Why [a rigid binary view of] Gender Matters

January 30, 2014 by Bill Ivey

Recently, as part of a book study, I sat down to read Why Gender Matters by Dr. Leonard Sax. I’ll confess, the title set me on my guard even though he is the founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. By the end of the book, I was poised to write a comprehensive, point-by-point take-down. Fortunately, that is not where the story stops.

I paused near the end of the book to send out a message on Twitter asking for people’s reactions to Dr. Sax and his work, realizing that in my frustration with certain ideas I might not be giving other ideas sufficient credit. A parent said he had opened her eyes to the notion that single-gender education might be best for certain kids. A teacher said that kids at her school were highly engaged with him and refused to settle down and stop asking questions after he spoke when time was up. And another online colleague wrote me privately, in part to support his ideas but also to humanize him.

Meanwhile, I had found an online article critical of him - written by Dr. Lise Eliot. She is on the Board of Directors of the American Council for Co-Educational Schooling, of whose work I have been critical on occasion. I felt as though something was off, that I was missing something deeply important.

I took a deep breath, and took stock of the situation. Dr. Sax, after all, seemed to support finding methods of schooling that allow kids to emerge from straitjacketed gender roles, writing “We want every child to grow up to be an adult who is comfortable expressing both feminine and masculine attributes, whatever is appropriate for the situation.” (location 4091) And Dr. Eliot is equally adamant that we need to avoid gender stereotyping, writing in an editorial for ASCD, “It’s time teachers appreciate the true, nuanced science of sex difference—that boys and girls are not from separate planets, and must be treated, first and foremost, as individuals, rather than gender stereotypes.”

Toward this end, perhaps both Dr. Sax and Dr. Eliot have something to teach us. A medical doctor, Dr. Sax tends to focus on the effect of genetics in setting up predominant patterns of brain activity that are in place from birth. He opposes strict social constructionists who say biology has no input. Fair enough. A neuroscientist, Dr. Eliot tends to focus on the plasticity of the brain and how relatively minimal differences are progressively magnified by life experience in constantly reshaping the brain. Again, that makes sense.

Yet, it remains true that some of Dr. Sax's ideas disturb me. In Chapter Nine of his book, he writes of “anomalous boys” and “anomalous girls” who do not conform to the gender expectations generally held by our culture. He says on the one hand, “the tomboy - the girl who prefers some male-typical activities - should be encouraged to pursue those gender-atypical activities” (location 3849) and on the other, “The anomalous male then appears to represent a distinct physiological type and a real challenge to parents - who often don’t see that there’s a problem.” (location 3715). Though I am sure the effect is wholly unintentional, and though I am aware that the subsequent nine years of research since the book was published may have shifted Dr. Sax’s thinking in some ways, I find myself left feeling he has bought into a patriarchal system where masculinity is more highly valued than femininity. Granted, as a gender activist and as someone who would probably have been defined by Dr. Sax as an “anomalous boy,” I definitely admit to a personal bias of my own on the issue.

As for Lise Eliot, she too (again, I am sure, with all good intention) appears to bring a personal bias to her own look at research. In a recent article in The American, Dr. Eliot refers to a 2009 study done by Dr. Linda Sax of UCLA and commissioned by the National Coalition of Girls Schools, stating that after controlling for various factors distinguishing the girls schools in the study from the coed schools, “most of these [positive academic] effects were erased or diminished, to the point that the researchers found it reasonable to conclude 'that the marginal benefits do not justify the potential threats to gender equity brought on by academic sex segregation’” I’ll confess, I squirmed when I read this. I’ve seen the report, presented it to my students, written about it. Had I really missed something this damning?

Then I went to the original report, and read among the conclusions: “Advocates of all-girls schooling may view these results as an affirmation of their efforts to create environments that foster the development of intellectually engaged and self-confident young women. Critics of single-sex education, on the other hand, may conclude that the marginal benefits do not justify the potential threats to gender equity brought on by academic sex segregation.” (p.64) Putting the quote in context gives us something wholly different from what Dr. Eliot was implying, especially given that many of the benefits noted in the (Linda) Sax report were in fact more social than academic in nature.

In my work, in searching for research-based methods of instruction appropriate to each of my individual students, Dr. Joann Deak’s contention that “80% of girls have female-differentiated brains and 20% have male-differentiated brains,” (grover, at 21apples.org) has been particularly helpful. Furthermore, brain wiring is currently thought to be distinct from a personal sense of gender identity. With these givens, you do have the impetus to look hard at the individual you have in front of you, and get to know and to educate that specific person, regardless of perceived gender. This goal echoes Dr. Eliot’s earlier words.

And I concede that Dr. Eliot has a point in that single-gender schools are an opportunity that can easily be abused. I know of cases where girls schools play into stereotypes in the worst ways, painting walls pink, having girls fabricate make-up in chemistry class, and the like. I will very quickly stand by Dr. Eliot’s side in denouncing such practices.

However, I do not see those practices happening at my school. I see a genuine commitment to feminist ideals, even though they may be expressed in different ways by different people, and a genuine commitment to both raising awareness of and breaking down gender stereotypes. And I know we are not alone; Emma Willard School, for example, host to groundbreaking work in girls psychology by Dr. Carol Gilligan and her associates in the late 1980s, regularly posts feminist links and ideas in their twitter feed, just as we do.

Would this level of commitment to anti-sexism and gender activism be possible in a coed school? My students are skeptical; when the question came up during our unit on “What makes girls and women feel more or less powerful?” the general sentiment was that it was way easier to talk honestly and openly about feminism and issues of sexism in general at our school than it ever was at their prior coed schools. For that to take place in a coed school would, of course, be the ideal. But my students and I, at any rate, are honestly not sure our society is there yet.

So, we teachers (and parents) look at what brain science tells us - how our brains are shaped in utero and after we are born, how gender does and does not affect that - and we do our best to determine what we can do to educate our students to the best of our ability, to break down gender stereotypes, to work for gender equity. In the end, Dr. Sax, Dr. Eliot, and Dr. Deak - and I as well - all share the same fundamental goals, as do most of us. The key, then, is to listen respectfully and with an open mind to different perspectives, think critically, and continually seek to learn and grow so that all of us, of all ages and genders, can truly be our best selves.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: Leonard Sax, gender, The Girls School Advantage, On Education, Carol Gilligan, Lise Eliot, Linda Sax, On Parenting, brain-based learning, Joann Deak