Jun 12, 2012 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.

Stereotypes of gender in children

Many a study has laid out the innate physiological differences between the male and female brain. Michael D. De Bellis and his team of researchers, for example, clearly showed how the maturing brain differs between boys and girls, and how those differences vary over the course of regular development.

Based on the work of De Bellis et al., we know, for example, that the proportions of white matter to grey matter predictably vary between the genders. We also know that the volume of the corpus callosum area is proportionally different between males and females. And of course, we know that the varying levels of testosterone and estrogen create behavioral differences, especially during pre-adolescence and adolescence. (2001)

With these findings in mind, the question arises: Can such information help us better educate our young people? And maybe more importantly, should it be used to differentiate instruction based on gender?

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (Columbia University Press, 2011), argue that boys’ and girls’ brains and ways of thinking are actually much more the same than they are different, and that “the differences that do exist are trivial."

Nevertheless, there is a current trend of well-meaning educators and parents citing these brain differences to support gender stereotypes—a trend that is damaging to learners as individuals and to our society as a whole, says Catherine A. Cardno in her recent EdWeek review of the book. The following are a few of the stereotypes often expounded:

  • Males and females have different aptitudes for math and science.
  • Boys and girls have substantially different communications styles.
  • The sexes are suited for specific career paths solely because of their gender.
  • Boys and girls learn better in single-sex, gender-differentiated learning environments.

She cites a caution the authors make in their introduction, that "Today, parents and educators are being fed a diet of junk science that is at best a misunderstanding of the research and at worst what amounts to a deliberate fraud on the American public."

In her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain , Lise Eliot, associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, discusses her conclusions after comprehensively reviewing the research on the child through adolescent brain. Her conclusion is that there is “surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.” (2009) The real differences, she says, arise from the neuroplastic nature of the brain and how children’s ways of thinking differentiate along gender lines over time as a result of the input they receive via parents, friends, relatives and educators – NOT because of any innate physiological variations between the sexes.

It is thus our role and responsibility as educators to be aware of the pitfalls of gender-based – and all – stereotyping in our classrooms that we may be perpetuating. Only through completely supporting each learner – regardless of their skin color, SES, gender or any other difference – can we ensure that they will reach their greatest potential.



Further reading:

Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers. Why Science Doesn't Support Single-Sex Classes. May 20, 2012. http://www.edweek.org.

Related Reading:

Do Teachers Give Students Math Anxiety?

Stress and the Human Brain