March 17, 2008

blur: gender

It was interesting to read Elizabeth Weil's article about single-sex education immediately after reading Women Don't Ask (a book about gender and negotiation that I very much recommend, for reasons I'm about to go in to). Weil splits the world of one-gender education advocates into "two camps: those who favor separating boys from girls because they are essentially different and those who favor separating boys from girls because they have different social experiences and social needs." The first camp relies primarily on some very sketchy brain and development research - that boys and girls hear differently, smell differently, draw different kinds of pictures, prefer different temperatures - and comes to the conclusion that boys will learn better actively, and girls will learn better through interpersonal connections.

Some of this research purports to control for socialization because it is done with young children - interesting in light of the fact that parents describe boy and girl babies differently (girls as more frail, boys as more robust) when there is no discernible medical difference. Women Don't Ask also cited one study with very interesting implications for research design: young children who are offered the choice of playing with 'boy' toys or 'girl' toys (trucks/dolls, etc) make the gender-appropriate choice when an observer is in the room, but disregard gender when they think they're not being observed. There are a couple of other, similar studies that suggest that such choices persist (women make higher demands in negotiation letters when they think no one will know if the author of the letter is male or female). When the research that suggests that boys and girls draw different pictures or have intrinsically different preferences was done, was there an observer in the room? Was that observer's gender considered? The research the 'intrinsic difference' folks are using to justify single-sex education is not only a very crude sorting tool (great example of this in the article from Giedd), but also has serious observer bias problems.

Which leads me to the same damn conclusion I always make about gender: we don't know a damn thing about what's innate and what's learned. Maybe a damn thing. But not more than that.

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