Get your Gender Essentialist bingo cards ready, but this time so that we can cross off various myths being vigorously debunked.
First the headline and teaser:
The difference myth
We shouldn’t believe the increasingly popular claims that boys and girls think differently, learn differently, and need to be treated differently.
Image Source: Getty Images via the Boston Globe
Then, a few intro paragraphs and we get to the meat of the article:
Boys and girls are different because their brains are different. This idea has driven bestsellers, parenting articles, and even – increasingly – American education.
The problem is, a hard look at the real data behind these claims suggests they are simply untrue. Some of them are baseless, using the language of science to cloak an absence of serious research; others are built on tenuous studies, with methodological flaws and narrow margins of significance. More and more, they are simply coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility.
Scientists have turned up some intriguing findings of anatomical differences between the sexes. But we know very little about their real-world effect on how boys and girls behave – meaning that any conclusions based on these findings are premature.
Just go read and tick off those boxes. It’s a shame that the card doesn’t have boxes just for the studies (and pseudo-studies) that keep getting thrown around improperly, but those get ticked off too: Baron-Cohen, Gurion, Brizendine and the skeptics’ favorite, Not-A-Dr John Gray.
Before someone jumps up with the “feminists deny biological differences” strawman, read the article properly. Pointing out that there are bucketloads of dubious difference myths is not the same thing as arguing that no differences exist, nor is it the same as arguing that gender does not influence the distribution of difference at all, it’s just that looking at differences with gender first in mind is not the most accurate way of sorting the identification, assessment and analysis of difference.
Of course, it would be naive and even harmful to pretend there are no differences between boys and girls. Boys, for example, are more vulnerable to autism and dyslexia – and teachers and parents need to be alert to that fact. But there’s a mountain of evidence to show that gender is the wrong lens through which to view education policies and practice. Some kids learn best visually, others verbally; some do best in “boot-camp” type settings, while others thrive in informal classrooms with lots of freedom. But science and aptitude surveys tell us that gender isn’t a helpful way to sort students into those groups.
This makes perfect sense to me: we have 23 pairs of chromosomes for genetic differences to distribute themselves across after all. Only one pair of those chromosomes determines sex, the other 22 are autosomal, and there are approximately 3 billion DNA nucleotide pairs to distribute across those 23 chromosomes. Only a few human traits (all rare disabilities) have been identified as single-locus, confined to only one chromosome, let alone one nucleotide pair. That certain of these disabilities are sex-linked, occurring more often in men than women, is intriguing but hardly implies that all measures of ability are located on the sex chromosome. Complex human behaviours have never been tied down to a single genetic locus, so trying to shoehorn all performance differences onto a single chromosome seems most foolish.
Back to the article: unfortunately the authors do not tackle any savannah myths. But I am hopeful those will be addressed in the book on which they are working, which I’m sure will have the space to touch on stereotype threat and confirmation bias as well..
Caryl Rivers, journalism professor at Boston University, and Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis, are at work on “The Truth About Boys and Girls: How Gender Stereotypes Harm Our Children.”
One of the things they point out, as I did last week with regard to James Watson’s racial essentialism, is that so many of the proponents of these allegedly innate and ineradicable “differences” rely almost solely on IQ test results, and that there’s a real problem there with whether IQ tests are an adequate measure of what they are professing to measure, seeing as intelligence is such a difficult concept to accurately define.
Looking forward to the book.
Full disclosure: my kids go to single sex high schools, but I didn’t choose that option because I think boys and girls have vast differences in neurological learning styles. I was more concerned with differences in social behaviour in classrooms, which have shown that there is strong social pressure for girls to defer classroom interaction to the boys in their peer group, social behaviour which I did not want reinforced in the classrooms of either of my kids.
Their schools share a campus, by the way, and do musical and drama activities together, so that the kids get daily opposite sex socialisation as well, which was also important to me.