European Sociology in the News: Why Girls Do Better in Schools

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.

Via Le Monde , this is a common topic for sociologists and for right-wing hacks. For the latter, poor boys, they whine, are doing worse in schools because their masculine nature (biologically encoded) are repressed by the feminized liberal teachers. Schools (especially public schools, of course) have been perverted by liberal and feminist values that deny, they say, the biological realities of the differences between boys and girls (at which point they usually trot out Carol Gilligan’s studies and twist them beyond recognition).

For sociologists, these differentials in accomplishments (which hold across 30 OECD countries) are just the starting points. Other scientists have weighed in as well, for instance, see these three recent books that address exactly that topic (unfortunately, only published in France):

Overall, studies show that girls do better in secondary and higher education. They do especially better in reading / writing comprehension but they are less likely to choose scientific or engineering careers, according to the comprehensive OECD PISA study (PISA means Program for International Student Assessment).

We could turn the biological argument on its head: maybe girls ARE smarter and get stronger intellectual genetic or biological predispositions (you’ll never hear that one from Phyllis Schlafly). The book by Catherine Vidal, a neurobiologist at the Pasteur Institute , debunks all the studies supposedly explaining the achievement gap based on brain differences. For instance, a 1995 experiment had speculated that women’s more developed linguistic aptitudes had to do with the fact that they mobilize both hemispheres whereas men use only one. This turned out not to be true. What the science shows, as Vidal puts it, is that

“Cerebral biological capabilities are identical for both sexes, boys and girls have the same aptitudes. In order to explain the differences, one has to refer to socio-cultural stereotypes and the behaviors that follow from them.”

During childhood socialization, as mental capabilities develop, they are accompanied by a stronger identification with one gender, and all the different attributes that society provides. Gender socialization accompanies and shapes mental development. Not the other way around, says Vidal.

Studying these socio-cultural stereotypes is what Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, both sociologists of education, have done throughout their careers (see second book mentioned above). As early as 1992, they had stated that traditional gender socialization for girls prepared them better to fit in the school environment. Girls socializiation, according to them, is still largely based on the etymological sense of “docility”, not as obedience but meaning, literally, the capacity to be receptive and internalize a normative order, which is one of the first things that is required of children when they start school.

Moreover, on the parenting side, parents have a tendency to exercise more surveillance and show more concern towards girls. And because boys construct their identity more outside of such surveillance, they internalize a different normative order, more open to the surrounding culture: focus on heroism, violence and demonstrations of strength; such values provide them with what Baudelot and Establet describe as an “anti-school arsenal .” And with most of the schoolteachers being women, it is easier for girls to identify.

Fifteen years later, these conclusions still hold but Baudelot and Establet have added a more dyanamic vision to their conclusions. Girls and young women are not completely shaped by their studies but they also experience school as a place where they can be equal if not superior to boys. They are more likely to enjoy classical cultural activities, encouraged by their mothers. For instance, according to the OECD data, 51% of 15 year old girls read at least one book a month, compared to 37% for boys. They are also more likely to be encouraged to be independent.

And as the third book examines, the data shows that girls have a very good understanding of the importance of education for their emancipation and social success. Even parental attitudes regarding level of study (how far children are pushed) are now equivalent for both sexes. The differences still lie in the choices of majors and careers, hence, the under-representation of young women in scientific tracks. Catherine Marry, a sociologist and one of the authors of the third book mentioned above, studied women who are successful in scientific careers and observed that most of them had scientist mothers (of course, Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie come to mind), often, professors of mathematics. These mothers and father as well raised their children in an egalitarian framework. That’s what seems to make a significant differences.

Larry Summers: wrong then, wrong now.

If you read French, read the books.

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3 Responses to European Sociology in the News: Why Girls Do Better in Schools

  1. Fascinating. I told my daughter tonight that she should start reading your posts – she’s majoring in Anthropology at UCSC.

  2. Darrell Prows says:

    All kids are little learning machines. How well this fact gets maximized in any particular instance is determined by the interrelationship of a wide variety of factors.

    It’s also true that modern times have been far friendlier to human females than historically was the case.

  3. Pingback: The Sirens Chronicles » Dizzy’s Ten Post Round-Up