I sat in an elementary-school auditorium on Friday night last week and watched with great pride as my oldest daughter graduated, along with two hundred other sixth-graders.
However, what caught my attention was that as each class was called up to receive their diplomas, the boys were always first.
When I asked one of the teachers why this was so, her response was simply: “The boys’ student numbers are first, so they are called first.”
When I pressed: “But why are the boys’ numbers first?” she shrugged and said it had always been this way — it was a tradition.
I sat there a little perplexed.
Though it was tradition, did it make sense to keep doing things this way? Was it subtly harmful to the girls’ self-esteem that, no matter how hard they worked, they would always walk behind the boys, sit behind the boys?
In the US, students are put into alphabetical order, which seems fair.
This small difference — the fact that boys were consistently called first for every school event — did not sit right with me. As a mother of four daughters, ages five to 12, it did not seem fair.
Our Taiwanese-American family has been spending a year’s sabbatical in Taiwan, observing the differences between Eastern and Western culture: collectivistic and individualistic viewpoints and soft versus hard ways of dealing with others.
My children often remark how the boys seem to be treated better at school.
Many times, my eldest daughter would come home from school hungry because “the boys got to eat first at lunch and they ate everything up.”
Moreover, my daughter believes that the girls work harder than the boys and often get better grades.
Is it possible that preferential treatment makes the boys less apt to strive for their highest potential? Is this favoritism as harmful to the boys as it is to the girls?
The situation seems strange to us because the modern viewpoint in the West strongly encourages girls.
Growing up in the 1970s in the US, I believed I could do anything that I dreamed of. I believed that if I worked hard and sacrificed, I could achieve fame and fortune, if I desired them.
Like many of my generation, I did desire them; but I have realized, now that I am older and wiser, that there are more important things, such as equality, democracy and meritocracy.
My intention is not to belittle Taiwanese customs, but to help promote gender equality for a future generation of Taiwanese girls.
At the graduation ceremony, I met the school principal and several city council members, all women, and as I shook hands with them, I asked: “Why are the boys called first?”
They seemed puzzled by my question. Many replied: “Oh, so you think it should be girls first, right?”
To which I replied: “No, I don’t think it should be girls first. I think it should be random. Make it alphabetical by names. Make it by stroke order of names. Make it by birth dates. Make it by Taiwan ID number. Every girl and every boy deserves a fair chance to succeed in class. I think if you put the girls and boys in mixed order without differentiating according to gender, you will empower an entire generation of girls. In this tiny act, you can make a big change in a girl’s life. She will no longer subconsciously feel inferior. She will believe she can grow up to do anything that she sets her heart and mind to, no longer limited by her gender. When you take away this symbol of the boys’ entitlement, the boys will work harder and strive to do better in their studies.”
Taiwan has laws on gender equality in the workplace. A woman ran for president in the last Taiwanese election.
Yet, a small change in ordering boys and girls in the classroom can be more powerful than any law passed by government. By simply assigning class numbers by a genderless system, you will change an entire generation’s way of thinking.
After my soapbox speech, I received the noncommittal: “I’ll think about it.”
These women were all in these places of power and yet were uncomfortable going against the “status quo.” I certainly understand that.
As a woman, especially a Taiwanese-American woman, I have been fighting the stereotype of docility my entire life: “Women don’t make trouble. Women need to tend to the home and not the affairs outside.”
Yet I refused to believe this. I knew that I was just as smart and worked just as hard as my male colleagues. Thankfully, I found myself in an environment where I could believe this is true.
I was called in class based on my name, not my gender. I believe such tiny details allowed me to believe that I was living in a fair society.
I graduated first in my class in high school, went to an Ivy League University and then received my doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, being inducted into the Delta Omega Honor Society during graduation. I am living proof that these intangibles matter.
It is my sincere hope that school principals who may be reading this article make this small change in their classrooms.
You have the power to make a difference. Do not be afraid to change the system. A change in policy now may affect that first-grader who tomorrow could become president.
If Rosa Parks never had the courage to sit down on a bus, an entire generation of African-Americans would still be segregated.
There would be no US President Barack Obama.
If Neil Armstrong was afraid to step outside his spacecraft, the Soviets would have been first on the moon and the world would be very different, indeed.
If schools make this one small change in their classrooms, it may be only one small step for a schoolgirl, but it can be a giant leap for a generation of women.
Grace Tsai is a research fellow at National Taiwan University’s School of Public Health.