Debunking Myth That Girls and Boys Learn Differently
COM prof’s book challenges “toxic” stereotypes
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