A Look Into the Gender Divide in Stuyvesant AP English Classes
Issue 7, Volume 112
By Eugene Yoo
For many students, the gender disparity of STEM classes at Stuyvesant is a familiar one. Whether it be the abundance of boys in Math Team, AP Physics, or AP Computer Science, the issue of a lack of female representation always seems to arise.
However, what doesn’t seem to be on people’s minds as much is the gender breakdown of Stuyvesant’s humanities classes, which are often heavily skewed toward females. Many have noted that this gap is especially prevalent in AP English classes. “The gender disparity in AP English is very evident when you are in the class,” junior Aaron Gershkovich said. Discussing his own class, Gershkovich noted, “There [are] only seven boys and 28 girls.”
Senior Nora Miller has a few ideas for why there may be such a huge gap in some classes. One reason she thinks that there may be such a high disparity is because girls tend to have more variety in their interests than boys. “In my Math Team class, for example, almost all of the girls still there have at least one other major interest in STEM that isn’t math—often multiple,” Miller said. “With respect to English, while a lot of the guys in my class are very much humanities people, the girls are more evenly split between STEM people and humanities people.” She added, “It’s [also] more socially acceptable for a guy than for a girl to have a narrow range of interests.”
Another possible reason for this divide is insecurity. “There’s also the issue of girls being discouraged from certain fields, and from expressing the same level of confidence in their knowledge as guys with the same level of knowledge,” Miller said. “It is somewhat harder to tell a student in an English class that their insight is wrong or is not valued compared to, say, a physics class, which can make humanities subjects especially appealing to girls having negative experiences in STEM classes.”
There are a multitude of other factors as well, however. Eric Grossman, the English Assistant Principal mentioned some of them, which include interest in other classes and biological differences. “It may be that boys are disproportionately signing up for STEM-related AP classes and given that there’s a limited number of AP classes that students can take, more boys are opting for AP Calc and AP Physics,” he said. “There’s [is also] research that shows that girls develop on a social and empathetic level more quickly than boys and because English classes tend to be discussion-based [and] reading is a sort of empathy, those factors may play a role in some way.”
On top of this, there are many deeply-rooted stereotypes regarding boys and humanities classes––there has long been a societal expectation that boys should “like math” and not take “girly classes,” and this may be what is discouraging many from signing up. “Personally, I had some pressure from my parents to take AP English, even though I am more of a STEM person, since they wanted me to have a well-rounded transcript, and I think the conversation may have been different if I were a guy,” Miller said. Furthermore, there is an expectation for girls to be better at humanities subjects. “Girls are also generally expected to be more competent at communication than guys,” Miller added. As a result of this stereotype of girls being better at English classes and thus many English classes being predominantly female, male students may be less likely to apply.
This stereotype is possibly further exacerbated by the belief that a humanities career path is not as successful as a STEM one. “I have heard from boys and girls that their parents think that English isn’t a ‘practical’ subject. It doesn’t provide a clear trajectory to a specific and desirable career,” Grossman said. Boys may be further dissuaded to pursue AP English classes simply because there is a lot of negative association about the opportunities humanities careers have to offer.
It is important to note though that not all Stuyvesant AP English classes have unbalanced gender distribution. Junior Jason Xia noted that the gender breakdown of his AP English class was evenly distributed between boys and girls. “I think that the male students actually tend to participate more,” he said. In fact, he noted that his teacher has even made efforts to broaden participation from the female students in the class.
Junior Lamisa Aziz has had a similar experience to Xia in her AP English class, which has a relatively mixed-gender environment. “Both boys and girls bounce ideas off each other and it creates a welcoming and open environment where everyone participates,” she said.
AP English teacher Emilio Nieves mentioned that having a fairly distributed class has been very common for him. “Fifty-nine percent of my AP students are female [out of] 68 total students,” Nieves said. “This percentage is pretty much the norm for me. I do remember one year when I had 83 percent female students and another year when I had 70 to 75 percent female students. But for me, I always have more female students than males, usually about 60 to 40 percent.”
Many boys may also decide not to take AP English not directly because of gender concerns, but rather because of a general feeling of disconnect with the material of the course. An anonymous junior said that her AP English class, which is fairly well-balanced as well, makes sure to address gender roles. “The unit we are doing right now has a feminist aspect to it, and we are talking about how traditional gender roles are influencing the book,” she said. For some boys, taking a class that delves deeply into the concept of feminism may be a turnoff.
However, the AP English environment is a very welcoming place and its teachers work to ensure that no one feels uncomfortable. “No English teacher privileges the contributions of boys more than girls or girls more than boys,” Grossman said. “Classes are best when there is a balance of some sort. Gender, race, ethnicity—all those things help to create a positive environment and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like pursuing an AP English class isn’t for them based on their demographic.”
To illustrate, a great number of boys do take AP English and enjoy the content. “I really like reading and I don’t think that I get enough time to read for enjoyment as I would like to,” Gershkovich said. “Being in this class gives me the opportunity to read more and take it to the next level.”
Junior Jacob Paltrowitz asserted that gender was not a factor in his decision to take AP English. “It wasn’t until somebody pointed out the fact that there [was] a single-digit number of boys in my class that I even noticed [the gender disparity],” he said. “I have found that there are more people willing to participate this year than in previous years, which creates a much more robust discussion,” he continued. Similarly, Xia decided to take his class simply because it was another AP. For these male students, gender stereotypes did not play any significant role in deciding whether to sign up or not.
Moreover, some boys chose not to take AP English not because of the gender disparity but because of other factors. “I had the minimum average [to qualify] for AP English, but decided to not take it since I’m not particularly good at writing and there were other APs I wanted to take,” an anonymous senior said.
AP English is currently a merit-based entry system; in other words, students are selected for AP English based on their previous English grades. While one proposed solution to AP English’s gender disparity could be denying qualified female students entry in favor of their male counterparts, many students do not believe this is a fair measure to take. “I think that there should be a push to separate gender and subject,” Paltrowitz said, arguing that the two should not be confused with one another. In addition, Grossman does clarify that the cutoff, which is a minimum 92 GPA for English, is relatively fair, and that students who don’t have this grade but would still like to take the course can appeal, an indication that even if boys do have slightly lower English grades on average, they are not barred from applying for the class. Although a more fairly split class is ideal, there shouldn’t be an obsession over prioritizing an even distribution over true merit and other qualifications.
Nieves believes that there isn’t a problem at all. “I don’t look at gender when I am in the classroom; I look at students, no matter the gender, as thinkers and writers,” he said. “The best example of this is that a couple of years ago, one of my students pointed out that we had more female students than males; my response was: ‘Oh yeah, that’s right. I never noticed.’” As AP classes are already specialized, Nieves argues that the administration does not need to do something to make the gender breakdown more fairly balanced.
Furthermore, Gershkovich noted that having many female students in an English class can even help in texts such as “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which many readers sense does not accurately portray the female voice. Having more female students can further enhance the discussion and ensure that all perspectives are being heard.
AP English teacher Lauren Stuzin questions the very premise of analyzing classes based on a gender binary. “Quantifying the girls versus the boys […] would potentially be really invalidating to LGBTQ people and would imply that there is some biological difference that might justify systemic patriarchy in AP classes,” Stuzin said. “I think it would be more important to think about […] how Stuyvesant perpetuates the gender constructs and expectations that society projects on men and women, especially when it comes to STEM and higher education.” Gender disparities perhaps should not be overly scrutinized, especially as many students do not identify with the two primary genders, male and female.
Nevertheless, there are certain things that could theoretically alleviate this divide in gender, a divide that likely originates in the way students are raised. “The theme here is that there is still a lot of sexism in what subjects young people are encouraged to pursue,” Miller said. “While this isn’t something the school can address directly, I do think helping students to select courses more independently may help.”
Keeping records of the shifts in various ways could also help alleviate pressure. “Tracking the gender ratios of upper-level classes every year, on a long-term basis […] would make it easier to assess any progress on reducing sexism in course selection, even if it wouldn’t directly address the problem,” Miller said. Furthermore, tracking the gender shifts in classes, more specifically with regards to who is qualified to apply for them, who ends up actually applying, and how consistent these statistics are, could yield useful information as well.