SILVER SPRING, Md, April 20, 2012—Everyone has heard pronouncements about ability based on sex: girls are better at reading, boys are better at math, girls are more creative and boys are more athletic. Some of these are even taken as truisms. And while the gender biases and stereotypes today are nothing like they were 100 years ago and vastly improved over even a generation ago, they still linger. But are they true?
This is the question that Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It by Lise Eliot, Ph.D. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009 ISBN: 9780618393114, available in print or e-book format) strives to answer.
No doubt if you are a parent you want to help your child achieve their maximum potential without hindrance from gender discrimination. What Pink Brain, Blue Brain reveals is that while there are some innate differences between the sexes, the genetic and hormonal impact on how we perform in intellectual pursuits is negligible. In fact, the greatest determining factor of what we can and do learn is social.
So, it comes back to the old debate between nature versus nurture. Eliot finds that nature lays a foundation in youth that leads to self-segregation of the sexes. Think of elementary and middle school when the opposite sex has cooties, boys are gross and girls are scaredy-cats. She suggests that once we self segregate the peer influence of those of the same sex biases turn us towards on path or another.
Eliot further goes on to show that gender stereotypes, while largely untrue, are self-fulfilling prophecies. Girls who hear their mothers or female teachers saying boys are better at math and science are more likely to give up sooner, while boys who are told to toughen-up become less emotionally intelligent.
That being said, since the rise of feminism and the push for gender equality, girls have nearly erased the gender gap when it comes to academic performance. Eliot sites figures showing that girls routinely are the highest performers in academics all through school now, with the majority of college students, 57% at the time of her writing the book, being female.
That being said there are still two notable gaps—the number of women in computer science and engineering, and performance on standardized tests like the SAT—that still persist.
Eliot argues that the gap on standardized tests where wrong answers are penalized is attributed to girls’ lower risk taking tendency, fearing the loss the quarter point instead of hoping for the gain of the full point. And the low numbers of women in computer and engineering fields Eliot attributes to the lower performance in mental rotation and spatial skills. The good news is that both of these differences can be taught and overcome.
But boys have their own challenges such as maintaining focus and organizational abilities that can affect their performance in academic situations across subjects, causing Eliot to postulate that “boys are the new victims of gender stereotyping.”
Showing the actual differences that form the basis of each stereotype, how those biases are perpetuated, and ways to help prevent a lag in development—for boys or girls—Eliot has created an insightful guide to how the brain works. Showing study after study, not just in the US, but around the world, that shows the influence of culture, stereotypes, and role models on how each of the sexes perform dispels the myth that the underlying genetic differences that shape the male and female brain are the strongest factors in mental and social performance.
While she set out to show that there are inherent differences between the sexes, what she wound up finding is that “the truly innate difference—in verbal ability, activity level, inhibition, aggression, and perhaps, social perception—are small, mere biases that shape children’s behavior but are not themselves deterministic. What matters far more is how children spend their time, how they see themselves, and what all these experiences and interactions do to their nascent neural circuits.”
To help our children reach their full potential and not fall prey to the gender stereotypes and biases that are still prevalent in our culture, we must do our part. As parents we need to encourage exploration and risk-taking, and ensure that experiences and role-models are not limited to the traditional gender roles.
We need to be involved in our children’s lives and not rely solely on the TV, the babysitter, the teacher and the internet to shape our children’s perceptions of the world. Eliot has given us a roadmap to the trouble-spots for each sex that helps us guide our children past the pitfalls that might otherwise trap them into the self-fulfilling prophecies of our gender biased society.
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