We need to understand the science of gender

9th January 2015 at 00:00

When it comes to my strengths and weaknesses, I have always been "such a girl". In school, I fulfilled every stereotype: on the one hand, I enjoyed languages and social sciences and was a keen reader; on the other, I struggled with maths, sciences and computing and took every possible opportunity to escape PE.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Education has grappled with gender stereotypes and striking differences in attainment by boys and girls for decades.

But are the sexes really so different when it comes to their ability to succeed in specific subjects? Or are the disparities we see - in Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) statistics, for example - the result of socialisation from a very young age? And, whatever the answer, should boys and girls be treated differently in our schools and by the curriculum?

There can be no doubt that the education system reinforces stereotypes, as this week's News focus reveals (see pages 16-18). The problems continue as young people leave school for college or university, where clear gender gaps persist in subject areas such as social work, computing and engineering.

But being aware of these stereotypes and the challenges that boys and girls face can help education professionals. One example of this is research by Dr Sarah McGeown of the University of Edinburgh, which differentiates between "gender" and "gender identity". Her work concludes that children of both sexes who identify more with traditional feminine traits are also more motivated to read. Being aware of this can help teachers to support those boys and girls who identify with masculine traits to develop a love of literacy.

Whether my specific strengths and weaknesses were in some way innate or the result of constant reinforcement I simply do not know. But in some respects, it does not matter.

I could have become an engineer. Or a scientist. But it turns out I was simply not cut out for that. I happened to fit the stereotypes - but plenty of girls do not. Where I benefited was from a system that encouraged me to find my strengths and build on them, at the same time as gaining at least some proficiency in subjects that did not come naturally.

An education system that offers the maximum number of options to every child should not be about ignoring gender differences. Nor should it be about pushing girls or boys down specific routes because of their sex.

Instead, if we are aware of the science that underlies the gender issue, we can use it as a basis from which to focus on the individual child and their talent. We can then support this talent and help our young people to achieve their ambitions.

Over time, more boys may then find they want to work in the caring industries and more girls seek to pursue a job in technology. And, eventually, maybe this will dilute our understanding of these careers as stereotypically male or female. Then it really will be every man and woman for him- or herself.


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