Nature/nurture a go-go

2 April 2010

Newspapers proclaim that boys are being left behind!  Girls dominate our college and university student populations!  What can we do to alter our perniciously female-centered modes of teaching to spark the interests of boys and level things out?

And yet, they ask in an article in a different part of the paper, why is it that women still lag behind in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? 

It’s Psycho A Go-Go all right.  The fact that this topic keeps arising prompts us to ask whether the explanation lies in educational cultures that privilege one sex or the other, or in our differently-gendered brains?  Cue the Larry Summerses to invoke a difference in “intrinsic aptitude” between the sexes; others resort to cockeyed psychological evolution theory (boys “evolved to fight off wolves more than to raise their hands in classrooms” — Nick Kristof, please!).

There are two problems here. 

  • First, when writing about school-age kids and college students, the hysterical newspaper articles only rarely tell us that the real differences aren’t about boys per se, but about race and class:  poor and minority boys are the ones who are really falling behind.  Not a sexy headline, after all. 
  • Second, it doesn’t seem to matter if girls get better grades and boys go to college at lower rates.  The AAUW’s 2007 report on the pay gap shows that within a single year of graduating from college, women make less money than their male peers in the same jobs; ten years later the gap is much, much wider.

Maybe girls do a better job of excelling in school and university culture because their prehistoric ancestors got hard-wired to read instructions and complete their assignments on time.  But what happens after college?  It’s in the workplace where pernicious ideas about “intrinsic” gender differences rear their ugly heads.  In all professional fields, women’s lower rates of pay are explained as indicative of gendered career choices.  Women MBAs make less because they work less due to maternity leaves, one writer claims, and certainly not because of discrimination in the workplace!  But as the AAUW finds about the STEM fields, a better explanation is that a prohibitive boys’ club culture ensures that women are frustrated at all levels of graduate school and in the university workplace; as Historiann and her readers illustrate the AAUW’s findings, successful STEM scholars are written off by their male peers as bitchy.

So let’s get this straight:  girls do better than boys in school because school culture benefits them.  Boys get paid better in jobs and succeed in the STEM fields because their biology doesn’t prevent them from doing so.  It’s all so very clear when you think about it.

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