Sociology of Education Theory: Feminist Perspectives Research Paper Starter

Sociology of Education Theory: Feminist Perspectives

In industrial societies, education is frequently an important predictor of one's eventual socioeconomic status. Although equal education opportunities are supposedly open to both genders, women continue to be more likely to be found in traditionally female-oriented jobs than in science, mathematics, and technology jobs that offer higher socioeconomic status. The reasons do not appear to be genetic. The biological differences that have historically set women and men apart are no longer important in many workplaces. Further, research has shown there to be no significant difference between the distribution of mental skills among women and men. Therefore, many feminists claim that most education systems prepare females poorly for higher paying, more prestigious jobs. The reasons for this phenomenon are complex, although hidden curriculum, teacher expectancy effect, and gender stereotyping by guidance counselors all seem to contribute to this situation.

Keywords Conflict Perspective; Education; Feminism; Gender Stratification; Hidden Curriculum; Normal Distribution; Reinforcement; Self-Fulfilling Prophecy; Social Stratification; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Status; Teacher Expectancy Effect

Educational Sociology: Sociology of Education Theory: Feminist Perspectives


Historically, most societies treat men and women differently. Sometimes these differences are due to the obvious biological variances between the sexes: Because of their role in bearing children, women are often cast in supportive or nurturing roles and are responsible for hearth and home while men, with their typically greater strength and larger muscles, are often cast in the role of bread winner. Originally, these differences made sense: Males needed to be bigger and stronger to go out and kill something for dinner. Infants needed to breastfeed, so females tended the hearth, home, and family. However, over time, things have changed. Although being taller, stronger, and faster might have been important when putting food on the table meant hunting buffalo on the plain, other skills are required to earn a living today. Under the assumption that women are as intelligent as men, the feminist movement has been demanding equal opportunities for women and equal pay for equal work. Feminists have also turned their attention to the classroom, demanding equal education for both boys and girls as well as encouraging girls to go into technical, scientific, and professional fields that used to be the domain of males.

Gender-Based Learning Differences

Before considering whether or not schools treat girls and boys differently in a way that results in girls being less prepared to take higher status jobs following their education, it is first necessary to determine if there are any inherent differences between the ability of girls and boys to learn. Scientists have found no gender-based differences in general intelligence between the sexes. This is not to say that there are not differences within the groups, however. Not every girl is necessarily as smart as every boy, for example, just as she is not necessarily as smart as every girl. However, there are innate differences between the sexes as to which abilities they excel in as a group. For example, girls tend as a group to be better at spelling than boys. In fact, by the end of high school only 30 percent of boys spell better than the average girl. Similarly, girls tend to be more gifted in verbal abilities than boys, and they also tend to be more sensitive to touch, taste, and odor. Further, boys tend to be overrepresented in the bottom part of the normal distribution for verbal skills. They tend to learn to talk later than girls and tend to stutter more often. Boys also tend to outnumber girls in remedial reading classes by a ratio of three to one. In addition, underachievers in high school tend to be male by a ratio of two to one.


In industrial societies, education is frequently an important predictor of one's eventual socioeconomic status. For the most part, individuals who have earned a college degree are able to obtain higher paying jobs than are individuals with less education. There are, of course, notable exceptions to the rule: Bill Gates, for example, never finished college. However, such individuals are usually outstanding in other ways and are truly the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, if girls receive substantially different treatment in school and this differential treatment results in lower expectations on the part of girls or in lower quality education that makes it difficult for them advance as far as boys or to eventually obtain higher status and income jobs, then the educational system has failed to provide equal opportunities for all.

Although girls are slightly more likely to graduate high school than are boys, this advantage reverses in college: Men are slightly more likely to graduate college, receive a first professional degree, or an advanced degree than are women. There are many potential reasons for this phenomenon, including the choice of many women to focus on family over career during their children's formative years. However, many sociologists also interpret this phenomenon as evidence of gender stratification. It is important to note that social stratification by gender is not exactly the same phenomenon as social stratification by race or ethnicity. This can be explained by the fact that when dealing with gender, social status is the same for men and women, where as for race or ethnicity, this often does not hold true. Women and men share many of the same life opportunities that are based on their socioeconomic status. For example, when financial constraints permit, most families are equally willing to send their daughters to college as they are to send their sons. As a result, upper middle class women typically have more education than working class men, and Euro-American women tend to have more education than African American, Hispanic, or native American men, on average.

Educational Practices that Promote Gender Inequality

Hidden Curriculum

There are at least three potential reasons for these observed differences. First, it has been hypothesized by conflict theorists in particular that girls and boys are subtly taught from an early age that they are different not only physically but emotionally and intellectually different and that they should expect different things out of life. According to conflict theorists, one of the ways that this is done is through the hidden curriculum taught within the educational system. The hidden curriculum refers to the standards of proper behavior for a society or culture that are taught within the school system. The hidden curriculum subtly reinforces behavior and attitudes that are deemed appropriate by the society or culture. So, therefore, in this theory, girls are supported for taking an interest in "feminine" pursuits such as home economics or counseling, whereas boys are supported in more "masculine" pursuits such engineering and science. Conflict theorists see this as a way of reinforcing social stratification by encouraging children to stay within their class. In the end, research has shown that many girls are academically ill-prepared to pursue careers in science, mathematics, and technical fields. In fact, many girls still view such careers as "male occupations."

Teacher Expectancy Effect

In addition, teachers often have different expectations for females and males. For example, teachers may tend to expect girls to do better in reading and writing and boys to do better in mathematics and science. This is called the teacher expectancy effect. The theory behind this phenomenon is that a teacher's expectations of a student's performance or achievement affect the actual performance or achievement of that student. In this type of self-fulfilling prophecy, the student may pick up on subtle (or not so subtle) cues from the teacher about how well s/he should be performing or what areas s/he should be interested in. For example, if a teacher thinks that girls do better in reading and writing than in math and science, the teacher may praise the girls when they do well in courses requiring verbal skills but not encourage them as much when they do well in courses requiring mathematics or scientific skills. Since children tend to want to please their teachers and receive positive feedback, they will tend to work harder in the areas that they know will result in positive reinforcement from the teacher. Teacher expectancies, however, do not necessarily need to be overt or consciously performed in order to impact student behavior.

Gender-Type Counseling

In addition, counselors may gender-type students and encourage them into more traditionally accepted careers. As with the teacher expectancy effect, this gender typing may be conscious or unconscious. School counselors play an important role in helping children choose whether or not they will go to college, the career for which they are best suited, and the best way to attain their...

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