“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.
I can’t remember when I learned that my birthday, March 8, falls on International Women’s Day. I must have been pretty small, and I recall thinking, “Huh. That’s cool. I should do something to celebrate.”
Then two decades went by. Today, my 32nd birthday, was the first birthday I celebrated IWD in any meaningful way. It turns out that today, March 8, 2013, marks 100 years since the occasion was moved to the date of March 8 following the 1913 late February event.
IWD emerged between 1908 and 1913 following unprecedented tumult in societies around the world. Sound familiar? Today feels much the same, though for educated women like myself living in modernized societies, I don’t deal with life-or-death working conditions. I have the right to vote. Though I love and want to share my life with a particular wonderful man, I am beholden to none. And though it seems a precarious freedom at times in the South, my value to my community does not depend on my capacity to bear children.
Today, I’m mindful that many women around the world live in deplorable conditions, are subject to the whims of violent or controlling men, or lack basic human rights. I recognize that the challenges in my world are more spiritual than physical in nature. Compared to what other women of our world face, it seems a privilege that the challenges in my particular world include figuring out whom to love and how best to love them.
Three years ago, in the spring of 2010, my three-year marriage was about to unravel. By September, I was living alone. It was the most emotionally difficult time of my life. Then in December, I met a friend of a friend who wanted to write a book. It would be based on a year of emails among six women who had lost a spouse either to sudden death or to divorce after an affair.
This meeting changed my life.
I became the editor of the book, and over the next two years, I worked in the evenings and on weekends to turn over 103,000 words of emails into a 75,000-word narrative non-fiction story of hope and healing after loss. Through the process, I gained confidence. As my heart steadied, I slowly “grew into” myself while I enjoyed a special window into the journey of these six brave people.
As a newly single woman, I read about other women – single mothers – who were making it on their own. Their struggles were not mine exactly – for example, I don’t have children. But their heartache was familiar, along with their desire to love and live fully. Like me, they were women emerging from a great loss into their stronger, deeper selves. In that way, they were the same as all of us, male or female, or “prefer not to say.” We are all hurtling through this world, hurting each other and ourselves, wondering how to do better.
We are all trying, really, really hard.
Today – March 8, International Women’s Day – our book is complete. It’s a story by women, about women, for women whose hearts may be hurting and whose feet sometimes have trouble finding the path. Today, Sue Mangum and I are ready to begin sharing her dream…our book…and six true stories with the world.
Happy Birthday, International Women’s Day! This one’s for you.
Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup
This book by a widowed mother of four who becomes a chaplain for search and rescue missions is a soothing read even if you can’t exactly relate. Her voice is sincere, thoughtful, and humane. The scene that touched me most was when she counseled a man whose sister had committed suicide by taking barbiturates and walking into the cold woods. The dead woman’s minister had told her that all suicides go to hell. When her brother expressed distress about this, Chaplain Kate responded, “The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day in the freezing rain to find your sister. They would have walked for the rest of the week. And if there is one thing I am sure of, it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.” She went on to assure him that his sister is safe, forgiven and “free at last from all her pain.” (p. 112).
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
People keep giving me Anne Fadiman books as gifts, so I must be making it clear that I like to read well-researched writing that still manages to be personal and creative. About the joys and quirks of being a book-lover, there are lots of obscure yet entertaining tidbits in here. I most enjoyed the essay about carnal versus courtly lovers of books, who are distinguished most starkly by whether or not one would ever lay a book face down on its spine. I also learned some new sesquipedalians that made me realize my goals are to have a diapason, adapertile jars, and a team of agathodemons looking out for me.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
The title of this book, first published in 1949, is meant not to denigrate but to honestly represent how women were viewed at the time: as an imperfect version of the prototypical human specimen, the male. In her introduction, she asks “Are there women, really?” And certainly, decades of health and psychology research that included only male (and white, Anglo-Saxon, educated, i.e., WEIRD) subjects, would seem to indicate that for many scholars in the early 20th century, the answer was a bizarre “no.”
Side note: In Ex Libris (see above), Anne Fadiman points out in her chapter on “True Womanhood,” noting that “…although my father and E. B. White were not misogynists, they didn’t really see women, and their language reflected and reinforced that blind spot.” (p. 76).
I’m through the chapter on biology and found it a helpful reminder of the physical and physiological limitations of female-hood. S. d B.’s prose reminds me that while women’s moods and anxieties help define our daily experience as more variable than a man’s, this does not define us, our humanity, or our possibilities. Rather, I’m striving, as I read this book, and as I grow into myself (to quote a dear friend), to accept the ups and downs of my emotional brain, and to use these experience to become more compassionate and present with myself and with others.