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Ladies First? Gender Disparity in the Classroom and the
As author Nan Mooney told me, "These cultural expectations are deeply entrenched, and they've been around for a long time." Mooney examined some of these expectations of women in her book, I Can't Believe She Did That! Why Women Betray Other Women at Work.
There can even be some benefit to them, as gender roles make people "feel more comfortable," Mooney said.
What's more, there may be some biological truth to them. Evolutionary biologists say male and female brains may have been shaped by their sex-based tasks, giving men and women different strengths.
In any case, these cultural expectations--perhaps as much as brain and learning differences--could be why girls today are doing better in school than boys.
Schools are, for the most part, set up so that obedient kids who follow instructions and get the right answers do better than the kids who want to do things their way, on their schedule.
Why girls thrive at school
This isn't the fault of the teachers; they're not only trying to manage dozens of students with different abilities, interests, and even language skills, but they're also saddled with regulations that say how well students must do on tests.
I've sat in plenty of school classrooms and been quite impressed with how teachers manage, despite the challenges they face. It's no wonder sugar-and-spice personalities do well in the classroom, especially now that schools have made steps to rectify the diminished female confidence that journalist Peggy Orenstein noted in her 1996 book, SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap.
But this sugar-and-spice environment is not a very realistic training ground for success in the working world, where right answers are far more ambiguous, and where success, in the United States anyway, often relies on entrepreneurialism*--which requires rebellion and risk-taking.
This isn't an exclusively male arena. Plenty of women run businesses. But even female CEOs tend to earn less than their male counterparts, which suggests they might be paying for bucking the cultural expectation.
Class clowns vs. teachers' pets
We're still learning about how male and female brains differ (and of course, how individual brains, regardless of sex, differ).
But I think we could solve a lot of problems simply by understanding and respecting differences, and working hard not to offer disproportionate rewards, even if obedience helps schools run more calmly, and risk-taking helps businesses earn more money. Both types of personalities exist, and both are necessary.
It would be great, for example, if schools could find a way to reward the entrepreneurial spirit that I suspect is behind a lot of troublemaking at school.
I don't think it's a coincidence that two of the most influential businessmen of our age--Bill Gates and Steve Jobs--didn't finish college. Gates left to start a certain software company. But Jobs left partly because he couldn't see the point in spending all of that tuition money. (If you haven't read the speech he gave Stanford's class of 2005, you're missing out.) Jobs obviously did fine without school, as did Gates.
But how many people are underachieving today because they couldn't overcome their supposed failures at school?
If teachers found a way to hook up kids with their passions, and let them explore those fully--instead of spending all that time, money, and energy on maintaining classroom order or preparing kids for standardized tests--then those kids would be primed and ready for the working world.
It might require some huge structural changes for schools. But wouldn't that be better than alienating more spirited kids from school? And shouldn't the more obedient types of students get early exposure to managing the ambiguities of the working world?
Likewise, if workplaces put more value on the people who dutifully kept things running in support of the risk-takers, I suspect we'd see a lot more equity in male-female salaries.
To me, it doesn't matter if these dutiful, supportive people are men or women. But even when I was working as a manager in a big corporation, it bothered me that administrative assistants--who were profoundly necessary for all company operations--made less per year than some salespeople got in their annual bonuses. I couldn't help but notice that these "assistants" were most often women. It makes our tendency to view organizers like them as second-class even worse.
If we can remember to respect individuals for wherever they happen to fall on the spectrum, and recognize that there is a value to both types of behavior and reward them equally with grades, opportunity, and money, then I think we will have come a long way in helping people lead the best lives they can, no matter what their sex.
In the end, no matter how much we earn about the differences between the sexes, I think living equally full, rewarding, and valued lives is the big picture.
And that's what really deserves our focus.