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November 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 3

Gender Insights Coming to Your Classroom

Recent developments in gender research can help us increase equity for male and female students.

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For many educators and parents, gender generalizations are disappointingly simplistic. Girls excel and boys flounder in school. Girls receive higher grades and have fewer disciplinary problems. They are more likely to become valedictorians and go on to college, but less likely to enter STEM careers. Boys, on the other hand, often struggle in a traditional school culture. They are more frequently class clowns or troublemakers; they get worse grades and are more likely to drop out—but they do surpass girls in science, math, and sports.
Fortunately, research on gender has advanced to a more sophisticated level in the last decade. Today, we have an amazing lens to better understand the complex factors that affect boys' and girls' classroom life. We'd like to share five gender insights generated by recent research.

Insight 1: Stereotype threat is powerful, but malleable.

Stereotype threat interferes with learning when people in certain groups are reminded of assumptions about their group and succumb to the pressure this creates (Aronson, 2004; Nguyen & Ryan, 2008). No one is immune from stereotype threat. Each of us holds an image of some group (gender, racial, ethnic, religious, economic class, and so on) that we believe has knowledge or ability superior to ours.
Science, math, and technology are ripe fields for stereotype threat for women (Nix, Perez-Felkner, & Thomas, 2015). Steele and his colleagues found that when women were reminded—even subtly—of the stereotype that men are better than women at math, the women's performance declined measurably (Steele, Reisz, Williams, & Kawakami, 2007).
Here's the subtle way stereotype threat can unfold. In one study, all the women enrolled in an advanced university calculus class were told that a test would measure their "mathematical abilities." But some women were also told that "this mathematics test has not shown any gender differences in performance or mathematical ability." The result? The women who were told there were no gender differences in the test scored better than the other women—and they also outscored the men taking the test (Good, Aronson, & Harder, 2008).
In another study, one group of students taking the advanced placement calculus test was asked to mark their gender on the test before they began (which is the typical practice). Another group was not asked to indicate their gender until after completing the test. The girls who waited until after the test to record their gender scored an average of 15, whereas the girls who indicated their gender before taking the test scored only 12.5. The boys who waited until after the test to record their gender scored an average of 14, but the boys who indicated their gender before the test scored 16.5. Not only did stereotype threat significantly harm girls' scores, but it apparently benefited the boys who were reminded of their gender before taking the test (Danaher & Crandall, 2008).
These studies also provide educators with clues for how to inoculate students against the damage of stereotype threat (Dasgupta, 2011). When we introduce lessons and assessments, we can consider what stereotype threats might exist and frame our introduction in language that assures students that their gender is not a factor. We can also be proactive in the words we choose, the classroom displays we post, and the classroom strategies we implement (see "Tips for More Gender-Equitable Classrooms," p. 66).

Insight 2: Boys' and girls' brains are not so different—and they can change.

Historically, the cognitive and psychological differences between males and females were thought to be large and immutable. Today, we are better informed. Janet Hyde (2005), using a sophisticated meta-analytic statistical procedure, reviewed numerous studies on gender differences and similarities. The big surprise—there are few educationally relevant gender differences. In fact, greater educational differences exist within the genders than between the genders.
Neuroscientist Lise Eliot (2009) concurs. Drawing on her review of the research and her own work, she concludes that the differences that emerge in schools are often the result of socialization. For example, the many hours boys clock with Legos, baseball, and video games help develop their spatial skills—which figure prominently in subjects like physics, trigonometry, calculus, and engineering.
You may have heard the phrase, "neurons that fire together wire together." It's true—we learn by physically creating neural pathways connecting some of the billions of neurons throughout the brain and the body. Whether the skill is learning how to conjugate a French verb, code a computer, repair plumbing, or ice skate, more study and practice leads to a stronger neuropathway in the brain, and the activity become easier. The more we repeat something and use that portion of the brain in a focused way, the more prominent that neural pathway becomes.
At this point, you may be thinking, "I like French and ice skating, and I can see how I've developed strong neuropathways for these skills. But have I also developed negative neuropathways?" Unfortunately, we often do! When a girl learns to fear math and stops trying, when a boy avoids reading because he finds it difficult, or when any of us succumb to stereotype threat, those unhelpful neurons are firing together as well. We are learning to lose our confidence, our persistence, and our resilience. Today's take-away concept from brain research is neuroplasticity, the idea that we create our neuropathways, good and not-so-good (Doidge, 2015). We are not victims of our brain; we are its architects.
The brain's remarkable ability to adapt and change is wonderful news for thoughtful educators and their students. And by teaching students about this potential for brain growth, we can help them develop a growth mindset and challenge the idea that they're limited by their gender characteristics (Dweck, 2015).

Insight 3: We can make technology careers more accessible to girls.

At an early age, all groups of students demonstrate similar interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). But as they go through school, many girls and students of color abandon these fields (Modi, Schoenberg, & Salmond, 2012). A national report on college freshmen majors and career interests shows that on average, just 20 percent of young women intend to major in a STEM field, compared with 50 percent of young men (National Research Center for College and University Admissions, 2011).
The situation is particularly stark in computer science. The College Board (2013) reported that of the 30,000 students who took the computer science advanced placement exam, fewer than 20 percent were female, about 3 percent were black, and 8 percent were Hispanic. The following barriers tend to exclude girls and minorities from computer science:
Access to technology. Students need time to tinker and play with technology to succeed. Girls and minority students are less likely than their white male counterparts to get this time outside of school (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). Poverty prevents many minority students from accessing computers and the Internet at home, and sometimes even at school (Marx, 2016). Girls may also suffer an access gap because of parental expectations: Parents are three times more likely to say they would give a smartphone or video-game device to a son than to a daughter (Bolkan, 2015).
Lack of role models. Underrepresented groups need to see more adults who look like them working in STEM fields so they can envision themselves in similar careers (Eccles, 2009; Koch, Georges, Gorges, & Fujii, 2010).
Lack of relevance of computer science. Girls and minority students often view computer science careers as devoid of social impact relevant to their lives and view technology workers as performing in isolation (Margolis, Goode, & Bernier, 2011). Schools need to help them discover that computer science challenges are often approached in a collaborative and cooperative work environment and focused on solving important societal problems. Schools can provide these opportunities through computer science curriculums, both in school, such as through Exploring Computer Science (www.exploringcs.org) and after school, such as with Girls Who Code (https://girlswhocode.com). After-school opportunities show promise for engaging girls meaningfully with technology and helping them develop an interest in computer science careers (National Research Council, 2009).

Insight 4: The "boy problem" involves both gender and ethnicity.

Boys' behavior problems in schools are widely recognized, including disengagement, discipline problems, overtreatment with Ritalin, voluminous referrals to special education services, grade retention, and dropouts. Many attribute this to a conflict between boys' socialization and school culture (Jenson, 2013).
But the boy problem is multifaceted. For example, discipline disparities are far more acute for low-income students; English language learners; and black, Hispanic, and Native American boys (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Minority males are suspended and expelled at a much higher rate than their peers, with one in four failing to graduate from high school in four years. Removed from school, they are at a heightened risk for becoming permanently entangled in the school-to-prison pipeline (Lewin, 2012). Such disciplinary inequities reflect the intersection of institutional racism and sexism. Unfortunately, the responses have likewise been fractured.
Some school districts offer male-only environments intended to help boys explore their masculinity in healthy ways. These efforts can take the shape of all-boy charter schools, such as Urban Prep in Chicago, or programs within schools, such as Oakland School District's elective course for male students in grades 3–12, "Mastering Our Cultural Identity: African American Male Image" (commonly referred to as the Manhood Development Program). As one Oakland administrator said, "The No. 1 strategy to reduce discipline issues is engaged instruction … to elevate their game academically through the lens of brotherhood" (Brown, 2016).
But such all-male or all-female environments can be problematic. Creating "us" and "them" gender cultures can intensify gender stereotyping and has been linked to increased male misbehavior, while academic benefits are unclear (Klein, Lee, McKinsey, & Archer, 2014; Sadker, Sadker & Zittleman, 2009). As a nation with a history of racial segregation, the United States cannot be naïve about the potential psychological, academic, and social dangers of gender separation. Too many school districts approach single-sex public schools and classes as an easy fix for profound educational challenges, especially in poor and minority communities.
The bioethics dictum Primum non nocere (First, do no harm) comes to mind. Given recent insights into neuroplasticity, we may be strengthening gender stereotypes and limiting options for all our students. It's way past time to implement a thoughtful, limited, and controlled research effort to sort out the benefits and risks associated with single-sex education.

Insight 5: Gender is not binary; it's on a spectrum.

Whenever the American Dialect Society meets, one of their challenges is to name the Word of the Year. In 2015, that word was they, but not the plural pronoun. This they is a singular pronoun used when an individual does not identify as male or female, or when the person's gender is unclear (Bennett, 2016).
The term transgender refers to a person whose inner sense of being male, female, or something else differs from their birth sex. Although research on the biology of gender is in its infancy, gender spectrum rather than the binary male or female designations might be the most useful way of understanding gender. On some college campuses today, students introduce themselves with a name, a major, and a pronoun of choice—pronouns that include more options than he or she. Facebook offers 50 different gender identities as options, including gender fluid for those whose gender is shifting. At Harvard, students are now allowed to register their preferred pronouns in the computer system, including he, she, or ze (Chak, 2015).
Addressing issues of gender identity at the K–12 level isn't easy. Although some clear progress has been made, the terrain is far from smooth. Some schools prohibit teachers from even mentioning "transgender" or "homosexual," or require them to present these words in negative terms. Many school faculty and staff are hostile to LGBTQA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and advocates) students. Discriminatory policies against these students persist (GLSEN, 2014; Denizet-Lewis, 2009). Such actions put LGBTQA students at risk. Violence aimed at these students poses an ongoing danger, and transgender people are seven times more likely to experience physical violence (Ford, 2015).
Gender identity issues are already testing public schools in a practical arena: school bathrooms and locker rooms. The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has determined that transgender students must be allowed to use the restroom and locker room that corresponds to the gender with which they identify—even if different from their birth sex (Leytes & Mather, 2016). But many states have sued the federal government for the right to require students to do just the opposite. The issue is still being hashed out in the judicial system, and until the courts rule, your school may find itself on the front lines of this culture war. In the years ahead, beyond bathrooms and locker rooms, gender identity likely will touch the heart of instruction, influencing teacher language, the curriculum, and school practices and policies, much as the fundamental concept of gender bias did almost half a century ago.

A Look into the Future

Predictions are risky, but with that caveat, here are a few thoughts about gender issues in the years to come. (Feel free to get back to us in 10 years and tell us how accurate we were.)
If the women representing the United States had been a separate country at the 2016 Olympics, they would have ranked third in the medal count. Those victories demonstrated to the world the power of Title IX in opening public school athletics to women. But Title IX's impact goes well beyond the athletic field. In the years ahead, U.S. progress in expanding educational and career opportunities will serve as a much-needed gender equity lighthouse for girls and women around the world.
Advances in neuroscience will continue to provide a lens to help us better understand the teaching-learning process. Today's cognitive research debunks many of the myths about male-female brain differences. We can expect that additional assumptions about the brain will be debunked by research in the years ahead.
Although racism, classism, sexism, and most isms are dealt with separately today, they are in reality quite connected. In the years ahead, we will do a better job of understanding the interconnections and nuances across race, religion, geography, and gender. And then, finally, we may be ready to go beyond these categories to honor the diversity of human experiences, the uniqueness of each human being, and the common humanity we all share.
Author's note: Some of the ideas and data in this article were developed under the Afterschool Computer Science (GEACS) curriculum project, supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1232461. Any findings, conclusions, or opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.

Tips for More Gender-Equitable Classrooms

The Sound of Equity. Make wait time part of the classroom routine, pausing for 3–5 seconds of silence after a question or response. A longer wait time not only encourages quieter students to participate (often girls and English language learners), but also promotes reflection for all–including the teacher.

Stereotype Talk. Talk with students about stereotype threat so they can recognize it and work to negate it. Helpful resources include the Equity Guide created as part of the National Science Foundation-funded Gender Equity in Afterschool Computer Science Curriculum Project (Grant No. 1232461) and the Reducing Stereotype website.

The Gift of Failure. Destigmatize failure. The gift of failure strengthens persistence and a growth mindset in students.

Talking Walls. Consider what your walls are saying about race, gender, ethnicity, and who populates different careers. Involve your students in creating their own meaningful displays.

Awareness of Screen Sexism. Teach students (and their parents) critical literacy skills so they can analyze media messages, distinguish myth from reality, and label hurtful and misleading messages. These are skills they can use into adulthood.

Note: For more strategies for creating equitable classroom climates, see Still Failing at Fairness: How Gender Bias Cheats Girls and Boys in School and What We Can Do About It, by D. Sadker, M. Sadker, & K. Zittleman, 2009, New York: Scribner.



Aronson, J. (2004, November). The threat of stereotype. Educational Leadership 62(3), 14–19.

Bennett, J. (2016, January 31). She? Ze? They? (Hmm?). What's in a gender pronoun. New York Times, p. ST2.

Bolkan, J. (2015, March 30). Research: Child gender informs parental attitudes about tech. THE Journal. Retrieved from www.thejournal.com/articles/2015/03/30/research-child-gender-informs-parental-attitudes-about-tech.aspx

Brown, P. L. (2016, Feb 4). In Oakland, building boys into men. New York Times, ED18. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/education/edlife/in-oakland-building-boys-into-men.html

Chak, A. (2015, December 7). Beyond "he" and "she": The rise of non-binary pronouns. BBC News Magazine. Retrieved from www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34901704

College Board. (2013). AP data—Archived data 2013. Retrieved from http://research.collegeboard.org/programs/ap/data/archived/2013

Danaher, K., & Crandall, C. S. (2008). Stereotype threat in applied settings re-examined. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(6) 1639–1655.

Dasgupta, N. (2011, December). Ingroup experts and peers as social vaccines who inoculate the self-concept: The stereotype inoculation model. Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 22(4), 231–246.

Denizet-Lewis, B. (2009, September 27). Coming out in junior high school. New York Times Magazine, 36–41, 52, 54–55.

Doidge, N. (2015). The brain's way of healing: Remarkable discoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity. New York: Penguin.

Dweck, C. (2015, September). Growth mindset, revisited. Education Week, 35(5), 20, 24.

Eccles, J. S. (2009). Who am I and what am I going to do with my life? Personal and collective identities as motivators of action. Educational Psychologist, 44(2), 78–89.

Eliot, L. (2009). Pink brain, blue brain: How small differences grow into troublesome gaps—and what we can do about it. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ford, J. (2015, November 20). As 2015 sees a record number of documented transgender murders, a glimmer of hope. Retrieved from Think Progress at www.thinkprogress.org/as-2015-sees-a-record-number-of-documented-transgender-murders-a-glimmer-of-hope-bb39567fc672#

Good, C., Aronson, J., & Harder, J. A. (2008, January–February). Problems in the pipeline: Stereotype threat and women's achievement in high-level math courses. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(1), 17–28.

GLSEN. (2014). The 2013 national school climate survey: Key findings on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: GLSEN.

Hyde, J. S. (2005, September). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(6), 581–592.

Jenson, E. (2013). How poverty affects classroom engagement. Educational Leadership, 70(8), 24–30.

Klein, S., Lee, J., McKinsey, P., & Archer, C. (2014). Identifying K–12 public schools with deliberate sex segregation. Arlington, VA: Feminist Foundation.

Koch, M., Georges, A., Gorges, T., & Fujii, R. (2010). Engaging youth with STEM professionals in afterschool programs. Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal, 13(1).

Lewin, T. (2012, March 6). Black students punished more, data suggests. New York Times, p. A11.

Leytes, D., & Mather, A. C. (2016, January 12). Beyond he said-she said: Transgender rights under Title IX. The Legal Intelligencer.

Margolis, J., Goode, J., & Bernier, D. (2011). The need for computer science. Educational Leadership, 68(5), 68–72.

Margolis, J. R., & Fisher, A. (2002). Unlocking the clubhouse: Women in computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Marx, A. (August 12, 2016). Too poor to afford the internet. New York Times, p. A21.

Modi, K., Schoenberg, J., & Salmond, K. (2012). Generation STEM: What girls say about science, technology, engineering and math. New York: Girl Scouts Research Institute.

National Research Center for College and University Admissions. (2011). College major interest trends.(Report compiled for Girl Scouts of the USA). Lee's Summit, MO: Author.

National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Nguyen, H. H., & Ryan, A. M. (2008). Does stereotype threat affect test performance of minorities and women? A meta-analysis of experimental evidence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(6), 1314–1334.

Nix, S., Perez-Felkner, L., & Thomas, K. (2015). Perceived mathematical ability under challenge: A longitudinal perspective on sex segregation among STEM degree fields. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 530.

Sadker, D., Sadker, M. & Zittleman, K. (2009). Still failing at fairness: How gender bias cheats boys and girls in school and what we can do about it. New York: Scribner.

Steele, J. R., Reisz, L., Williams, A., & Kawakami, K. (2007). Women in mathematics: Examining the hidden barriers that gender stereotypes can impose. In R. J. Burke & M. C. Mattis (Eds.), Women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics: Upping the numbers (pp. 159–183). Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2016). 2013–2014 civil rights data collection: A first look. Washington, DC: Author.

David Sadker has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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