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Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. Leonard Sax, M.D.,Ph.D., New York: Random House, 2015, 322 pages.

This book begins with several very strong statements regarding the growing crisis facing boys in the 21st century:

“…the number of boys under eighteen arrested for drug abuse offenses has increased by more than 50% in the past ten years; boys under eighteen are still five times more likely to be arrested for drug abuse violations than are girls under eighteen.”

“…today’s boy is much more likely to be struggling in school than his father was.  Boys are increasingly alienated from school.  Recent investigations have shows a dramatic drop over the past twenty years in boys’ academic performance in American schools.  According to the United States Department of Education, the average eleventh-grade American boy now writes at the same level as the average eighth-grade girl. Similar gender gaps have been documented in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.  And the percentage of boys going on to college, and graduating from college, is falling.  The U.S. Department of Education now projects that in the year 2011, there will be 140 women graduating from college for every 100 men---very nearly a 60/40 female-to-male ratio”

“The high school dropout rate in the United States is now close to 30%, and the great majority of dropouts are boys.  More and more boys, discouraged by years of failure in elementary school, middle school, and high school, are asking:  “Why should I stick around for any more of this?”

He does not state it here, but it is important to add, that the vast majority of diagnosed learning and behavioral issues are assigned to males with females occupying a comparatively insignificant portion.

What factors explain this and what can be done to address the issues occupies the remainder of the book.

Back in the 1960s the dogma of “social constructivism” was introduced whereby it was argued that there were no inherent differences between boys and girls, males and females that could not be explained exclusively as arising from social expectations and role playing.  As such, boys and girls were regarded as presenting a tabula rasa or blank slate prior to socialization on which gender roles and identity could be written.  Biology was regarded as having no significant role and armed with this belief it was viewed as being unnecessary to make any allowances for different needs, abilities and goals of boys and girls. With the passing of time and the study of genetics, these assumptions have been disproven as having no basis in scientific fact.  Evidence has been compiled that seems to prove beyond reasonable doubt the existence of genetic influences that determine behavioral tendencies in predictable ways.   Boys and girls are indeed different and as such have different needs and require different strategies to cope with and direct behaviors.  They do not always respond in the same way and contrary to fundamental laws of physics, the behavioral laws of education do not include same cause and same effect.

The realization of the fact that these hardwired tendencies result in specific needs and approaches led to the realization that single sex schools might offer a valuable alternative.  This resulted in legislation being introduced and passed in America in 2001 legalizing single-sex education in the American public school system.  Since then, single-sex education has grown significantly in popularity in America as well as in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland.  Studies conducted in the US indicated significant improvement among males in single sex education environments.  Studies with females indicated overall improvement but not on the same scale as males.  Other studies done in Australia and Korea show similar results.  It is worthy of note however, that single sex education had a long history in the private sector before being accepted within the public school system.  It is also important to note that single sex private schools became less popular as a result of the common perception that single sex environments were somehow ‘unnatural’ or old fashioned.  In the march of educational progress, it could be said that the baby was indeed thrown out with the bath water.

In perpetuating the mythology that males and females are the same, the biological differences have been largely ignored.  However, research has shown the existence of anatomic differences in the organization of male and female brains as well as indicating fundamental differences between male and female brain tissue.  One of the more striking findings is that females have much more acute hearing than males such that “If a forty-three-year old man speaks in what he thinks is a “normal tone of voice” to a seventeen –year old, that girl is going to experience his voice as being about ten times louder than what the man is hearing.”  Research has shown that men have a thicker retina that women due to males having more M cells Other research suggest that females generally interpret facial expressions better than men.  There are differences in the brain cells themselves as well as average brain size.   The list goes on.  None of these differences indicate any inherent inequality or differences in ability over time, but they do go towards showing that developmental differences are real and that hard-wired tendencies evolved over the course of human evolution that can determine developmental tendencies, abilities and sequencing.

In studies done among young children, it has been shown that boys draw verbs and girls draw nouns.  Boys draw action using colors such as black, gray silver and blue in keeping with the M cells (receptor cells) in the retina whereas girls draw pictures of people with lots of color in keeping with the P cells (receptor cells) in their retina.  These differences can give rise to frustrations especially in the junior division where 95 per cent of teachers are female and especially if students are being judged in terms of color sensitivity:

“Mathew will soon discover that he’s not very good at trying to copy Anita, that is, trying to draw pictures of people, using lots of colors.  Mathew will quickly decide that he is no good at art.  Only five years old, Mathew has decided that “art is for girls”.  Other experiences he will have …will teach him that he’s no good at anything else that’s going on in a twenty-first-century “gender neutral” kindergarten.  The teacher wants him to sit still and be quiet and listen, while he wants to run around and jump and yell.  After a few weeks he’s not going to see the point of going to school at all.  That’s when the tantrums begin.

And again:

“Today we know that innate differences between girls and boys are profound.  Of course not all girls are alike and not all boys are alike.  But girls and boys do differ from one and another in systematic ways that should be understood and made use of, not covered up or ignored.”

With regard to brain development, other interesting facts are presented.  For example, areas of the brain associated with fine motor skills and language development mature six years earlier in girls than in boys but areas associated with targeting and spatial memory develop in boys four years earlier than in girls.  The fact that boys mature more rapidly than girls in some areas but mature more slowly than girls in others seems to support common sense notions previously denounced as gender bias.

“Sex differences in childhood are larger and more important than sex differences in adulthood.  By thirty years of age, both females and males have reached full maturity of all areas of the brain.  When people over thirty years of age think about their own experience as adults, they may not see enormous sex differences in how women and men learn new material or master new tasks.  So some adults assume that if they are not seeing big differences in how women and men learn to do new things, then there probably aren’t big differences in how six-year-old girls and boys learn.  That assumption is wrong.”

There is far too much of interest in this book to do justice to the wealth of examples provided or the references to scientific studies.  However, sections dealing with the differences in brain function and development are of special relevance in terms of behavior, attitude and academic functioning.  Together, all of the information provided builds a compelling case to indicate that present educational theories and practices assuming gender neutrality have created a system that favors females and promotes their success while creating substantial obstacles for boys.

The Dean of Education at Stanford University is quoted as saying that boys who do not do well in kindergarten tend to develop “negative perceptions of competence” that are very “difficult to reverse as (they) progress through school”.  The lack of ability to do certain things well and the resulting frustration introduces many boys to school in a negative fashion that determines much of their subsequent behavior afterwards. 

“Matthew was inattentive and easily distracted in class.  He was now firmly convinced that school was just one big bore, an annoyance to be endured for a few hours each day until that wonderful moment when school let out and he could go home and do all the fun things he enjoyed.”

So Matthew ended up seeing a psychiatrist and diagnosed with ADHD and Depression and placed on three medications.

“Matthew’s story is all too common today.  A report published in 2003 found that the proportion of young children on anti-depressant medications has more than tripled in the past ten years…I have to wonder how many of these young children, boys especially, are depressed because they are trapped in a school that just is not geared to their needs.  And they have no way out.”

Suffice to say that there are no differences in terms of what boys and girls can potentially learn.  But in order to achieve these results teaching methods must be adjusted to take into account fundamental gender differences.  The early years appear to be where the majority of damage is done in terms of marginalizing boys within schools - damage that of course has disastrous effects going forward.  In simple examples of reading, one expert stated that in their State at least 80% of the books for early readers fell into the category of ‘girls’ fiction.  Given that this in conjunction with the fact that the majority of teachers in kindergarten up to Grade 3 are women, it is easy to see how reading would have little appeal and that this in itself would have far reaching implications.  It is clear that books that would interest boys are very different from those that would interest girls and between attempts that do not recognize this as well as issues of political correctness, small surprise that boys have trouble concentrating and do not develop an interest in or capability to read.  This again is nothing to do with an inability to learn to read or find enjoyment in it but rather a lack of motivation derived from a lack of intrinsic interest in the subject matter.

With respect to learning differences, there are also acute differences in how boys and girls respond to stress, threat and intimidation.  According to studies, stress improves learning in males but impairs learning in females.  In one example given, a boy confronted by a teacher who had lost her temper and shouted at him resulted in a marked improvement in his behavior and an apparent increase in respect demonstrated towards her.  Similar actions directed towards female students evoked completely different responses causing the student to exhibit withdrawal and feelings of ongoing resentment that impaired the relationship.  Again, this seems to support the commonly held position that boys test limits and respect defined boundaries where girls tend to be compliant and seek acceptance from teachers.

In the final analysis, the desire to be all things to all people has been one of the main set backs of mass education.  Attempts to address different learning styles and needs have failed to pass the acid test of transcending rhetoric to demonstrable results.  The inherent tragedy in all of this is the wasted potential of boys turned off by school and education who could have flourished had they been able to shed the negativity and channel their interests and abilities constructively.  The preservation of self-esteem is clearly not achieved by eliminating failure or relaxing standards, but rather by preserving the integrity of success within a meaningful context of appropriate challenges and results.    The irony arises that in an age stressing diversity, there seems to be an inexplicable inability to acknowledge genuine differences.  Perhaps instead of trying to account for the growing number of boys being diagnosed with growing numbers of learning and behavioral disabilities, failure, dropping out of schools and declining post secondary attendance, we should stop looking for the source of these problems in the boys themselves and focus instead on the schools and the governing philosophies of education in which they find themselves.

I strongly recommend this book for the information that it contains as well as the stimulation that it provides to see these issues from a different perspective.  Perhaps it is not so much boys who do not fit as much as it is a system that does not fit boys.