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The Educational Attainment of Girls and Boys: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Last month, Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, was shot in the head, in an attempted assassination by Taliban militants. Her “crime” was daring to advocate for girls’ education. In a New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof observes that we in the West find it “easy to dismiss such incidents as distant barbarities,” and uses the example of sex trafficking to illustrate that we “have a blind spot for our own injustices.” I agree. However, I am not sure we need to go so far to find domestic injustices.

How about a close look within this very area: The education of girls (and boys) in the U.S.? Stories about how girls have surpassed boys in educational attainment have become common, and are often linked to statements about how boys are forgotten and/or lost. This rhetoric is troubling for several reasons. First, it can be read to imply a zero-sum equation; that is, that the educational advancement of girls is the cause of boys’ educational neglect. Second, stories about girls’ “successes” and boys’ “failures” may obscure more than they reveal.

There are the “lost boys” of higher education and the “missing girls” of STEM. We worry about boys and reading and girls and math. Recurring questions include where are the women in technology? Or, are there enough novels that cater to boys? Women have sailed past men in obtaining college degrees but, importantly, continue to concentrate in different fields and need Ph.D.s to match men with bachelor’s in the workplace.

When issues are addressed in this fragmented manner, it’s hard to tell if it’s girls or boys that we should be worrying about. Well, both and neither. What all these pieces of the puzzle really say is that – at least in this day, age, and nation – gender still matters.

Some people hear “gender” and think “women,” “women issues,” “feminism.” But that’s not the point. When I say gender, I am referring to the idea that shared beliefs about men and women shape (often unconsciously [also here and here]) the way we all think, the way we all act, our preferences and choices and how we view and relate to one another. Historically, these culturally shared beliefs about what men and women (and boys and girls) are and should be – a.k.a. descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes – have tended to be advantageous for men. Frequently they still are, but often they’re really not (especially not in the long run).

Think about this: If girls and women sense that they have to “try harder” to be regarded as equally capable, some of them will overachieve, which in turn can help explain the progress women have made in educational attainment. Conversely, because men and boys are often treated more leniently (e.g., “boys will be boys”), they may respond the opposite way: believing that they do not need to work or try quite so hard.

In addition, research shows that men tend to “attribute their successes to stable, intrinsic causes (ability), whereas women generally attribute their failures, but not their successes, to these causes.” As Harold StevensonCarol Dweck and others have shown, this belief in the centrality of fixed ability, rather than individual effort, can, in and of itself, have a negative effect on performance.

Obviously all of these processes are hugely complex,* but my main point is that the focus on the problems of girls’ education or boys’ education represents two sides of the same coin – and that coin is our broadly shared beliefs about men and women. These preconceived ideas and expectations frequently hurt women and girls, but they’re really not so great for boys and men either. In my view, much of what we are seeing in education is the “unintended consequences” of deeply ingrained and hegemonic beliefs about gender.

Some time ago Mary Ann Baenninger wrote, in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

[W]e generally behave as if we live in a post-gender world.” […] “Research shows that women underestimate their abilities and express lower levels of self-confidence than their abilities suggest” while “[m]en overestimate their abilities and express higher levels of confidence than their abilities warrant.

She also observed that:

We didn’t plan well for the consequences of a society that taught one sex that it had to work harder to gain access, and the other sex that access was guaranteed.

The body of research supporting Baenninger’s simple statements is fairly overwhelming. Studies have demonstrated that, in the U.S. at least**, men are widely thought to be more competent than women, except when performing “feminine” tasks (herehere, and here). While empirical support for actual gender differences in mathematical ability is weak (also here), the belief in the mathematical superiority of boys is widely dispersed in U.S. culture (also here and here).

In fact, we also know that causal attribution patterns vary by gender and achievement domain. For example, in mathematics, “girls are less likely than boys to attribute their successes to ability. Instead, girls attribute their successes to effort and hard work […]” (Meece et al 2006, p. 354). “By contrast, few studies report gender differences for achievement tasks involving verbal and language abilities.” (ibid).

The studies cited here suggest that, in general, boys tend to have positive achievement-related beliefs in the areas of mathematics and science, while girls show more favorable motivation patterns in language and reading. Interestingly, “the gender gap in motivation related to mathematics and science tends to narrow with age, whereas differences in motivation related to language remain prominent throughout the school years.”

On a related note, it is important to remember that areas of achievement are not neutral. That is, most people would agree that being good at math is more important than being skilled in the arts. In addition, students often perceive that areas of achievement are in tension with one another – e.g., competency in math versus competency in verbal areas.

Given all these preconceptions about girls, boys, their abilities, and so on, it is perhaps not that surprising that girls are doing well in the domains that are perceived as “feminine” (e.g. reading) and are still trying to “catch up” with boys in areas, such as math, in which they are perceived as weak but are “higher value” domains. Boys, meanwhile, have seen declines in the now feminized skills of reading and verbal ability, but continue to do well in the “masculine” areas of math and science.

(It is also ironic to note that surveys of employers find that workers with strong feminized skills – verbal ability, adaptability, teamwork – are the most highly sought after; while wage and employment surveys show that those with “masculine” skills – specifically the STEM-related skills – are among the most highly paid.)

The Taliban militants shot Malala “because girls’ education threatens everything that they stand for.” Here in the U.S., nobody is violently attacking girls for attending school. But the way that girls’ advancement is sometimes portrayed is not ideal and does nothing to help boys nor girls.

My humble suggestion: A more productive way of understanding and improving the educational attainment of both girls and boys is to continue to question our preconceived views about what any individual (whether male or female) can or would want to do.

- Esther Quintero


* The best work I know explaining the link between shared beliefs about gender and individual aspirations and behavior is the work of Shelley Correll (Stanford University). In one of her papers, Correll explains: “Young children are exposed to gender beliefs associated with mathematics from various sources (teachers, parents, counselors, published results of standardized test scores by gender), and likely become aware that “most people” believe that males, as a group, are better at math. These beliefs affect their decisions. […] Personally holding a stereotypic belief is not necessary for the argument I make. Instead, it is only necessary that individuals perceive that others hold these gendered beliefs with respect to mathematics.” (see Correll 2001).

** That said, gender stereotypes are very consistent across time and cultures (see Williams & Best 1990) and are pervasive, and very resistant to change (see Dodge, Gilroy & Fenzel 1995).

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Esther Quintero

Esther Quintero is a senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. Her work focuses on highlighting research that can inform critical education issues such as eq...