I grew up believing boys are better at math and girls are better at reading. I grew up believing that despite being a girl who got better grades in math than reading. That belief was so ingrained in my mind that when it came time to choose a college major, I didn’t even stop to consider whether something in the math field would be a better fit.
I was a child of the 80s, where movies like The Breakfast Club ruled and slotted people into a specific role, and gender was largely understood as a binary construct. But we know better now. Or, at least, we should know better now.
We know that gender stereotypes are dangerous because they lead us to quick, often unwarranted and inaccurate judgments about people. In a classroom setting, we know gender stereotypes can harm students’ self-image and affect how kids interact with their friends and teacher. A teacher with traditional views on gender roles can have a negative performance on academic achievement, particularly on girls. Moreover, as it turns out, a child’s achievement at school can be affected by how they act out gender stereotypes.
A recent study by the University of Cambridge found that kids who defy traditional gender stereotypes actually perform better at school.
Researchers looked at the English and Math results of nearly 600 students in four different schools. Their findings were in line with global trends: girls did better in English, boys did better in math, and overall girls performed better.
This study then went a step further and looked at sub-groups of boys and girls based on how they expressed their gender identity. What they found was equal parts surprising, concerning, and hopeful.
Dr. Junlin Yu, a researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said with respect to the study, “There has been a lot of justifiable concern about low attainment among boys, but we really need to move on from looking at averages, and ask which specific groups of boys and girls are falling behind. These findings suggest that part of the answer is linked to how pupils ‘do’ gender at school.”
Based on a questionnaire that measured motivation and engagement, and looked at how the student conformed to certain gender “norms,” researchers came up with seven gender profiles.
Quoting from the article, these were:
- ‘Resister boys’ (69% of boys): typically resist traditional ideas about masculinity.
- ‘Cool guys’ (21%): competitive risk-takers, but concerned with appearance and romantic success.
- ‘Tough guys’ (10%): have an emotionally ‘hard’ image, self-reliant.
- ‘Relational girls’ (32% of girls): shun appearance norms, comfortable connecting with others emotionally.
- ‘Modern girls’ (49%): concerned with appearance, but also self-reliant and emotionally distant.
- ‘Tomboys’ (12%): uninterested in feminine qualities, often regarded as ‘one of the lads.’
- ‘Wild girls’ (7%): embrace masculine behaviours, but also display an exaggeratedly ‘feminine’ appearance.
Researchers found that resister boys and relational girls—the two groups that most resisted conventional gender norms—typically did well on exams. In fact, the relational girls did so well on exams that they single-handedly raised the average for all girls in general.
On the other hand, students who more strongly identified with gender norms did worse. “Cool guys” and “tough guys” had the lowest overall performance. “Modern girls” and “wild girls” had mediocre results, but had low levels of motivation and engagement, and were more likely to put less effort into their work and give up when faced with a tough task. That’s concerning and provides yet another reason that gender stereotypes are dangerous. Ambition should not be a masculine or feminine trait.
The researchers involved in this study had two theories as to why gender stereotypes may influence success. For one, teenagers tend to be inflexible in their ideas about gender, and that influences their attitude about school. And two, feelings about gender likely also influence feelings about certain subjects—as in, math is for boys and therefore not where girls should put their effort, which is the attitude I’d subscribed to while growing up.
The study did come out with one exciting and hopeful conclusion. Yu said, “Our findings certainly suggest that resistance to stereotypes is fast becoming less the exception, and more the rule.” Making up 69% of the students studied, “resistor boys” who resist traditional ideas about masculinity are the majority. When it comes to the girls, more work needs to be done. “Relational girls” who most strongly defy gender norms make up 32% of girls, which was the second largest group.
It’s 2020. We know gender isn’t binary and labeling a trait as “masculine” or “feminine” is regressive. The idea that a child is just a jock or just a princess has long been disassembled. The idea that girls are better at English and boys better at math should have been retired long ago. The more we can move away from traditional gender roles and normalize thinking beyond gender stereotypes the more we can help our children succeed—in school and in life.