Gender Wars


Column: "Gender Wars"

By: Dr. Elizabeth Matteo, assistant professor of psychology at Alvernia University

Gender inequity in schools is a serious matter, regardless of whether it impacts the achievement of a 7-year-old boy or girl. While bias against girls has received a lot of press in the past, particularly in subjects such as math and science, attention has turned to bias against boys. As many educators know, girls are outperforming boys in grades, advanced placement and college attendance.

If one were to only read some recent book titles (e.g., “The End of Men and the Rise of Women” and “The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men”) they might be inclined to wonder what in the world is happening. While I get the value of hyperbole and understand why authors and publishers prefer terms like WAR, ASSAULT and CRISIS for marketing purposes, I’m not sure how I feel about it in this case. I fear it may polarize groups who are equally passionate about fairness, as well as thwart dialogue necessary for widespread reform.

This issue came to my attention after I read a wonderful New York Times opinion piece by Christina Hoff Sommers titled “The Boys at the Back.” Sommers, who also wrote the provocative book “The War Against Boys,” is revising the subtitle of her book set to be reissued this summer. Instead of blaming feminism for the downward trends in male achievement, Sommers is now implicating “boy-averse” educational policies such as the decline in recess and zero-tolerance disciplinary practices.

Sommers cited a recent study comparing grades and achievement scores in a sample of elementary students. The researchers of the study concluded that across multiple grades and subjects, boys’ grades were lower than their achievement scores would have predicted. The explanation offered for this finding: primary school teachers (the majority of whom are female) generally grade boys lower than girls because they factor behavior into grading. Apparently girls, and a subsetof boys, tend to benefit from having qualities such as persistence, eagerness to learn and being able to sit calmly — skills that tend to develop later in boys.

Solutions offered for this problem are reminiscent of the same ideas kicked around when the issue dealt with girl achievement in math and science: help boys to behave more like girls, bring in more male teachers and single sex education. In her New York Times article, Sommers hits on many other broader issues related to inequities in schools. I only wish she would have changed the entire title of her book to reflect her balanced perspective.

Like Sommers, others acknowledge that inequities associated with achievement need to be considered in a broader context. This is not simply an educational problem; it is a societal one. Soraya Chemaly recently wrote on this topic for her blog in the Huffington Post. Chemaly argues that the “war” against boys in education is a symptom of the larger “crisis” faced by women in life. 

Her position is clear: If schools are biased in their evaluation of boys because standards are driven by an institutional structure that embraces “feminine” qualities, the situation tends to reverse as we look at the workplace. There, women continue to have to fit into male institutional structures in which wage gaps persist and males are disproportionally represented in leadership. She goes on to make cogent arguments for why male economic entitlement has helped to actually create “feminized” primary schools.

So, in this case the problems of one gender are intertwined with the problems of the other. My wish is that people read beyond the inflammatory book titles and recognize that human achievement and flourishing are serious issues that should not simply be reduced to gender wars.

Elizabeth Matteo, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Alvernia. Her research subjects include prejudice, stereotyping, stigma, social identity and gender issues.

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