“Of course, addressing the learning gap between boys and girls will require parents, teachers and school administrators to talk more openly about the ways each gender approaches classroom learning—and that difference itself remains a tender topic.”
— Enrico Gnaulati, Atlantic article, 9/18/14, “Why girls tend to get better grades than boys do”
This article mentions my research on gender differences in school readiness. It also draws attention to a couple of important ideas that are harder to work into a scientific journal article.
1. The learning environment–including adult expectations for children’s intelligence, performance, and behavior–shapes a lot of what students do. We all like the idea that we are in control of our actions. But lots of research shows otherwise. Especially for young children, their behavior and choices are largely determined by the opportunities around them. Sometimes these are called “affordances” which essentially means that the environment offers or affords certain choices and prohibits others.
I don’t have a pool in my house, so if I want to swim, I have to change my environment. A child who is never given a chance to play the cello, or to use oil paints, or to speak a certain language, can never show you what they are capable of in that area. The environment is just not set up for them to show you what they can do. And if some children–many of them boys–do their best work in a high-energy environment with lots of opportunities for movement, then they will look like failures in a system that requires docile, cooperative, and organized behavior.
2. The environment affects everyone. As far as I know, there are no exceptions to this rule. No group is less affected by their environment than others. A good example of how the environment can be manipulated to influence behavior is the studies on stereotype threat. This is the idea that the negative stereotypes that others hold about our group can affect our performance in a high-stakes situation where we care about the outcome. A long line of research has shown that every type of individual–no matter their age, gender, race or ethnic group, food preferences, toenail polish color, make/model of their car* can be made to worry that their performance on a test will be bad and that the bad performance will confirm others’ negative ideas about them and their group. All that is needed is a comment–a short little sentence–drawing the person’s attention to that negative stereotype.
*OK, I give in. The last few have not been studied.
In schools today, I wonder about the unexamined expectation that many teachers and parents have that boys will behave badly. I’ve overheard countless comments from teachers, future teachers, parents, and researchers like “boys will be boys,” “you know boys,” “boys are so much worse than girls,” and on and on. It’s true that boys are genetically more vulnerable than girls–males lack part of a chromosome that females have, after all–but these comments help perpetuate a socially-acceptable form of prejudice and disrespect. This anti-male mindset also adds fuel to the fire that burns away boys’ sense of self-worth and agency, their sense of belonging in this world. We don’t need more of those toxic messages for any group, even the group that has historically dominated society.
3. Gender differences are extremely difficult to talk about. I was appalled when I went from Dr. Gnaulati’s article, which offered constructive approaches to closing the “behavior gap” in gender, to the comments about the article. Almost immediately the individuals commenting devolved into anti-male and anti-female rhetoric and name-calling. I guess I was surprised because the research I’ve done in this area makes me forget how strongly people feel about their own gender’s legitimacy and the other gender’s faults. But this disrespectful set of comments also made me realize–we’re all flawed and we all get defensive when a group to which we belong is threatened. And, as the cast of Avenue Q well knows, we each have our own biases.
Maybe it’s too much to hope that we could set aside our defensive feelings and biases when figuring out how to support our children in school. Barring some apocalyptic event that wipes out one gender (which Carolyn O’Neal has written a novel about), our students will always need to learn to cooperate and respect women, men and the growing number of people who do not identify with either category. But even so, I will persist in trying to have the delicate conversation with an open mind, and a sense of respect for every child who is trying to learn in this tough world, and for the many wonderful individuals who are trying to teach them. We’re all in this together.
This isn’t a book review because I haven’t read Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men, yet.
But I noticed, with dismay, that the comments on David Brook’s NYTimes opinion post on the topic, Why Men Fail, were closed within 2 days, and indeed, many of the comments were rude and politicized. Not to mention sexist, in both directions.
I’d like to try a different – maybe a more humane – tack.
This is not to be down on men but to explore the sad reality of gender and economics in our society right now. Men are failing, socially, economically, and physically. But ‘we’re all in this together.” And I’m not sure we’re going to get anywhere if we isolate and blame 50% of our population.
If anything, I wonder if it is women (as much as men) who expect men to stick to old ways. We want to have our chivalry cake but eat it with empowered feminist icing. I’ve known plenty of women (perhaps used to be one, cough cough) who want a sensitive, intelligent, handsome, feminist-minded, loving man – who is also muscular, traditionally-attractive (that is, like a superhero) – but who also opens the door and pays her way, and doesn’t mind if she doesn’t look like a supermodel.
Not to mention the homophobia in this country that tells men if they behave in a loving and flexible way, they are either feminine or gay.
Men are subject to a huge number of stereotypes that are both rigid and contradictory. The stereotypes come from everywhere – media, female AND male parents, relatives, and partners. My mom likes to tell an anecdote about an acquaintance who burned her bras with the best of ’em, but then raised her sons to be “good ol’ boys.” Her boys were expected to get a high-earning career and work outside the home for their entire career.
These social expectations govern what men wear, how and what they talk about, who they’re allowed to hang out with, and what they do with their time.
I’m saddened most when I see little boys’ clothes in only the three colors they’re “allowed” to wear – blue, red, and black. As though color were not a way to express oneself, and to appreciate beauty, but only a signal of conformity.
Maybe we women could consider changing how we think about men so they can more easily change how they think about themselves. Perhaps then they’ll feel safe enough to be less rigid, more communicative, and more flexible.
And wear pink!