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Debunking Myth That Girls and Boys Learn Differently

COM prof’s book challenges “toxic” stereotypes

Caryl Rivers, Boston University Professor of Journalism

Caryl Rivers says that in education, gender is irrelevant. “What really matters in the classroom,” she says, “is parent involvement, teacher quality, class size, and of course, social class.” Photo by Vernon Doucette

Caryl Rivers has had a long and varied journalism career, writing about Vietnam, the women’s movement, political correctness, and most recently, the dangers of gender stereotypes.

Her newest book, “a bracing antidote to conventional wisdom,” according to the education editor at Bloomberg News, is The Truth about Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes about Our Children (Columbia University Press, 2011). In the book, Rivers, a College of Communication professor of journalism, and coauthor Rosalind C. Barnett, a Brandeis University women’s studies researcher, offer a vigorous indictment of what they call a “new biological determinism”—the increasingly widespread belief that girls and boys learn differently and should be taught separately.

As they discredit a litany of studies of how children learn, Rivers and Barnett debunk prevailing beliefs about “pink and blue” brains and the notion that boys are hardwired to excel in math and science while girls are better at verbal ability. The authors concede that boys and girls differ in more than the obvious ways, but they point to major new studies concluding that there is surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children’s brains. The two wrote an earlier salvo against gender myths: Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs.

Barnett and Rivers, who was awarded the 2007 Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award for journalism, will discuss and sign copies of their new book at Barnes and Noble at BU, in Kenmore Square, tonight from 7 to 8 p.m.

BU Today spoke with Rivers recently about boys, girls, and the tyranny of the enduring stereotypes.

BU Today: You cite shoddy studies, such as the “pseudoscience” of best-selling author Leonard Sax. Is there an agenda behind those studies?

Rivers: There are certain people, many who sell books and magazine articles, who are pushing for the idea of single sex schools. You have people like Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters, trying to get all public schools to have single sex classes, and a lot of people making a lot of money saying boys and girls are so different because it sounds right. But the science behind it is really very bad.

Why are these old “sugar and spice” stereotypes making a comeback?

I think there is a backlash, this idea of “the end of men.” Women are doing so wonderfully and men are losing out. But when you look at that, studies show that women’s progress and excellence in school, so many women valedictorians, don’t translate into top-level jobs. So I think there is an agenda here, based on the belief that girls are taking over everything and men are failing, which is not true. We always tend to worry about men in this culture anyhow. Now we’re worrying about men because women are doing so well.

At a recent fifth birthday party with children of enlightened parents, I saw the girls having a tea party and the boys hitting each other with plastic bats. It’s hard to believe this behavior is not hardwired.

Well, kids very early on get the idea of what’s appropriate for their play. In one study there was a tea set and blocks, and when there weren’t parents around, particularly fathers, the boys played with the tea set as much as the girls. It’s astonishing how early on—very, very early—kids get ideas about what type of play is appropriate.

What should be the model for gender equality in education?

When you see kids in environments where there’s a real effort made to be nonsexist, you do find that kids grow up to be more nonsexist. There’s a lot of research finding that kids from traditional gender families grow up to have those traditional ideas, but kids with more free-floating, nonsexist environments when they’re young grow up to have nonsexist ideas.

What about the school of thought that gender separation empowers girls and helps them excel?

I do think that in the ’50s, the days of the Seven Sisters colleges, when all-male colleges paid really short shrift to girls, these women’s colleges were the only ones saying girls can succeed. But there’s really no difference between single sex education and coeducation. When you look at the data, aside from those studies that are either anecdotal or use really small sample sizes, you just can’t say that single sex is better. You might think that girls would do better without the distraction of boys, but in fact, studies show that in all-girl classrooms in science and math, girls don’t learn to argue the way boys do, so they may be losing out.

Is the gender issue a distraction from bigger problems in education today?

Yes; gender is really irrelevant. What really matters in the classroom is parent involvement, teacher quality, class size, and of course, social class.

If the evidence is so weak, why do you think the media reinforce these stereotypes?

We want to believe these differences. The media love a narrative, and lately the idea is that gender is all hardwired, that boys play with certain toys because of their genes and girls because of their brains. What we’re finding is that it’s a much more complex thing. You may have an inclination toward one kind of behavior, but if you’re in a society that pushes that type of behavior, you’re far more likely to exhibit it. And the brain is always being rewired. It always interacts with the environment, but we’re in an era when we emphasize the inborn stuff. It’s a cultural backlash, the argument that women have gone too far, that they’re hurting men, that it’s time to step back, that there are natural roles for boys and girls, and that violating nature is bad.

How do you feel about arguments that girls have more nurturing, empathetic qualities than boys, making girls better nurses, say, or veterinarians?

I think it’s largely nonsense. It’s been argued that because women have larger corpus callosums they speak better, but in fact it turns out there are no differences in this or in the case of empathy—boys may be just as caring as girls, but boys may not show it. The notion that women are the caring sex and men the demanding sex is simply not true. And there’s the flipside: the mean girl phenomenon. Not all females are born carers and not all are bitches. They’re certainly more complicated than that.

Who is The Truth about Girls and Boys for?

The book is for parents, teachers, and policy makers. We certainly want to give parents the tools to cope with marketing messages. We are now seeing marketing going back to the pink and blue aisles, where little girls are being given pink dolls and little boys are getting Legos and action toys. This idea may be popular, it may be all over the place, but it’s wrong, and it may be hurting your child.

Who is it likely to hit a nerve with?

The book will hit a nerve with people with traditional ideas, who view gender differences as Mars and Venus. Boys are as different from one another as they are from girls. But Mars and Venus is a popular narrative that has to be fed. We believe in treating kids as individuals.

How does your collaboration with Rosalind Barnett work?

We both do a little bit of editing. I do more of the writing, and she does more of the research. We’ve been close friends since the ’70s. We go on the road together. We’re both grandparents.

What is your view of the state of feminism today?

There’s a new, soft war against women. We make big leaps forward, then we slide back. A lot of the attacks today are much more subtle. What we’re seeing is, men are suffering; you women have had your turn. But we’re all in this together.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett will discuss and sign copies of The Truth about Girls and Boys at Barnes and Noble at BU, 660 Beacon St., Kenmore Square, tonight, October 6, from 7 to 8 p.m., in the Reading Room on level five. For more information, call 617-267-8484.


11 Comments on Debunking Myth That Girls and Boys Learn Differently

  • Krystal on 10.06.2011 at 7:41 am

    As a woman and an engineering graduate student, it has become evident that men unconsciously do not treat women in the same way. I will be in a group working with some very nice guys. We will be trouble shooting a problem. I will make a suggestion and no one listens to me until they are out of ideas. It definitely can be frustrating. But at the same time men have selective hearing when it comes to feminism. When it comes down to romantic relations, men want to believe more women are looking for the more casual sexual relationship. I do believe the most successful relationships are when both partners work together and let the man be the man and the woman be the woman. From an evolutionary standpoint, men were designed to have more testosterone and better “hunting skills” whereas women were designed with more estrogen to be the better multi-taskers. Obviously not all follow this mold but you cannot disagree, for example, that increased testosterone leads to increased muscle mass and so forth which is better suited for the stereotypical male role.

  • Rebecca on 10.06.2011 at 11:14 am

    I think Ms. Rivers’ claim that single-sex education and coeducation don’t make a difference is absolutely preposterous. I went to an all-girls school from 4th-8th grade and it was absolutely the best education I have and will ever receive. For some girls, being in a class with boys is both distracting and intimidating and all-girls completely relieves that. Furthermore, you can’t say “girls don’t learn to argue the way boys do”. Girls argue too! A lot! You can learn to argue in an environment with girls. In fact, you have to. I just completely disagree with her idea that single-sex education and coeducation doesn’t make a difference because I experienced firsthand the HUGE difference it makes. I believe all-girls education makes girls more confident, stronger, and can be tailored to the way we learn.

    • Mike on 10.06.2011 at 4:49 pm

      Oh, you had a different experience? Then she’s entirely wrong.

    • Sunny on 10.06.2011 at 11:02 pm

      I also went to an all-girl school, but for high school. Interestingly enough, my high school emphasized that girls should excel in science and math and specifically created a science research and engineering program designed for girls to do science research at nearby hospitals and universities throughout high school. Because of that program, I am now an engineering student at BU. So, would Ms. Rivers be for or against this type of education?

    • Emily on 03.16.2012 at 11:30 pm

      You went to an all-girls school? Was it a private school? Were there other factors that might have made it better? I think that might be part of the issue and the all-girls aspect didn’t mean as much as you thought it did. Perhaps.

    • CG on 10.30.2012 at 11:58 am

      I agree with Emily. All-girls schools tend to be private, and therefore tend to have better resources and/or higher educational standards than your average co-ed public school. I’m not saying that being all-girls school didn’t make a difference, but I think people should consider the possibility that the difference is not necessarily caused by the fact that it is girls-only. Even if that girls-only factor does make a difference, that doesn’t necessarily mean that girls learn differently from boys. It might be that, when boys are taken out of the equation, girls feel more comfortable stepping outside of those traditional stereotypes, and therefore learn more successfully.

      These are just possibilities, but again, I think it’s important to realize that other reasons can exist.

  • KC on 10.06.2011 at 11:45 am

    I totally agree with Ms. Rivers. I’m sick of society deciding what’s “appropriate” or not for a gender. Obviously they are a few differences in the genetic makeup of males and females, but those genes shouldn’t even be a factor in someone’s gender. Gender is a choice, not a predetermined biological destiny. And whether you choose to be a boy or a girl should make no difference in what society expects of you or in what you choose to do.

  • Larry on 10.11.2011 at 2:15 pm

    When Prof. Rivers offhandedly claims that choice in play (tea sets vs. plastic bats) is culturally determined, she makes everything she says suspect. There is just too much well-designed research debunking the idea of gender behavior being purely a social construct. Of course, what’s true is that there are girls who don’t play with tea sets and boys who don’t like to hit each other with plastic bats — but you really don’t find that many boys who are as “into” tea sets as a typical girl, or girls who are as attracted to physically aggressive play as the typical boy.

    When she claims that the people who are pushing single sex education have an “agenda,” does she not realize that the exact same thing may be said about her?

    If suddenly girls are thriving academically far better than boys, and if young men are indeed “failing to launch” more than young women, then yes, we have a problem that needs to be addressed in as many creative ways as possible until a solution is reached (without, of course, disadvantaging girls). If both girls and boys are truly equal, and equally valued, then they should be succeeding equally, and if they are not, we should look at solutions to reach that equality — irrespective of which gender is doing more poorly.

  • Dave on 10.11.2011 at 4:12 pm

    “Harrump. Men get all the attention anyway…” Well this points out that Carrly Rivers is identified as a journalist. Not a scientist. In fact there has been an explosion of female accomplishment. I propose a simple test. Let us focus on public schools and grades. Grading is a metric that is used to assess the ability and performance of students. Let’s see if that swings 50 50 girls to boys. I sure the research has been done, but I’d like to see it for right now. In secondary schools. Secondary schools seem to be the battleground that Rivers has chosen to comment upon.

    What I suspect, though proper research is the only real true value (not books with cute titles), is that the behavioural differences between girls and boys is NOT culturally fomented, and indeed it has a huge influence on what boys and girls eventually accomplish.

    Boys today have a big problem. Just one aspect of character, compliance, is causing great differences in performance at school related tasks. The differences in brains between boys and girls – respective of their IQ and test taking ability – is marginal if it exists at all. Certainly tons of research on the topic has given us lots of fodder for discussion.

    But the differences in male and female character, temperament, and compliance are huge. Indisputable. And as the world shifts dramatically from the agrarian, militaristic society, to a more bee-like corporate world, the male of the species needs to change. Without this adjustment, we are destined for an even greater spread between employed, accomplished, citizens of male and female sex.

    How we solve that problem, I can’t fathom. But refusing to believe it, saying it doesn’t exist, and in fact “serves em right”; is not a socially enlightened attitude. Rivers I think, is living in a 60’s world. She should wake up and see that we are closing in on an era where her ideas and ideals are as quaint as Victorian ideas once were.

  • David on 10.12.2011 at 4:29 pm

    I would bet money Caryl Rivers does not have children. If she does I would bet that she did not raise both boys and girls.

    If you want real experts on the subject go ask some parents with a few kids if they agree.

    Boys and girls most certainly learn differently. As a father I have done my own study for over a decade. My research has been daily for all those years (this research is also called parenting). There is your expertise.

    In fact go watch 5 boys sit quietly in a classroom for two hours and 5 girls sit quietly in a classroom for two hours and tell me you do not see a difference.

    • CG on 10.30.2012 at 11:48 am

      That’s not really evidence. Just because your children may act in accordance with traditional gender types, doesn’t mean that they are innately programmed to do so. What River is examining here is not whether boys and girls act differently, but /why/ they act differently. Observing the differences between male and female classroom proves nothing, because it illustrates only the difference in behavior, not the reason for that behavior.

      Besides, the single example of your own children is hardly enough to disprove an entire generalized theory on the source of gender stereotypes.

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