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5.1: Module 11 – Gender Through an Educational Lens

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  • Module 11: Gender Through an Educational Lens

    Module Overview

    In this module, we will focus on the educational experiences of males and females. We will look at how experiences differ in the preschool and school ages. We will also discover how school performance in various subjects differs between genders. We will also consider the concept of academic motivation, factors that contribute to academic motivation, and gender differences in this motivation.

    Module Outline

    • 11.1. Preschool
    • 11.2. School
    • 11.3. School Performance

    Module Learning Outcomes

    • Learn about preschool-age experiences and how gender impacts these experiences.
    • Understand varying abilities and experiences in school-aged children.
    • Recognize the factors that differentially impact boys’ and girls’ performance and motivation at school.

    11.1. Preschool

    Section Learning Objectives

    • Define self-competence and self-esteem and understand how (1) these impact school experiences and (2) differ between boys and girls.
    • Gain a detailed knowledge of the role play has in preschooler’s development and how play varies between genders.

    11.1.1. Self-Competence

    A child’s ability to self-regulate (e.g., their ability regulate following experiences of stress, excitement, and/or arousal) may lead to better social competence (e.g., relationship skills and abilities) which then leads to higher self-esteem and self-concept (e.g., the ability to cope with correction/failure), and then ultimately leads to higher social school readiness (e.g., higher cooperation with peers, positive views about school, fostered ability to listen and focus; Joy, 2016).

    11.1.1.1. Self-Esteem. Preschoolers tend to have very high self-esteem (Harter, 2006). This is likely because preschoolers struggle to truly differentiate the level of difficulty in a task and overestimate their own abilities which actually leads them to trying challenging tasks more often, and exposing themselves to learning a variety of skills. This fosters motivation and learning in preschoolers. Overall, boys and girls tend to have similar self-esteem (Cole et al., 2001; Marsh & Ayotte, 2003; Young & Mroczek, 2003); however, society assumes boys have higher self-esteem, and it may be that girls internalize this assumption that society has. Thus, some studies show that girls have lower self-esteem (Hagbor, 1993).

    What impacts self-esteem? Parenting styles and teachers can certainly impact self-esteem in young children. Parents that practice warm, but firm parenting (authoritative parenting), have children with higher self-esteem. Parents that are overly correcting or controlling deny children the ability to develop self-esteem fully, and these children have lower self-esteem ratings (Kernis, 2002; Donellan et al., 2005).

    Does how similar a model have anything to do with how we learn and master tasks, and thus, self-esteem and competence? Maybe. The model-observer similarity hypothesis posits that when learners perceive themselves to be similar to the model “teacher” then they will show greater self-efficacy. However, there is mixed support of this, and that is largely explained by what we are learning. Overall, when a model is the same-sex as us, it does not change how much we learn, but it does impact our behavior. This is because we internalize the behavior as appropriate if a same-sex model does it, and the environment accepts it. Essentially, task appropriateness (male versus female tasks), is learned best by same-sex models. Student perceived same-gender models as more similar to them than opposite-gender models. Same-sex models may also increase perceived confidence, but does not necessarily improve performance, increased confidence, or increased self-efficacy (Hoogerheid, van Wermeskerken, Van Nassau, & Van Gog, 2018).

    As children get older, self-competence declines. How fast it declines depends on the subject area. For example, self-competence actually increases for sports, but declines for language arts. Specifically, research indicates that males tend to have more perceived self-competence in sports and math and females have more self-competence in language arts (Jacobs, Lanza, Osgood, Eccles, & Wigfield, 2002).

    11.1.2. The Role of Play in the Development of Gender Roles

    As you might expect, preschool children engage in play as a primary activity in their preschool setting. This is developmentally appropriate for them and they gain extensive knowledge about their world and environment through play – and understanding of gender is no different. Play provides children and their peers an opportunity to test out different roles and ideas as well as to provide feedback as to what works, is acceptable, and/or preferred. Sex-role socialization theory explains differentiated behaviors among sexes due to society creating specific roles for males and females, partially that historically have aligned with their eventual adult roles (e.g., males for labor/work, females for nurturing/child rearing); thus, as young children, we are socialized into roles. The theory posits that there are two opposing categories of sex – male and female (Martin & Beese, 2017). Thus, play is ether masculine or feminine and either aligns with the male-sex role or female-sex role. So, playing with baby dolls aligns with the female-sex role of nurturing and child rearing; whereas pretending to build with toy tools aligns with the male-sex role of manual labor and working.

    Interestingly, before the age of 2, it is difficult for children to distinguish between boys and girls. However, by age 3, they are better able to do this and certainly begin to evidenced varied behaviors and preferences based on gender. Further, by age 5, children will not only prefer to play with their own gender, they will likely reject or show a bias against the other gender (Martin & Beese, 2017; Hill & Portrie-Bethke, 2017; Hill & Haley, 2017).

    Ultimately, if we want to reduce this within a school context, and see more gender-equal environments and culture among peers, teachers will have to reteach what is acceptable. Essentially, they would need to provide models and examples of non-sexist behavior. Moreover, they may need to encourage this by being careful to choose gender neutral language (e.g., firefighter instead of fireman), as well as encourage play that is non-sexist (e.g., encouraging boys to play with dolls and girls to play with trucks), and utilize visual materials that are gender neutral or shows both genders doing a task (e.g., girls in male-typical jobs such as a girl as a doctor, and vice versa such as a male as a teacher). Although these may be recommended, they may also be largely ineffective, according to research (Martin & Beese, 2017).

    Another theory about gender-role development in the context of preschool and play is the Feminist Post-Structural theory. It posits that children not only model gender-normed behavior, they construct their own gender. This theory suggests that gender is not specific to distinct categories; rather, female is defined in relation to male and vice versa. Thus, masculine and feminine characteristics are actually interdependent and exist within a continuum. This theory suggests that, because of this, there is an emotional investment in gender roles and encouraging nonsexist behavior is actually not appropriate. This is because it is suggested that doing this requires an individual to give up something they perceive as desired and pleasurable. For example, if we encourage a girl to play with trucks instead of toys, but they find pleasure in playing with dolls, we are asking that girl to give up a toy she truly likes and enjoys (Martin & Beese, 2017).

    What about bullying or teasing based on gender in these young ages? Well it exists. However, 25% of girls reported feeling teased by boys and this usually consisted of behaviors such as boys pushing them too hard/high on a swing, hitting them, etc. This being the case, it would make sense that some girls may want to play with other girls, rather than boys. As such, encouraging nonsexist play and forced gender-mixed play may not be the best option – at least from a feminist post-structural theory standpoint (Martin & Beese, 2017).


    11.2. School

    Section Learning Objectives

    • Recognize overall math abilities in girls as well as overall academic achievement in boys.
    • Understand the various components to school culture that contribute to boys’ and girls’ experiences at school
    • Uncover what is defined as “masculine” and the consequences that occur when males do and do not align with the “cool” masculinity traits that are scripted for them.
    • Define gender tracking and how this occurs in the school-setting.

    11.2.1. Math Ability in Girls

    As you know by now from our discussion in the cognitive chapter, there are minimal differences in actual cognitive capacities between genders. Math abilities are no exception. There are no actual differences in abilities with mathematics between girls and boys. However, girls are often perceived to have lower math abilities by adults (e.g., parents and teachers; Tomasetto, Alparone, & Cadinu, 2011; Beilock, Gunderson, Ramirez, & Levine, 2010), peers, and themselves (Correll, 2001). As we discussed with stereotype threat and self-fulfilling prophecies, this perception may then lend itself to girls actually performing lower in math. So, it is not actually that girls have lower math abilities, rather, social and environmental factors impact girls’ math performance, leading to lower math performance.

    Despite having equivalent math abilities, girls tend to take fewer math and STEM-related courses in grade school years. Because of this, they may be less prepared to pursue STEM-related majors in higher education years, and thus, pursue careers in STEM fields at a lower rate than males. There have been some efforts to combat this, and those efforts may be working, to a degree. Rates of females pursuing STEM-related fields increased. In fact, there appears to be equivalent numbers, largely speaking, between males and females, in seeking STEM-related courses in grade school and even into college. However, this does not necessarily carry out into careers as men are represented to a higher degree in completing STEM-majors and securing STEM-related careers (Martin & Beese, 2017). Potentially contributing to self-fulfilling prophecies.

    11.2.2. Boy’s Achievement

    Although boys appear to get more attention and focus in school from teachers, it is actually a well-documented phenomenon that boys tend to underachieve compared to girls. So although there seems to be a lot of chatter about girls being underestimated and underchallenged with math, boys are falling behind in educational experiences and performance in general. So, really, the conversation may need to shift to boys more (Kafer, 2007)!

    For example, girls tend to be more engaged in school, perform higher in academics, are more likely to go to college, and are more likely to complete their college degree, compared to boys. Boys tend to experience more academic struggles and are referred for behavioral problems more than girls. In fact, about 60% of special education services are for boys! Boys are also more susceptible to using substances, getting either suspended or expelled, dropping out, going to jail, and dying by suicide or homicide. You may be asking yourself why – why. Why are boys at risk for such negative outcomes? Well, there may be a few explanations, although we still really don’t have a great understanding of this phenomenon (Kafer, 2007).

    Figure 11.1. Extreme Scores in Males

    So, is it differences in intelligence? Yes and no. Boys and girls equally fall within the “Average” area of intellectual functioning meaning boys and girls are equally represented in the middle of the bell curve (see the blue area of Figure 17.1). However, when we examine the extreme lower end of the curve (see the green area of Figure 17.1), boys may be represented at a higher rate than girls, meaning boys are more likely to have lower cognitive functioning abilities than girls, when looking at only low intellectual abilities (Kafer, 2007).

    Another explanation is that schools may not focus enough on boys’ literacy and reading skills. Although there is a literacy gap noted in public schooling, this gap is not found in homeschooled children (Kafer, 2007). So why is that? Are we not fostering reading and writing skills enough in boys in the traditional-public school setting? What do we do? Would creating a school that is more focused and intune to boys’ needs and abilities increase achievement in boys? If so, is considering school choice and charter schools the best option for increasing male achievement rates?

    Neall (2002) recommends that, within school settings, boys’ self-esteem can be raised by teachers praising achievements and reminding them of their success, encouraging their desire for competition and high activity by fostering their involvement in competitive sports and allowing them to move more when learning, perhaps considering single-sex classrooms, and using the model-observer similarity, increasing male teachers (Skelton, 2006).

    11.2.3. Culture

    The culture created at school and in a classroom is incredibly important for the outcomes of youth. So, what about cultures as it relates to gender specifically? Well, much of culture comes from social norms and expectations. For example, girls are expected to be quiet and prosocial. As such, they receive high amounts of praise for these qualities and a strong focus is placed on their appearance. If girls stray from these expectations, they may receive negative evaluations. For example, girls are not expected to be assertive, so when they exert assertiveness, they are often labeled as disruptive (Martin & Beeese, 2017).

    What about when peers do not conform to gender norms or identify as non-heterosexual? What is the school culture like for them? In general, despite increasing acceptance and tolerance, there still remains a high level of hostility. These youth often experience sexual harassment and discrimination. These experiences at school, due to the culture that persists, may lead to these youth avoiding school and under-engaging, leading to poorer outcomes academically. Increased emotional distress has also been noted. (Martin & Beeese, 2017).

    11.2.4. “Cool” Masculinity

    Masculinity, particularly as an adolescent, is highly valued in our society. To be perceived as masculine, boys must avoid looking week, limit their emotional expressions, be competitive, and exert power and control. Anger and aggression are not only acceptable, they are often encouraged when in conflict. We socialize this from a young age, expressing direct and indirect messages to young boys that crying and backing down are signs of weakness. In fact, when boys do not appear masculine and adhere to these expectations, they are often ridiculed by peers. While males may reinforce masculine traits in other males, when a female reinforces a male’s engagement in masculine behavior, it is more powerful and salient (Smith, 2017). If a boy is perceived as too feminine, they are heavily ridiculed. Despite females being somewhat encouraged when they break gender norms and display interest in some masculine areas (e.g., sports), boys do not get any real social encouragement when they deviate from traditional masculine roles and characteristics. In fact, they are often shamed and masculinity is often “policed.”

    Interestingly, when we encourage males to restrict their emotions and to “be tough” we may be encouraging aggression toward themselves and toward others (Feder, Levant, & Dean 2007). Think about it, we don’t only tolerate aggression in males, we encourage it. Think about our soldiers, which are male-dominant. We celebrate their bravery and courage and they are often trained to restrict emotions – similarly, we see this in first responders as well. We see aggression in males modeled on television too. Miedzian (2002) defines this focus of aggression in males the masculine mystique. Whereas boys with higher SES and more resources may find appropriate ways to channel this masculinity and aggression, boys in lower SES status may struggle to find adaptive ways to channel this, thus, resulting to more negative means and criminal behaviors.

    11.2.5. Gender Tracking

    Gender tracking is when students are channeled into different areas of focus/paths solely based on their gender. Although this can happen overtly, it may more commonly happen covertly. How children are gender tracked may vary based on age as well. For example, we being gender tracking children as soon as we know the sex of a baby – picking toys, clothes, names, and décor that are specific to their gender. Fast forward to elementary aged children, and teachers continue to track girls and boys into playing with gender-typical toys. These are more overt channels. However, a covert path is when teachers begin calling on boys more and attending to boys more. This leads to girls raising their hands less frequently. Moreover, boys tend to be identified as requiring special education services more, thus tracking them into an alternative school option more frequently (Jones, 2017).

    Tracking in secondary education may be two-fold. First, lower achieving students may be tracked into vocational learning. As such, within that tracking, boys are often tracked into traditionally considered masculine trades (mechanical and masonry tasks), whereas girls are tracked into traditionally feminine trades (e.g., food trades, child care, and cosmetology). The greater concern is that, often, the feminine trades often have a lower incoming potential (Jones, 2017).

    So, what about high achieving youth – are they tracked too? In fact, they are. Higher achieving males tend to be tracked into STEM-related classes whereas higher achieving girls tend to be tracked into humanities, social sciences, etc. The only area that seems someone immune to gender tracking is history and biology with both males and females equally represented in such (Jones, 2017).


    11.3. School Performance

    Section Learning Objectives

    • Learn how teachers impact the academic performance of boys and girls.
    • Understand the benefits and drawbacks of single-sex schooling
    • Uncover the factors that contribute to academic motivation and how gender may differentially impact motivation

    11.3.1. Teachers

    Teachers play an important role in a child’s educational experiences. While teachers often have good intentions and verbalize a desire to help each of their students equally, teachers have biases that they are sometimes unaware of that impact students’ educational experiences. This bias occurs when teachers form expectations regarding a student’s ability to perform on factors unrelated to the student’s prior academic performance. Those factors may include the child’s gender, their racial or ethnic identity, or their social/financial status. For example, a teacher that assumes a female student has lower abilities simply because she is female (not because of previous test grades by that student), or that an African American student is going to perform lower in their class because of their race, not because of previous performance. My guess is, if you asked a teacher if they held these beliefs, they would say no. I think most of us would say no. The fact is, sometimes we have beliefs we are not aware of (sometimes these beliefs are so automatic and we are so unaware of them, they are referred to implicit beliefs; (Casad & Bryant, 2017).

    Robert Rosenthal, one of the first researchers to examine teacher bias, defined the ”Pygmalion effect”, which is when teacher’s expectancies were shown to actually impact IQ scores (keep in mind, IQ is not a construct we think should be impacted in this way). Moreover, the younger a student was, the more likely their score was to be impacted (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968; Casad & Bryant, 2017). Ultimately, if a teacher expects a student to underperform, and treats them in that way, students will not be likely to persevere and try hard in a challenge, and then this will likely result in them actually performing lower on tasks (Casad & Bryant, 2017). What we are likely seeing at play here is the self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a phenomenon of when someone expects something to occur, the person believes it, and their behaviors then become congruent to lead to that outcome. For example, a teacher believes a student will do poorly, the student then believes this and stops studying, and then they perform poorly, thus confirming the prediction. Teachers’ expectations that then lead to self-fulfilling prophecies in students may actually contribute to achievement gaps (Robisnon-Cimpian et al., 2014). Specifically, how teachers communicate to boys and girls, particularly, if they foster expectations that boys will be better in math and girls better in language, then teachers may contribute to self-fulfilling prophecies that are then reflected in gender gaps in math and language (Robinson-Cimpian, et al., 2014).

    11.3.2. Single-Sex Schooling

    Single-gender or single-sex schooling is a controversial topic. While some are avid proponents of this option, others strongly discourage this route. To understand the controversy, let’s first take a look at each side and the reasons for the varying viewpoints. Then we will discuss what the research actually supports.

    11.3.2.1. All those in favor of single-sex schooling. Proponents of the tendency to indicate that boys and girls learn differently; that there are differences in how their brains are developed and in their abilities. They argue single-sex schooling would allow to account for this and tailor education specific to a child’s potential learning/cognitive strengths and weakness based on their sex. They also argue that it this type of setting allows for biases in classrooms to be minimized. Remember how we learned that teachers tend to focus more on boys than girls, and that boys’ academics are emphasized whereas girls’ prosocial behaviors, quietness, and helping behaviors are emphasized? Well proponents of single-sex schooling school argue that the nature of single-sex classes would eliminate these biases, particularly for girls (Halpern et al., 2011).

    11.3.2.2. All those against single-sex schooling. Although the individuals that are proponents of single-sex schools site learning and cognitive differences as a logical rationale in support of single-sex schooling, as discussed in the cognitive chapter, there are very little differences, cognitively speaking, between girls and boys. And, when those differences are present, they are very minor. Thus, those against single-sex schooling argue that this rational is founded on pseudoscience and does not have any real basis. Those arguing against single-sex schooling also argue that these settings increase gender division, segregation, and stereotypes due to the clear divide it presents. In fact, research actually supports this argument (Bigler & Liben, 2006; Martin & Halveron, 1981; Hilliard & Liben, 2010). Essentially, when segregation occurs, children formulate assumptions that the segregation occurred because the two groups have differences that are important to highlight; thus, biases, particularly intergroup biases, increase. This structure also limits the availability and opportunity for boys and girls to learn to work together (Halpern et al., 2011).

    11.3.2.3. The evidence. Most research actually shows that there is no advantage to single-sex schooling when it comes to overall academic performance. Although you may come across research that seems to support single-sex schooling, flaws in the research have commonly been noted (Leonard, 2006). Specifically, more often than not, findings supporting single-sex schooling tend to disappear when critical confounding factors are controlled for. For example, many students in single-sex schooling options tend to be more academically advanced students to start with. Thus, when you simply compare the single sex school (that contains a higher concentration of advanced performing students) to other mixed-sex schools, it seems like the single-sex schooling is excelling, and the conclusion is often that this is due to the single-sex context. However, when one controls for the more advanced students, there is no statistical difference showing advantages for single-sex schooling (Hayes, Phalke, & Bigler, 2011; Pahlke, Hyde, & Allison, 2014). In the same respect, children that are underperformers will often transfer out of single-sex schooling; thus, continuing to artificially inflate the academic performance scales of single sex schools (Halpern et al., 2011).

    The argument that gender stereotypes may be reduced in single-sex schools is not supported. In a Swedish study, it was found that boys were overconfident in math whereas girls were underconfident in math in single-sex schooling; thus, single-sex schooling did not help dispel the stereotype of poor math abilities in girls. Moreover, this was repeated in an El Salvador study which again found the same results (Jakobsson, Levin, Kotasdam, 2013)

    Although there does not appear to be a genuine overall advantage to single-sex schooling, there may be smaller or isolated benefits to single sex schooling. For example, there may be some slight advantages for girls in math, regarding single-sex schooling. Still, some research shows differing results. For example, Bell (1989) and Spielhofer (2002) found that children in single-sex schools were more likely to choose science than children in coeducational settings. Stables (1990) found that children sought out gender-atypical classes more often in single-sex schooling, and this was particularly true for younger students. However, Francis (2003) found conflicting results revealing that girls showed similar preferences and sought out similar experiences equally in single-sex and coeducational settings (Leonard, 2006).

    Overall there is very little support for single-sex schooling, from an empirical stance. Moreover, very little is actually known about the long-term impacts of single-sex schooling and outcomes (Leonard, 2006).

    11.3.3 Achievement Motivation

    Achievement motivation is the “motivation relevant to performance on tasks in which there are criteria to judge success or failure.” (Wigfield & Cambria, 2010). The motivation to be successful, particularly in academics, has important outcomes. For example, academically motivated youth tend to perform better at school, have increased prosocial behavior, and higher attendance at a school. So, what leads to academic motivation? Females have more intrinsic motivation (e.g., self-motivating) to achieve high in academics whereas males rely more on external motivation (e.g., praise, external rewards; Vecchione, Alessandri, and Marsicano, 2014). Moreover, an individual’s perceived competence in an area, as well as determination, impact the level of motivation one has, academically, which also happens to impact their performance in a positive way (Fortier, Valleranda, & Frederic, 1995). Parents that engage in warm, but firm parenting, also foster higher academic motivation.

    Attribution styles also impact achievement motivation. Learned helplessness is an attribution style in which failures are attributed to one’s ability and success is attributed to external things like luck. This attribution style is one in which a person believes they cannot improve on weaknesses, so, if a task is difficult, they don’t feel like they can do anything to overcome it and may give up. Mastery-oriented attribution style is when an individual explains successes as a result of their ability, as well as explaining failures as a result of controllable factors, such as their effort. Thus, they approach challenges as something they have control over, persevering and putting forth effort (Heyman & Dweck, 1998). Master-oriented individuals focus on learning goals whereas learned helplessness individuals focus on performance (Heyman and Dweck, 1998). Children with a learned helplessness attribution style do not end up developing the necessary skills such as self-regulation to strive and succeed in high achieving contexts; thus, academic motivation may be lower. If teachers focus more on learning than performance and grades, then they end up fostering more master-oriented students (Anderman et al., 2001). It appears that girls are more likely than boys to attribute failure to ability (Bleeker and Jacobs, 2004).

    Boys report more interests and ability in math and science whereas girls report more ability and interests in language and writing. Moreover, gender differences with motivation show up early and increase as children age. This is especially true with language arts. Specifically, as children get older, the gender gap in math and science motivation (with boys having more motivation in this area) begins to decrease whereas as the gender gap in language arts (with girls having more motivation) actually increases (Meece, Bower Glienke, & Burg, 2006).


    Module Recap

    In this module, we first focused on understanding the unique experiences of preschoolers and how their development of self-competence and self-esteem occurs, factors that impact their development, and the importance of their play in their development. We then moved on to school-aged children and learned about various similarities and differences in their abilities, motivations, and experiences. We also discussed the benefits and drawbacks of single-sex schooling. Finally, we ended our discussion with understanding gender differences in academic motivations.

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