bill with a tremendous amount of evidence,'' says Diane Ravitch, an assistant education secretary under President Bush.
``Today, when you have women dominant in higher education, it's kind of ridiculous.... Women are now 55 percent of all undergraduates and 59 percent of all master's degree candidates,'' she says. ``Is it that we want women to be 70 percent of all undergraduates and 90 percent of all master's degree candidates?''
``To me, [the Gender Equity in Education Act] is a moral stand. It just says that we care about the education of girls,'' says Myra Sadker, who, with her husband David, wrote ``Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls.''
In 1992, the American Association of University Women published a report titled ``How Schools Shortchange Girls'' and unleashed a torrent of publicity about sexism in schools.
The Sadkers, who are education professors at American University, conducted much of the research in that report and now hold workshops to help teachers overcome ``inadvertent'' biases. ``The purpose of the workshops are to alert teachers to research on how boys and girls are treated differently in schools and to give them strategies for effective teaching,'' said Mrs. Sadker, before a workshop here last weekend.
Though some teachers are skeptical about whether widespread biases exist in classrooms, others welcome a chance to analyze teaching practices. ``We need to be more aware of how our actions affect all students,'' said Pamela Cornwell, a math teacher.
The Sadkers' research reveals teachers give more attention to boys. Girls are three times less likely to be praised, eight times less likely to speak out of turn in class, and half as likely to be called on.
Although the Sadkers acknowledge women's gains in education, they see a ``glass wall across college campuses.'' Women dominate in majors like education, home economics, library science, and literature, where career opportunities are low-paying, Mrs. Sadker says. But more lucrative majors, like engineering and computer science, are dominated by men. Much of this results from teachers and counselors steering girls away from math and science, Mrs. Sadker says.
``Why should there be such gross differences in the fields men and women go into?'' she asks.
``Women and men aren't that different intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally.... When you look at the college campus, it's like you have two species.''
The researchers acknowledge that discipline issues may partially explain why teachers deal with males and females differently. ``Boys are often acting out, so teachers shower them with questions,'' Mr. Sadker says.
Ms. Ravitch says the issue was ``hyped up to sell a book.'' She cites girls' higher scores in reading and math, asking: ``Are boys the victims of gender bias because girls are reading better?
``This is all about getting money to the usual crowd of Washington interest groups. It has nothing to do with improving women's participation in education, because that has already happened.''