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Effects of Gender on Education

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This topic is also well discussed in many of the standard textbooks, but a bit unevenly and a bit oddly. Thus Haralambos and Holborn (1990), or Barnard and Burgess (1996) have good sections specifically on gender and educational achievement. However, rather strangely, the section on education is treated almost entirely as a sort of empirical matter and not linked very well to the other admirable sections on gender generally, or gender in the family or work sections. This is especially odd in the Bilton et al (1996) classic, written by a team that includes a prominent feminist (M Stanworth) and which has good sections on genderas an organising pespective in the theory and methodology chapters.

So, one suggestion is to take the material specifically on gender in education, but to read up the topics more widely and generally in the other relevant chapters as well. As before, I\\\'ll try to show how this might be done via my own glosses and interests:

Early work focused on female underachievement in the formal education system, which was (finally) considered to be as much of a \\\'dysfunctional\\\' outcome as underachievement by working class kids ( see file on connections between educational policy and functionalist models of stratification). If the educational reforms of the period in Britain after World War 2 were designed to make sure the most talented kids got to the highest levels of achievement, we would expect as many girls as boys to hit those levels -- selective schools, sixth-form, examination success, university entrance or whatever. This was clearly not the case in the 1950s and 1960s. These gender differences began to be explained initially using the same sort of factors that had been used to explain working-class underachievement.

1. Early theories suggested that females were not as able or as intelligent as males, and there is still a lot of stuff around on relative brain sizes or supposedly innate cognitive limits. There are obvious objections to this view too, of course -- such as that the tests of intelligence are likely to be value-laden. Equally, there is a methodological problem, one which runs through all the work on gender that involves biological explanations - biological accounts are reductionist in that they try to reduce a number of complex social differences to one simple set of biological differences (always a suspicious move). At the common-sense level it is easy enough to equate obvious biological differences with social ones, but there are problems. It is not as if there are just simple divisions between men and women in this matter -- some women do achieve in education, some achieve better than men in some subjects, or in some environments (there was early excitement in the discovery that women did better than men at the UK Open University, for example- see Harris 1987). All these complexities are enhanced by research that shows that social class and ethnicity also have an effect on attainment -- that \\\'women\\\' are not just one grouping of people but are subdivided into various important subcategories (thus the OU excitement evaporated somewhat when it was discovered that the successful women were also middle class and well-educated ones).

Further, as with debates about intelligence and \\\'race\\\', biologistic arguments are often invoked as an \\\'argument of residues\\\' -- the differences between men and women on some measure cannot be explained entirely by the known social factors (income or parental education), and so the residual factor must be biological. This is weak because we know there may be other factors, as yet unknown, and it is also poor biology: a proper biological explanations, you could argue, should really have a much stronger component than that, such as some genetic link, perhaps.

2. Cultural circumstances connected with the home and the family might be relevant. We know of all the work on parental attitudes as a major variable in working -class underachievement ( see my file ), and it is easy to apply this to work on gender. Thus girls especially might be the object of low parental ambitions or low levels of parental interest (since they were once expected to get married quickly and not have a career). Here we have also a strong tradition of feminist work on the family to draw upon, even though it is not customary to do so in the chapters on education in A-level texts. Thus \\\'traditional\\\' families were also highly structured in terms of rigid gender roles, where women and girls were expected to do much of the unpaid domestic labour -- not only is this time-consuming and fatiguing but it is also demeaning and hardly likely to lead to high ambitions, it could be argued. The same might be said, of course, for typical paid women\\\'s work, notoriously offering poorer pay and conditions than men\\\'s work (look up the data in any edition of Social Trends). Thus the debates about whether or not modern families are becoming more \\\'symmetrical\\\' has a significance for educational debates too -- and still needs investigation.

3. Other cultural factors have also been identified -- the peer group and the wider commercial popular culture. There has been some work on the nature of female peer groups, for example, and whether or not they might be seen as sources of high self-esteem and high ambition (see Delamont 1994) for a review). The usual view might be that girls \\\'hold each other back\\\' in some way by maintaining traditional \\\'girly\\\' values like attractiveness to the opposite sex or developing some sort of appealing vulnerability. Work on female bullying, and just one study I shall cite below might support this view, but, as you can imagine, it is not a popular one with feminist writers, who have done much to develop a more positive, supportive view of female peer groups. It is still worthy of research, of course!

One element of agreement in the more posittive work seems to be that boys form more openly-hostile oppositional peer groups (or \\\'subcultures\\\') at home and in school, and use them to \\\'resist\\\' the labels which schools offer them (see below). In doing so, of course, boys often embrace strong \\\'masculinist\\\' orientations which unfortunately increases their negative views of women too (see Willis 1977). However, writers like MacRobbie have seen considerable strengths in the apparently passive and conformist elements of girls\\\' social groups -- such as the \\\'bedroom culture\\\' she studied (in Hall and Jefferson 1976), or the all-girl groups at local dances (in McRobbie and Nava 1984). More specifically at school, classics like Fuller (in Hammersley and Woods 1984) or Mac an Ghaill (in Woods and Hammersley 1993)

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