Social scientists and educational researchers paid relatively little attention to issues of gender and education until the 1970s, when questions emerged concerning equity in girls’ and women’s access to education across the world. Researchers documented a link between increasing rates of female education in developing countries and a subsequent decline in fertility rates (e.g., Boserup 1970). In the context of an emerging global economy, increasing female representation in primary and secondary education was cited as an important factor in promoting national economic development, and therefore seen as a vehicle for social change.
As the feminist movement increased awareness of widespread gender inequality within US society, researchers began to focus on the educational system as a site of and explanation for women’s subordinated status. Feminist scholars documented sex discrimination in educational experiences and outcomes, and this early work led to the passage of Title IX in 1972, legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational programs.
During the 1970s and 1980s, women gained access to higher education and their share of college degrees climbed steadily. Women now comprise the majority of US college students and have achieved parity with men in number of undergraduate and graduate degrees, though men are over represented in the most prestigious colleges and universities and obtain a greater number of doctoral degrees than women (Jacobs 1996). Despite this greater equality in educational access, women remain significantly behind men in economic and social status. There remains a significant gender gap in pay, while women are also concentrated in low status, sex stereotyped occupations and continue to bear primary responsibility for domestic tasks despite their increased labor force participation. This paradox has led researchers to shift their focus from women’s educational access to their academic experiences and outcomes.
While education is seen as an important mechanism of upward mobility in US society, many sociologists of education have described the educational system as an institution of social and cultural reproduction. Existing pat terns of inequality, including those related to gender, are reproduced within schools through formal and informal processes. Knowledge of how the educational system contributes to the status of women requires a look at the institution itself and the processes that occur within schools.
While women’s access to education has improved, sex segregation within the educational system persists. Research following Title IX documented a wide gender gap in course taking during high school that led to different educational and occupational paths for men and women. For example, the American Association of University Women revealed in a 1992 report titled Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America that girls took fewer advanced math and science courses during high school, and these course taking patterns left them unprepared to pursue these fields in higher education. This contrasts with the primary school years, where girls receive better grades in math and are often over represented in high ability math courses, while boys are over represented in low ability courses. Additionally, average math test scores for boys and girls are similar, although there is more variation among boys, leaving them with the highest, but also with the lowest, scores. Girls’ attitudes toward and interest in math and science begin to decline during the middle school years (fourth through eighth grade), and gender differences in test scores in these subjects are apparent by high school.
Recent research suggests that the gaps in high school course taking are closing, and girls and boys now take similar numbers of math and science courses. This may be the result of increased educational requirements and fewer choices in course enrollment, as girls continue to score lower on standardized tests and express less interest in these subjects. In addition, girls are now taking advanced courses such as calculus at comparable rates to boys, with the exception of physics. Furthermore, technology and computer courses remain highly gendered: though both boys and girls take computer courses, boys are more likely to take high skills classes, such as those that focus on computer programming, while girls are over represented in courses featuring word processing and data entry, skills associated with secretarial work (AAUW 1999). Conversely, girls are more highly concentrated in the language arts, including literature, composition, and foreign language courses, and they tend to score higher than boys on verbal skills on standardized tests. This gender gap in favor of girls does not appear to be closing, but it is given relatively little attention in discussions of gender and education.
These high school course taking patterns foreshadow gender differences in higher education, where a high degree of sex segregation remains in terms of degrees and specializations. In the United States, women are concentrated in education, English, nursing, and some social sciences, and they are less likely than men to pursue degrees in science, math, engineering, and technology. As these male dominated fields are highly valued and highly salaried, women’s absence from them accounts for a great deal of the gender gap in pay.
Sex typing in education appears to be a worldwide phenomenon, though it varies somewhat in degree and scope between countries. In countries where educational access is limited and reserved for members of the elite, women are often as likely as men to have access to all parts of the curriculum (Bradley 2000; Hanson 1996). However, in countries with more extensive educational systems, women have lower rates of participation in science and technology (Hanson 1996), fields greatly valued because of their link to development and modernity.
Some have used a rational choice approach in explaining the persistence of educational segregation, particularly that of higher education. These scholars suggest that women choose female dominated fields despite their lower status and pay because they will suffer smaller penalties for an absence from the workforce for child rearing; however, women in male dominated fields not only receive higher pay but are also offered more flexibility and autonomy. Others suggest that while individual choices are at play in perpetuating sex segregation, these choices are constrained by cultural beliefs that limit what women (and men) see as possible or appropriate options (Correll 2004). Math, science, and technology are regarded as masculine subjects, especially given their emphasis on objective knowledge and rational action, and women are seen as ill equipped for these fields. Conversely, subjects such as language arts and nursing are perceived as feminine subjects, and men are largely underrepresented in these fields. In contrast to the push to include women in male dominated fields, however, the under representation of men in these subject areas goes largely unacknowledged and is often not regarded as problematic, probably due to the low status and low paid jobs associated with these fields.
These beliefs about appropriate interests and talents for men and women are part of a ‘‘hidden curriculum’’ that involves interactions and covert lessons that reinforce relations of gender, as well as those of race and social class, by teaching and preparing students for their appropriate adult roles. Several scholars have examined this hidden curriculum within schools, pointing to ways in which classroom interactions with teachers and between students impart these lessons. Observational studies by Sadker and Sadker (1994) suggest that in the same schools and in the same classes, boys receive more attention than girls. Teachers ask them more questions and offer them more feedback and constructive criticism, all of which are essential to learning. Boys monopolize classroom discussion beginning in the early school years, and girls become quieter over time, participating little in college classrooms. These classroom dynamics reinforce notions of femininity, teaching girls that they should be quiet, passive, and defer to boys, characteristics that disadvantage girls in competitive fields of math and science. Furthermore, an emphasis on social and romantic success can distract young women from their studies and make academic pursuits tangential.
Several feminist scholars have advocated single sex schooling in order to avoid these negative consequences. They argue that girls in all girls’ schools have greater achievement, higher educational and career aspirations, attend more selective colleges, take more math courses and express a greater interest in math, and hold less stereotyped notions of female roles. These benefits allegedly result from smaller classes, higher teacher quality and attention, and freedom from social pressures of romance. However, other scholars argue that single sex education itself does not ensure any particular outcomes because these schools vary greatly in the inspirations, desired outcomes, and sociocultural environments they embody. Indeed, recent research on single sex schools is often inconsistent, and their advantages in comparison to coeducational schools may have decreased after public schools began addressing issues of gender bias. More research is needed on school characteristics that are associated with improved outcomes for girls.
Some educational researchers suggest that concern for girls’ education overshadows boys’ disadvantages in education, advocating a shift in focus to boys. They argue that though the gender gap in math and science is closing, boys remain behind in language arts course taking and verbal skills. Further, boys are overrepreented in remedial and special education classes, and they are more likely to fail a course or drop out of school. Others contend that these disadvantages are short term costs of maintaining long term privilege: subjects in which girls outperform boys are devalued, so boys focus their energy elsewhere, such as in sports or math and science, which hold more prestige and will earn greater status and pay in the long run. Moreover, negative outcomes tend to be concentrated among working class boys and boys of color, suggesting that these problems may reflect race and class inequality rather than disadvantages affecting all boys.
Regardless, considering boys only as a contrast group to the experiences of girls, rather than examining their position within and experiences of the educational system, will not provide a complete understanding of issues of gender in education. Future research focused on the experiences and behaviors of boys in schools is needed to further this knowledge. Research on how race and class shape gendered educational experiences and outcomes has been relatively scarce, and only in the past ten years have race and class become focal points in research on gender in education. The advantages granted boys in schools are not equal among all boys: working class boys and boys of color do not demonstrate the same academic success as white, middle class boys. Further, among some groups, girls surpass their male counterparts in math and science course taking and achievement. Ferguson (2000) examines how the hidden curriculum affects black boys, noting that many school practices disadvantage black boys, leading them to seek achievement and masculinity in ways that are detrimental to their future success. Similarly, perceived cultural differences can penalize girls who do not meet white, middle class standards of femininity: working class girls and girls of color are sometimes seen as troublemakers for being outspoken or assertive. Research on how the intersection of race, class, and gender shapes educational experiences and outcomes is an important direction for the future of the sociology of education.
- American Association of University Women (1999) Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children. Marlowe, New
- Bailey, M. (Ed.) (2002) The Jossey Bass Reader on Gender in Education. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
- Boserup, (1970) Women’s Role in Economic Development. Allen & Unwin, New York.
- Bradley, (2000) The Incorporation of Women into Higher Education: Paradoxical Outcomes? Sociology of Education 73: 1 18.
- Correll, (2004) Constraints into Preferences: Gender, Status and Emerging Career Aspirations. American Sociological Review 69: 93 113.
- Ferguson, A. (2000) Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
- Hanson, L. (1996) Gender Stratification in the Science Pipeline: A Comparative Analysis of Seven Countries. Gender and Society 10: 271 90. Holland, D. C. & Eisenhart, M. A. (1990) Educated in Romance: Women, Achievement, and College Culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Jacobs, A. (1996) Gender Inequality and Higher Education. Annual Review of Sociology 22: 153 85.
- Sadker, & Sadker, D. (1994) Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls. Simon & Schuster, New York.
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