This post looks at how the experience of school can reinforce children’s gender identities.
Research on the development of gender identity has shown that children become keen to demonstrate their awareness and knowledge of gender at the age of five to six. Consequently, seven to eight year olds have a relatively well-established sense of gender identity. For children, being accepted as a ‘typical boy’ or a ‘typical girl’ tends to be important. School is an important arena in which one can act out one’s gender identity and affirm one’s masculinity or femininity and thus affirm one’s gender identity.
Sociological research shows that there is pressure in school to conform to traditional gender identities. If one is a boy, one is often expected to display aspects of traditional masculinity such as enjoying sport and being competitive; and if a male student displays traditionally feminine traits they are criticised. Similarly, girls who act masculine may be subject ridicule. This handout looks at ways in which traditional gender identities are reinforced in school
Male Peer Groups – reinforce the idea that working hard is unmasculine for boys
Mac an Ghail’s study of Parnell school (1994) found that Male peer groups put boys under pressure to not take school work seriously. There were differences across social classes
Working class boys – genuinely didn’t make an effort – part of being male for them meant being cool, and not caring about school work. For them ‘real boys don’t try hard at school’ and are more interested in dossing around (like the Lads Paul Willis studied in 1977). These boys referred to boys that wanted to do well as ‘dickhead achievers’ ‘queer’ or ‘gay’.
Middle class boys – Behind the scenes, many middle class boys would try hard to succeed but in public they projected an image of ‘effortless achievement’ – pretending they were weren’t really making any effort and being smug when they did well because of this.
In terms of identity then, not working hard is part of working class masculinity and being seen to not working hard is part of middle class masculinity
In Shaun’s story – Dianna Reay (2002) demonstrated how Shaun, an 11 year old white working class boy, struggled to redefine himself as a hard working pupil when he moved from primary to secondary school. In primary school, an important part of Shaun’s identity was being one of the toughest guys in school and being a good footballer. When he moved up to secondary school he saw this as an opportunity to redefine himself as a ‘good student’ but found this difficult because he still valued his relationship with his old friends and his identity as a tough guy and a good footballer.
Female peer groups reinforce ideas of traditional femininity
Louise Archer – Interviewed 89 young people, looking at the identities of young working class girls. She found that girls that didn’t conform to traditional gender identities (passive and submissive) were at a disadvantage because they came into conflict with the school. For most of the girls, constructing and performing a heterosexual, sexy feminine image was the most important thing to them. Each of the girls spent considerable money and time on their appearance, trying to look sexy and feminine which gave the girls a sense of power and status. The peer group policed this.
Archer also interview one Laddette – who felt as if the school had a grudge against her. Over one summer she transformed her identity to a classically feminine one and got on much better with staff at her new college as a result.
Carolyn Jackson argued that Laddishness amongst girls is on the increase – girls are increasingly loud, aggressive and drink excessively. She argued that the advantages of this behaviour are that this allows girls to seam carefree about education, reducing the risk of them losing face if they fail.
Verbal Abuse can reinforce traditional gender identities
Connell argues that verbal abuse is one way in which dominant gender and sexual identities are reinforced.
Paetcher (1996) argued that male pupils use terms such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ in a derogatory manner. Such labels are often given to students who are disinterested in or bad at sport or who prefer traditionally feminine subjects.
Sue Lees (1986) found that boys called girls ‘slags’ if they appeared to be sexually available and ‘drags’ if they didn’t, negatively labelling girls for being promiscuous or not. According to Lees this is one way in which male dominance starts to assert itself.
Teachers reinforce traditional gender identities
Research shows that teachers also play a part in reinforcing dominant definitions of gender identity. Chris Haywood (1996) found that male teachers told boys off for ‘behaving like girls’ and teased them when they gained lower marks in tests that girls. Teachers also tended to ignore boys verbal abuse of girls (calling them slags etc)
There is also some evidence that male teachers sometimes display a protective attitude towards female teachers, coming into their class to rescue them from disruptive pupils who display threatening behaviour
John Abraham’s research found that teachers idea of a ‘typical girl’ was of her being welll behaved and studios, whereas their ideas of ‘typical boys’ were of them being troublemakers – thus boys received more negative feedback than girls which could reinforce their notion of masculinity being associated with messing around in school.
Tutors and subject advisors
If male students want to do traditionally female subjects, tutors are more likely to question them critically asking them if they are really sure about their decision, meaning students are under more pressure to avoid those subjects that do not fall into their traditional ‘gender domains’
Gender identities can be different for different ethnic groups…
Sewell argues that African Caribbean males are more likely to form anti-school subcultures
Mac An Ghail agreed but argued that this was a response to institutional racism
Girls outperform boys in all ethnic groups at GCSE and are more likely to go to university than boys in all ethnic groups
But Bangladeshi and Pakistani girls are less likely to attend university than their male peers. Research suggests this is due to cultural pressure to stay close to home and get married
This post has primarily been written for A-level sociology students and this topic comes up in the compulsory education module, part of the gender and education sub-topic.
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