The Gender Divide

The change in women’s lives that has taken place in the last two generations, and in the opportunities available to them, might lead to the conclusion that a gender bias no longer exists as part of our culture.  Admission to law schools and medical schools has shifted toward women so dramatically that in many schools the number of women now exceeds the number of men.  When then Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, seemed to suggest that the absence of women from the sciences was due to  biological factors, he was engulfed by a wave of rage that may have ultimately been the cause of his departure.

The number of women in the U.S. Senate has risen significantly, and the fact that women occupy many other political offices is now taken for granted.  We have yet to have a woman President, but that is not only no longer dismissed as impossible, it is accepted as likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Whatever controversy remains over the role of women in our society, seems to focus these days on how few women break through the glass ceiling – or on the need for affordable quality child-care so that women are not held back in employment opportunities.  Despite those remaining problems, it would appear that women have prevailed in their struggle for equality.

It therefore comes as something of a shock to read about recent research that points to significant gender bias on the part of parents.  A study of Google searches seems to suggest that American parents are concerned about their sons being smart and their daughters being thin and pretty.  Parents were more likely to ask about sons rather than daughters on every question related to intelligence.   The concern about daughters on the other hand, was disproportionately expressed in anything related to appearance.  More disconcerting yet, searches for specific gender conception strategies favor boys over girls by about ten percent.  And to think our own culture bias has always attributed this preference for boys to other countries, like China or India!

Hopefully, American parents don’t resort to extreme measures to carry out their gender preferences.  But are there other ways in which not just a preference for boys, but other ingrained ideas about gender differences have an impact on the way boys and girls develop?  To what extent are our ideas self-fulfilling prophecies – that is, do we treat our children in ways that then result in the affirmation of our biases? 

In her book, “BOYS & GIRLS, Superheroes in the Doll Corner,” teacher and writer Vivian Paley explores differences in the way kindergarten age children play and fantasize.  Observing herself, as well as the children, she uncovers her own biases, and questions the clichés and prejudices of the teacher’s curriculum that reward girls’ domestic play while discouraging boys’ adventurous fantasies.

My own observations of nursery school children have raised similar questions.  It is startling in a way to see the almost automatic separation of girls to the housekeeping corner and boys to the block building section.  It becomes clear that many teachers prefer quiet, orderly classrooms, which leads to the greater management of the boys and efforts to control and direct their behavior.  The occasional boy who wanders into the doll corner is often looked upon as the “odd man out”, and the objective can become getting him back with the other boys.

An unfortunate consequence of a teacher preference for more manageable behavior is that too often a boy may be labeled a “problem”, or in this day and age, as hyper-active or having an attention deficit disorder.  The much noticed rise in the use of medication to control behavior that is actually typical for active young boys, may also be a consequence of larger class size and a lack of tolerance for the behavior of young boys in particular. 

There has been much discussion about whether it is desirable for girls to attend all-girls’ schools.   The point for some is the benefit for girls of not being distracted by their interest in gaining boys’ attention.  Of course, if that is a benefit, the same might apply in reverse to boys at a single sex school.  Perhaps more significant, is the recognition that teachers often respond differently to boys, calling on them more readily and responding positively to what may be a more assertive style in giving the answers. 

At an annual private dinner for a group of college students, for the first time there were more girls than boys.  It was striking that also for the first time the girls were the more assertive and outgoing, often dominating the conversation.  This time, it was the boys who seemed to hold back, reminiscent of the girls’ behavior in previous years.  It really gave one pause, to reflect on the question of the value of single-sex education.

Of course, the cultural fixation on weight and beauty when it comes to girls has been commented on at length as having destructive repercussions.  But perhaps the deeper concern is the need for us to recognize as parents what our own gender biases are, so that neither girls nor boys are educated into a way of being that may run counter to who they really are.