Before the home pregnancy kit ever leaves the drugstore – sometimes even before the first date – many people cherish private dreams about their future offspring. Whether it’s throwing around the pigskin or passing on heirloom jewelry, parents-to-be may picture themselves sharing specific family traditions with a boy or a girl. Most expectant couples can’t wait to find out their baby’s gender. According to a survey by BabyCenter, over half of all parents in the US choose to learn the sex of their baby by the twentieth week of pregnancy.
The fact is, even in today’s equality-focused world, the gender of your baby has far-reaching effects on their academic and economic achievements. Here, we examine the current status of the gender gap in cognition and education, and offer tips for parents on supporting boys’ and girls’ academic performance in key areas.
A Short History of Gender Gaps
Historically, men have enjoyed more success at school and at work. The gender gap is not a new concept; scientists have been analyzing educational differences for the last 50 years. In the 70s and 80s, girls lagged behind boys – particularly in math and science.
Over time however, the data has changed dramatically. Boys continue to score higher on standardized tests, dominate in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), and earn significantly more throughout their careers.
However, girls have begun to pull ahead in university graduation rates and receive better grades in many subjects. “Girls outperform boys in all aspects of the curriculum,” says Anthony Heath, head of English at Dulwich College Beijing (DCB).
How Are Boys and Girls Different?
This question makes many people uncomfortable – and with good reason. For thousands of years, pseudo-scientific biological differences have been exploited and used as justification for disempowerment, exclusion and subjugation. It’s important to note that there are overall far fewer biological differences between girls’ and boys’ brains than similarities.
Studies by Northwestern University and the University of Haifa have found that girls show greater activity in numerous language sites in the brain. In addition, their language-related brain activity levels occurs in both hemispheres, whereas boys’ occurs in the left hemisphere only.
This suggests that boys and girls process language in very different ways. Girls also begin talking earlier. The average 20-month-old girl has twice the vocabulary of her male counterpart.
Boys are also more likely to develop speech problems such as stuttering.
A recent study by the University of California Irvine found that the brain is structured and organized differently in men and women. Scientists compared the brains of high-IQ and low-IQ women, and high-IQ and low-IQ men.
They found that the distinguishing brain characteristics for high-IQ and low-IQ individuals completely differ by gender. So even though the subjects’ IQs were equivalent, their brain features were not. It seems that the adage “different but equal” may have a biological basis when it comes to IQ.
Research shows that boys have greater spatial abilities than girls, and this gap can be observed as early as 3 to 6 months of age.
Boys also dedicate more areas of the brain to spatial and mechanical tasks. They score higher by a significant margin on measures for mental rotation (the ability to visualize and rotate a 3D object with your mind’s eye).
Some researchers have suggested these advantages in spatial abilities could be the origin of differences in academic achievement in science and math later on. High spatial ability is also linked to proficiency in computing tasks.
Nature or Nurture?
Nature is a minor factor and experts still believe that in the case of educational achievement, nurture plays the biggest role. Parental educational achievement and earnings, internalized stereotypes, exposure to role models, and general upbringing all contribute to deep-seated biases and subject preferences in a child’s mind. Of these, the data show that family income is the single biggest predictor of academic success.
Although there are subtle differences between the brains of boys and girls, they are easily mitigated. “Never tell a boy or a girl that [they are]bad at a subject because of their gender,” says Peter Knapp, who teaches math at Dulwich College Beijing. “This could make them think they will always be bad at it because they can never change who they are. My advice is never to mention gender when discussing ability.”
Leonard Sax, psychologist and author of the parenting books Boys Adrift, Girls on the Edge, and Why Gender Matters, proposes exploiting biological differences in order to optimize learning. He believes that “there are no differences in what girls and boys can learn, but there are big differences in the best ways to teach them.”
Girls and STEM
Girls receive higher grades in math, possibly because grades are dependent on turning in homework assignments and research shows that girls complete homework more diligently. However, boys come out on top when it comes to standardized math tests such as the AP Calculus exams and the math section of the SAT. Unlike verbal test scores, math scores are an accurate predictor of future income. Because despite obvious performance gains in science and math, girls continue to shy away from the lucrative STEM fields.
Rebecca Archer, a primary teacher at DCB, traces some of the gender differences in science back to reading preferences.
“Boys love non-fiction and factual reading and are easily switched onto science,” she says. “The resources we have at international schools in Beijing mean more children enjoy science.”
“I have seen both girls and boys equally enthused by math and sciences during school,” says Knapp, “although there does seem to be an imbalance of gender studying these subjects from age 16.”
The STEM sector is booming and associated skills are in high demand. Earnings for workers in these fields are 25 percent higher than other sectors. In the last decade, three times as many STEM-related jobs were created as non-STEM jobs. However, women make up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) reported last year that women earn 80 percent of men’s wages one year after graduation and only 69 percent ten years after graduation, in part due to their lower participation in the money-spinning STEM domain.
Boys and Literacy
Gender significantly impacts reading achievement, and boys generally score lower than girls on standardized tests in the language arts. This gender gap in literacy has existed for decades but hasn’t received special attention from educators and researchers until relatively recently.
“[Boys] don’t read enough challenging material,” says Heath. “Their reading ‘stops’ at about age 13-14 in many cases. At Dulwich, [there is]not that much [of a gender gap in literacy and language arts,]but there is some difference.”
This is an opinion that Archer shares. “There’s a big difference between the international school environment and the reality in England,” Archer says. “Parents here have very high regard for education and you can really see the difference in their kids. Children are much more motivated, but there is still a slight difference in reading between boys and girls.”
Heath says his biggest success story in terms of the gender gap and English has been narrowing the A (>70 percent) and A* (> 80 percent) gap between boys and girls. This year, 15 percent more girls than boys received A and A* grades in IGCSE, a substantially smaller figure than the girls’ 20+ percent lead the year before. “Anything that closes that gap is moving in the right direction. Girls aren’t going to stop doing well,” says Heath. “It’s just about closing the gap and moving boys forward.”
Statistically, small gender gaps in reading and writing in kindergarten widen substantially throughout children’s school lives. By Grade 12, boys trail girls by 14 points in the US Department of Education’s National Reading Assessment (2004) and by 18 points in the National Assessment of Writing Skills (2007). This is of major concern, as poor literacy skills hinder all knowledge acquisition and as a result impede lifelong learning.
When it comes to higher education, literacy really matters. Above all, the tools necessary for success in university courses (whether in the arts or sciences) include fast and accurate reading and writing. Fifty-seven percent of undergraduates were male 30 years ago. Today, the proportion is completely reversed and 57 percent of undergrads are female.
What Color Is Your Parachute for Teens by Carol Christen and Richard N. Bolles
Advice for teenagers on figuring out their passions and dreams.
Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax
Examines the implications of gender differences and offers new approaches to teaching and parenting.
Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot
Emphasizes how insignificant brain differences are and gives advice on dealing with harmful stereotypes
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Best-selling book on empowering and motivating women by STEM industry poster girl and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Advice for Parents
Parents are pivotal in nurturing children’s passions, beliefs, and career choices. The family unit lays the foundation for gender stereotypes or internalized cultural beliefs about the acceptable roles for boys and girls. STEM subjects are often labeled masculine, while social sciences and humanities are often branded as female arenas.
A study at the University of Virginia asked parents of 500 students to give an opinion on their children’s academic abilities. Most parents viewed their sons as more adept at math and science and their daughters as more proficient in the humanities, whether this was true or not. These prejudices are easily passed on to children and may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the subjects presumed more appropriate for the opposite gender, parents may allow kids more leeway to do poorly and students themselves may stop
trying as hard. It may mean some kids never even attempt studies or careers paths they could thrive in.
Find ways to make math and science fun. Do puzzles, visit the China Science and Technology
Museum and interact with the exhibits.
Watch STEM-lite programs like How it Works and Mythbusters. Archer also recommends Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Support spatial skills with brain training games. Playing with blocks or Legos may help to develop spatial awareness, as building with blocks involves the real-world application and development of spatial skills.
Give relevant real-world examples for math and science lessons. Human relationships are key motivators for most girls, and they may be more interested by practical applications and helping people.
Enroll girls in a STEM summer camp or relevant after-school club where they can meet and form friendships with other STEM-focused girls. “Few girls study math and physics after the age of 18, with biology and chemistry seemingly more attractive,” Knapp says. “There may be an underlying social element to this, where math and physics require more solitary work. Girls are generally more sociable and therefore may gravitate towards the more sociable sciences. [I try] to make [science]more sociable by having more games, discussions and presentations.”
In Knapp’s opinion, “the less attention brought to gender gaps or any gender-related
issues, the less children will be taught to think that there is an issue at all. Sexism is brought about as a result of highlighting these issues and dealing with them badly.”
Let your children know that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be.
Help your children to improve in any areas of disadvantage.
Don’t reinforce stereotypes which divide professions up into male and female categories.
Find examples of people who defy the stereotypes and introduce your children to them.
Give kids the opportunity to interact with men and women in non-typical careers.
Give boys room to move around and introduce competitive elements. Help your son memorize a poem by throwing a ball back and forth. Or set a timer and challenge him to complete his writing task before the bell.
“Don’t give up,” Heath says. “Live in a house full of books [or]get Kindles.” Have fathers read bedtime stories so boys can understand that reading is not a girl thing. In Heath’s opinion, “Parents are crucial. They have to be part of a process of keeping boys reading and engaging with text, whatever that text is.”
Many boys enjoy non-fiction, adventure, sports and how-to books. Heath also advises parents to “invest in some graphic novels – boys love them and there are high quality-ones around like Laika and Persepolis.”
Archer suggests gradually weaning boys off of graphic novels by limiting them to one per week and insisting on a mix of fiction and non-fiction in their weekly library lending list.
Evidence suggests that single-sex schooling eliminates the gender gap for boys, and in Heath’s opinion, “they undoubtedly perform better but don’t access ‘the hidden curriculum’ – such as how to socialize with the opposite sex.”
On the subject of technology in the classroom, Heath has his doubts. “It could be argued that technology will help but I am dubious. Tech is a tool, not the tool. We just need to entertain more,” he says.
photo by Jamie Gu
This article originally appeared on p50-53 of the beijingkids October 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com