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Module 7: Gender Differences

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Social, Academic and Cognitive Difference in Gender Roles

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Social differences in gender roles
When relaxing socially, boys more often gravitate to large groups. Whether on the playground, in a school
hallway, or on the street, boys’ social groups tend literally to fill up a lot of space, and often include significant amounts of roughhousing as well as organised and “semi-organised” competitive games or sports (Maccoby, 2002).

Girls, for their part, are more likely to seek and maintain one or two close friends and to share more intimate information and feelings with these individuals. To the extent that these gender differences occur, they can make girls less visible or noticeable than boys, at least in leisure play situations where children or youth choose their companions freely.

As with physical differences, however, keep in mind that differences in social interactions do not occur uniformly for all boys and girls. There are boys with close friends, contradicting the general trend, and girls who play primarily in large groups.

Differences in social interaction styles happen in the classroom as well. Boys, on average, are more likely to speak up during a class discussion, sometimes even if not called on, or even if they do not know as much about the topic as others in the class (Sadker, 2002).

When working on a project in a small co-ed group, furthermore they have a tendency to ignore girls’ comments and contributions to the group. In this respect co-ed student groups parallel interaction patterns in many parts of society, where men also have a tendency to ignore women’s comments and contributions (Tannen, 2001).

Academic and cognitive differences in gender
On average, girls are more motivated than boys to perform well in school, at least during the early years of school. By the time girls reach second level, however, some may try to down play their own academic ability in order make themselves more likeable by both sexes (Davies, 2005).

Even if this occurs, though, it does not affect their grades: throughout the early school years, girls earn slightly higher average grades than boys (Freeman, 2004). This fact does not lead to similar achievement, however, because as youngsters move into second level, they tend to choose courses or subjects conventionally associated with their gender—math and science for boys, in particular, and literature and the arts for girls. By the end of high school, this difference in course selection makes a measurable difference in boys’ and girls’ academic performance in these subjects.

Stereotyping needs to considered here also: there are individuals of both sexes whose behaviours and choices run counter to the group trends. Differences within each gender group generally are far larger than any differences between the groups.

A good example is the “difference” in cognitive ability of boys and girls. Many studies have found none at all. A few others have found small differences, with boys slightly better at math and girls slightly better at reading and literature.

Still other studies have found the differences not only are small, but have been getting smaller in recent years compared to earlier studies. Collectively the findings about cognitive abilities are virtually “non-findings”, and it is worth asking why gender differences have therefore been studied and discussed so much for so many years (Hyde, 2005).

How teachers influence gender roles?
Teachers often intend to interact with both sexes equally, and frequently succeed at doing so. Research has found, though, that they do sometimes respond to boys and girls differently, perhaps without realizing it. Three kinds of differences have been noticed.

These differences are related to:
• The overall amount of attention paid to each sex
• The visibility or “publicity” of conversations
• The type of behaviour that prompts teachers to support or criticise students

Attention paid
In general, teachers interact with boys more often than with girls by a margin of 10% to 30%, depending on the grade level of the students and the personality of the teacher (Measor & Sykes, 1992).

One possible reason for the difference is related to the greater assertiveness of boys that was mentioned earlier. If boys are speaking up more frequently in discussions or at other times, then a teacher may be “forced” to pay more attention to them.

Another possibility is that some teachers may feel that boys are especially prone to getting into mischief, so they may interact with them more frequently to keep them focused on the task at hand (Erden & Wolfgang, 2004).

Still another possibility is that boys, compared to girls, may interact in a wider variety of styles and situations, so there may simply be richer opportunities to interact with them. This last possibility is partially supported by another gender difference in classroom interaction, the amount of public versus private talk.

Public talk versus private talk
Teachers have a tendency to talk to boys from a greater physical distance than when they talk to girls (Wilkinson & Marrett, 1985). The difference may be both a cause and an effect of general gender expectations, expressive nurturing is expected more often of girls and women, and a business-like task orientation is expected more often of boys and men, particularly in mixed-sex groups (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003; Myaskovsky, Unikel, & Dew, 2005).

Whatever the reason, the effect is to give interactions with boys more “publicity”. When two people converse with each other from across the classroom, many others can overhear them; when they are at each other’s elbows, though, few others can overhear.

Distributing praise and criticism
In spite of most teachers’ desire to be fair to all students, it turns out that they sometimes distribute praise and criticism differently to boys and girls. The differences are summarised in Table 11.

The tendency is to praise boys more than girls for displaying knowledge correctly, but to criticise girls more than boys for displaying knowledge incorrectly (Golombok & Fivush, 1994; Delamont, 1996). Another way of stating this difference is by what teachers tend to overlook: with boys, they tend to overlook wrong answers, but with girls, they tend to overlook right answers.

The result (which is probably unintended) is a tendency to make boys’ knowledge seem more important and boys themselves more competent. A second result is the other side of this coin: a tendency to make girls’ knowledge less visible and girls themselves less competent.

Gender differences also occur in the realm of classroom behaviour. Teachers tend to praise girls for “good” behaviour, regardless of its relevance to content or to the lesson at hand, and tend to criticise boys for “bad” or inappropriate behaviour (Golombok & Fivush, 1994). This difference can also be stated in terms of what teachers overlook: with girls, they tend to overlook behaviour that is not appropriate, but with boys they tend to overlook behaviour that is appropriate.

The net result in this case is to make girls’ seem more good than they may really be, and also to make their “goodness” seem more important than their academic competence. By the same token, the teacher’s patterns of response imply that boys are more “bad” than they may really be.

At first glance, the gender differences in interaction can seem discouraging and critical of teachers because they imply that teachers as a group are biased about gender. But this conclusion is too simplistic for a couple of reasons:
1. Similar to all differences between groups, interaction patterns are trends, and as such they hide a lot of variation within them.
2. The trends suggest what often tends in fact to happen, not what can in fact happen if a teacher consciously sets about to avoid interaction patterns like the ones described here.

Fortunately for us all, teaching does not need to be unthinking; teachers have choices that they can make, even during a busy class.