Gender in the Classroom
Despite the fact that research has found no differences in intelligence between males and females, gender differences in the classroom remain. The reasons for this phenomenon are unclear and may be attributable in part both to nature (heredity and constitutional factors) and to nurture (sociocultural and environmental factors). Scientists have proffered at least three potential reasons for the observed differences between genders in the classroom: the hidden curriculum, different expectations for performance and achievement for females and males, and teacher expectancy effect. In truth, more than one factor may be operating at the same time. No matter the underlying causes for gender inequity in the classroom, however, it is important to give both males and females the education that they need, not only as a class but also as individuals within that class, in order to reach their full potential.
Keywords Conflict Perspective; Culture; Feminism; Gender Stereotype; Gender Stratification; Hidden Curriculum; Normal Distribution; Reinforcement; Self-Fulfilling Prophecy; Social Stratification; Society; Socioeconomic Status; Stereotype; Teacher Expectancy Effect
Not too long ago, little girls were expected to excel in home arts, have high verbal skills, and grow up to be wives and mothers or, if they ventured outside the expectations of their culture, to work in low-level support positions to help their male bosses succeed. Little boys, on the other hand, were told that the world was their oyster and were expected to do well in math and science and go on to become doctors, lawyers, and business leaders. The truth is, of course, that girls can be powerful and assertive, boys can be sensitive and artistic, and nothing is wrong with either of these positions, the old gender stereotypes, or anything in between. In theory, at least, 21st-century society embraces the notion that we should support every child to become the best that he or she can be, based not on cultural expectations but on the interests, aptitudes, and abilities of each child as an individual.
This attitude, however, is often better expressed in theory than in application. For example, as little girls start to do better in mathematics, newspapers write articles about how little boys are falling behind in school achievement, an argument very similar to that advanced by feminists half a century ago regarding little girls. Despite the many advancements in equality and women's rights, practical feminism still has great strides to make in the real world before there is truly equity between men and women, both on the job and in society. Achieving this goal will take action on many levels and in many venues. To be successful, however, it will be necessary to first achieve equity in the classroom. This is not only because the classroom is where both girls and boys learn and acquire skills necessary for later success but also because it is in the classroom that both genders learn to either conform to gender roles and stereotypes or to break free of them and allow others to do the same.
Nature vs. Nurture
Scientists have long been divided over the relative influences of nature (heredity and constitutional factors) and nurture (sociocultural and environmental factors) on the development of an individual and the degree to which these factors affect his or her eventual personality, abilities, and other characteristics. Understanding the basics of this controversy is important to understanding how education may affect how the genders are taught and the expectations that teachers have in the classroom. For example, if the assumption is made that boys are inherently better in math and science than girls—the "nature" side of the argument—it might make sense to emphasize such subjects when teaching boys, set higher expectations for boys in these subjects, and encourage boys to go into careers that require this type of knowledge while doing the opposite for girls. However, if in general girls and boys are equally likely to excel in subjects related to math and science, yet girls are found to do more poorly in these subjects at school, the conclusion might be drawn that there is something within the educational system that is causing the score differential—the "nurture" side of the argument. Therefore, to understand gender differences in the classroom, it is first important to understand to what degree intelligence and other mental capacities are inherently equal—or not—for both genders.
In general, scientists have found no gender-based differences in general intelligence. However, just as not every girl is as smart as every other girl and not every boy is as smart as every other boy, all boys and all girls do not start out with the same intellectual capacities. Rather, general intelligence and other mental traits tend to be normally distributed within the group. For example, as a group, girls tend to be better at spelling than boys; by the end of high school, only 30 percent of boys spell better than the average girl. In fact, girls in general tend to be gifted in verbal abilities, whereas boys tend to be overrepresented in the bottom part of the normal distribution for verbal skills. Girls also tend to be more sensitive to touch, taste, and odor than boys, typically learn to talk earlier than boys, and are less likely than boys to stutter. Boys tend to outnumber girls in remedial reading classes by a ratio of three to one and are twice as likely as girls to be underachievers by the time they reach high school. Girls are slightly more likely to graduate high school than are boys, and more women than men graduate from college and receive advanced degrees.
Despite the fact that more women than men complete undergraduate and graduate programs, in the United States, from 2007 to 2011, the median income for women who worked full time ($37,160) was more than $10,000 less than the median income for full-time working men ($47,549) (US Census Bureau, 2011). There are many potential reasons for this phenomenon, including the fact that many women still choose to focus on family over career during their children's formative years. However, many sociologists also interpret this phenomenon as evidence of gender stratification—the hierarchical organization of a society in such a way that members of one gender have more access to wealth, prestige, and power than do the members of the other gender. It is important to note that social stratification by gender is not exactly the same phenomenon as social stratification by race or ethnicity.
This would all be a moot point if education did not play such an important role in one's ability to make one's way in the world. Although there are notable exceptions to the rule, in industrial societies, education is frequently an important predictor of one's eventual socioeconomic status, with individuals who have earned a college degree being more likely to obtain higher-paying jobs than individuals with less education. However, another factor in the pay gap between men and women is what subject they choose to study and, consequently, what field they choose to work in:
Overall, the most powerful explanation for pay gaps is not so much a failure to pay men and women equally for the same job. Rather, women are more likely to get degrees that lead to positions which are paid less than the positions men are more likely to get following their collegiate specializations. More women end up in education and nursing; more men end up in engineering and computer science. Education and nursing are not as likely to be lucrative as jobs that require engineering and computer science degrees. (Norén, 2012, par. 3)
The question then remains whether women innately prefer fields such as education and nursing over engineering and computer science, or whether women are subtly discouraged from pursing mathematical and scientific fields throughout their educational career. If one gender receives substantially different treatment in school than another gender and this differential treatment results in people of that gender being steered in a direction that makes it difficult for them to obtain higher-status and -income jobs, then the educational system has failed to provide equal opportunities for all.
Gender Differences in the Classroom
There are at least three potential reasons for the observed differences...
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