Boys will be boys, the saying goes. Sugar and spice and everything nice…
Perhaps not, say experts.
With male-dominated fields like construction now stagnant, however, experts argue that the situation may be reversed: American schools don’t do enough to encourage boys to explore careers in traditionally female-dominated fields, such as health care and education.
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“My perception over the last 40 years is we’ve provided a lot of support and encouragement for girls to try and take on new things,” [Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar who studies male economic and academic achievement at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education,] said, “but I’ve also seen no special effort to encourage boys to take on different subjects.”
“I’ve tried to say to boys, ‘If you want a good job, think about becoming a nurse’ … but nobody ever introduces boys to entering these traditionally female occupations, and someone needs to do that,” Mr. Mortenson said.
I’m concerned that what’s driving this isn’t any real lack of opportunity for boys, but rather just the empirical lack of male nurses. In other words, I suspect that “experts” think the lack of male teachers and nurses is because (and only because) boys are discouraged somehow from taking these jobs. ( They probably are discouraged from teaching by the widespread view of every man as a potential child molester, but that’s another topic.)
But what if they aren’t discouraged, have the opportunity, and simply don’t want to do those jobs?
My suspicion is that experts would find such an explanation unsatisfying. They would likely argue that some sexist, pervasive social pressure causes them not to want the jobs. And that should be fixed, no? The fundamental assumption seems to be that boys and girls are fundamentally the same, and that only our differential treatment of them is responsible for a host of disparities: discipline differentials in school, a lack of male nurses, etc.
In the first place, I question whether this is true. But so long as no one is being prevented from doing what they want, I don’t see the problem even if it is true. Look to hiring practices first, if you think there’s a problem. It’s like a restaurant filled with only white people: as long as no one is being denied service or being treated differently because of race, who cares if Mexican Americans aren’t into the daily fare?
The following, in particular, bothered me:
Educators and parents alike often overemphasize the importance of gender-based differences, rather than looking at variation among individual children, particularly when it comes to gender stereotypes such as boys being aggressive or slower readers, according to Lise S. Elliot, an associate professor in neuroscience at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago, Ill., and author of the 2009 book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps, and What We Can Do About It.
“When you see a sex difference in the brain, you assume it’s biological and hard-wired,” Ms. Elliot said at a May research panel in Chicago on sex differences in cognition. “It’s not.”
Rather, Ms. Elliot argued, neurological brain differences are tiny at birth. In their infant and toddler years, boys are as likely to differ from other boys as from girls in, for example, language skills or physical assertiveness.
Think about what she said for a moment: “brain differences are tiny at birth.” Well… yeah. All the differences are smaller at birth. That’s because birth is a whole hell of a lot closer to conception, where the difference between a boy and a girl can be expressed in terms of a few million (admittedly complex) molecules. Strength differences are smaller at birth, too. No one argues that men aren’t different (not better!) than women in terms of strength.
It takes time for differences to express themselves, and the differences increase as differentiated hormonal systems (which themselves take time to develop) start to kick in, releasing hormones that (gasp!) alter brain chemistry. Eliot is a neuroscientist. She is not a moron and she knows this. Yet the implication of the article is stark: the brains are the same — just look at the babies — and it’s our screwed up social practices that are the problem.
There are four possibilities: (1) Sarah Sparks (the author of the article) just isn’t intellectually equipped to report on what a neuroscientist says and misunderstood; (2) Sarah Sparks is being dishonest about what Eliot said and leaving out key context to push an agenda in her article; (3) Michael Lopez is a moron and learned his science wrong; or (4) Eliot is dishonest and is using her position as a scientist to mispresent facts in order to further political ends.
Number (3) is an attractive option, mostly because it’s so plausible. But given that the title of Eliot’s book is “How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps”, I’m inclined to think that number (4) is just as likely. As a result, I’ll voice my suspicions, yet suspend final judgment. And to be fair, the article did say this:
According to Ms. Elliot’s research, parent and teacher communication and relationships with students can make a bigger difference in students’ language and social development for academic achievement than biological sex differences.
So Eliot’s argument is actually something like, “Well, differences in nurture or more important, so that’s where we should focus our efforts.” But still, that’s not the same as saying that the natural differences are trivial or unimportant, which is the clear implication of the rest of her statements.
The bottom line is that I’m not willing to assume that every difference is, per se, a problem. School discipline might be a problem, but is it a problem of sexism?
I’d be SHOCKED if boys weren’t more likely to be expelled; I’d think someone had it in for girls. Now maybe we think that too many boys are being suspended or expelled, and that this is having a really bad effect on their development. But in a world where every spitball is treated as a hanging offense, well, your problem is in the penalties, not sex discrimination.