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Five Ideas from Recent Gender Research


This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Gender Insights Coming to Your Classroom” by David Sadker and Melissa Koch in Educational Leadership, November 2016 (Vol. 74, #3, p. 62-68), available for purchase at; the authors can be reached at and
In this Educational Leadership article, David Sadker (American University) and Melissa Koch (Anita Borg Institute) share insights on gender equity:
• Stereotype threat is powerful but malleable. “No one is immune from stereotype threat,” say Sadker and Koch. “Each of us holds an image of some group (gender, racial, ethnic, religious, economic class, and so on) that we believe has knowledge or ability superior to ours.” When girls face challenging academic work in science, math, and technology, the stereotype about male superiority can cause them to underperform. A study of college students found that simply telling some women, “this mathematics test has not shown any gender differences in performance or mathematical ability” neutralized stereotype threat; those women outperformed women who were told it was a test of math ability. The experimental group also did better than the men who took the test. Another study of students taking an AP calculus test revealed these differences:
- Girls who were asked to mark their gender before the test scored an average of 12.5
- Girls who were asked to mark their gender after the test scored an average of 15
- Boys who were asked to mark their gender before the test scored an average of 16.5
- Boys who were asked to mark their gender after the test scored an average of 14.
These studies show that it’s possible to inoculate students from stereotype threat by careful use of language. It’s also helpful to talk explicitly with students about stereotype threat.
• Cognitive research has debunked many myths about male-female brain differences. Studies have shown there are few educationally relevant gender differences. “In fact,” say Sadker and Koch, “greater educational differences exist within the genders than between the genders.” The differences that emerge in schools are usually the result of socialization – for example, boys have more experience with Legos, baseball, and video games, and that enhances spatial skills that are helpful in physics, trigonometry, and engineering. “The more we repeat something and use that portion of the brain,” say Sadker and Koch, “the more prominent that neural pathway becomes… We are not the victims of our brain; we are its architects.” The opposite can be true if a student shies away from a subject that seems difficult or doesn’t conform to a gender stereotype. Explicitly teaching these findings to students can liberate them to develop in all areas.
• We can make technology careers more accessible to girls. A 2011 report found that only 20 percent of female college freshmen said they intended to major in a STEM field compared to 50 percent of young men. Fewer than 20 percent of the students who took the 2013 AP computer science exam were women. These numbers change when girls get more access to computers at home and at school, see positive role models in STEM fields, and are in classrooms with more relevant, collaborative pedagogy.
• Single-gender classrooms may not be the answer. Citing troubling statistics on achievement and discipline problems experienced by boys of color, Sadker and Koch express skepticism about the efficacy of all-male classrooms. Not only are the academic benefits unclear, they say, but “As a nation with a history of racial segregation, the United States cannot be naïve about the potential psychological, academic, and social dangers of gender separation… Given recent insights into neuroplasticity, we may be strengthening gender stereotypes and limiting options for all our students.” They call for better research on the benefits and risks of single-gender classrooms.
• Gender is not binary. Transgender students are asserting their rights, but in some schools this is a hot issue – a number of states are suing the U.S. Department of Justice over its ruling on school bathrooms. Sadker and Koch advise thinking of gender on a spectrum, and say that in the coming years, the issue of gender identity “will touch the heart of instruction, influencing teacher language, the curriculum, and school practices and policies, much as the fundamental concept of gender bias did almost half a century ago.”

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