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...
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