Gender Identity and Education

This post looks at how the experience of school can reinforce children’s gender identities.

Gender identity

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

 SignPosting

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.

Related posts include:

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – External Factors 

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – In School Factors 

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Explaining Gender Inequality in Education – In School Factors

Why do girls do better than boys in schools in Britain? This post aims to explain the gender gap in education by focusing on internal factors such as teacher labeling, laddish subcultures and the feminisation of teaching.

Why do girls do better than boys in schools in Britain? This post aims to explain the gender gap in education by focusing on internal factors such as teacher labelling, laddish subcultures and the feminisation of teaching. 

Teacher Labelling

Swann and Graddol (1994) found that teachers tend to see boys as unruly and disruptive and are more likely to spend time telling them off than helping them with schoolwork. Teachers have lower expectations of boys and so are less inclined to push them hard to achieve high standards. Because of their disruptive behaviour they are more likely to be excluded. Four out of five permanent exclusions are boys. With Ladette culture this may be changing (Jackson, 2006)

John Abraham (1986) asked teachers to describe a typical boy and a typical girl – The typical boy was described as not particularly bright, likes a laugh and always attention seeking, often by messing around. The typical girl is bright, well –behaved and hard working, being quiet and timid. As a result he found that boys were told off much more easily than girls.

Subcultures and ‘Laddishness’

Working class boys especially tend to form anti-school subcultures. Paul Willis (1977) found this with his research with the lads, Tony Sewell (1997) argues that there is a black –anti school masculinity and Diane Reay et al (2003) found that boys felt they had little control over their educational learning and so seek power through other negative strategies.

Unlike the anti-social subculture discovered by Paul Willis, some researchers such as Abrahams (1988) and Mirza (1992) have found evidence of pro-school female subcultures who actively encourage each other to study.

Carolyn Jackson (2006) – Found that laddish behaviour had important benefits – it made students seam cool and thus popular. She also argued that it was a response to the fear of failure – it made students seam unbothered about failing, so if they did FAIL they would not look bad. Furthermore, if lads and ladettes did well, they would be labelled as a genius – doing well with apparently no effort

Frosh and Phoenix – Mainly focus group interviews but some individual interviews Sample of 245 boys and 27girls in 12 schools Young Masculinities (2000) Found that few boys were able to be both popular and academically successful Conscientious boys who tried hard at school were often labelled as feminine or gay.

The Feminisation of teaching

There are more female than male teachers, especially in primary school. In line with women increasingly going into more professional careers, secondary schooling has also seen a rise in female teachers. This means that girls increasingly have positive role models while boys may fail to identify with female teachers. Some sociologists have suggested that one possible explanation for these gender differences in attainment is the ‘feminisation of education’. This is the idea that there are not enough male teachers working in primary schools and that, as a result, the curriculum, teaching styles and means of assessment, are more appropriate to the learning styles of girls. Consequently government strategies of teacher recruitment now suggest that pupils will benefit from ‘gender-matching’ with teachers.

The introduction of coursework

Coursework was introduced with the 1988 Education Act and this is precisely when girls started to outperform boys in education. Coursework may benefit girls in education because they are better organised and more likely to do work outside of lessons.

Boys’ overconfidence

Michael Barber (1996) showed that boys overestimate their ability, and girls underestimate theirs. Francis research in 3 London schools (1998-9) found that some boys thought it would be easy to do well in exams without having to put much effort in. When they fail they tend to blame the teacher or their own lack of effort, not ability and feel undervalued.

Limitations of in school factors in explaining differences in educational achievement

The introduction of coursework in 1988 seams to have had a major impact on girl’s surging ahead of boys because girls suddenly surged ahead at this time

Research by Skelton et al found that the Feminisation of teaching does not have a negative impact on educational performance of boys. They found that most pupils and teachers reported that matching pupils and teachers by gender did not significantly affect pupils’ educational experiences. Sixty-five per cent of children rejected the idea that the gender of the teacher mattered, with no major differences between girls and boys. The majority of pupils also believed that the behaviour of male and female teachers in the classroom was generally very similar in terms of fairness, encouragement and discipline.

Out of school factors must also play a role – boys learn to be ‘typical boys’ at home first of all and then their peers just reinforce this.

Don’t exaggerate the extent of male underachievement – boys are still improving in education and are now catching up with girls once more.

SignPosting

This post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology and is one of the major topics within the sociology of education module.

In-school factors are usually contrasted to Home based factors which explain gender differences in educational achievement.

Another closely related topic within education is that of the relationship between education and gender identity.

Feminist Perspectives on the Family

A summary of liberal, marxist and radical feminist views on the traditional nuclear family

Almost all feminists agree that gender is socially constructed. This means that gender roles are learnt rather than determined by biology, and the most significant institution where we are socialised into our appropriate roles and norms of behaviour is the family.  The proof for this theory is found in the sometimes radically different behaviour we see between women from different societies i.e. different societies construct being “women” in different ways (This is obviously true for men as well).

This post summarises Feminist perspectives on the family, focusing on liberal, radical and Marxist Feminism, and is primarily designed to help students revise for the AQA A level sociology paper 2, families and households option.

Feminist theory of the family mind map

Feminism and the Family

Feminists have been central in criticising gender roles associated with the traditional nuclear family, especially since the 1950s.  They have argued the nuclear family has traditionally performed two key functions which oppressed women:

a) socialising girls to accept subservient roles within the family, whilst socialising boys to believe they were superior – this happens through children witnessing then recreating the parental relationship

b) socialising women into accepting the “housewife” role as the only possible/acceptable role for a women. Indeed it was the only way to be feminine/to be a woman. Essentially, feminists viewed the function of the family as a breeding ground where patriarchal values were learned by an individual, which in turn created a patriarchal society.

Feminism today tends to be split into three distinct branches: Liberal Feminists, Marxist Feminists and Radical Feminists. They differ significantly over the extent to which they believe that the family is still patriarchal and in what the underlying causes of the existence of patriarchy might be. Remember – all the theories below are discussing the “nuclear” family.

Liberal Feminism

(See also – A liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth)

Executive Summary

Causes of inequality in relationships – A combination of two things – (1) Mainstream working culture which requires long and inflexible working hours which are still based on the idea of the main breadwinner, (2) Men refusing to pull their weight in relationships.

Solutions to Inequality – Greater gender equality in the public sphere -achieving equal access to education, equal pay, ending gender differences in subject and career choice won primarily through legal changes.

Jennifer Somerville

A key thinker who can be characterised as a liberal feminist is Jennifer Somerville (2000) who provides a less radical critique of the family than Marxist or Radical Feminists and suggests proposals to improve family life for women that involve modest policy reforms rather than revolutionary change.

Somerville argues that many young women do not feel entirely sympathetic towards feminism yet still feel some sense of grievance.

To Somerville, many feminists have failed to acknowledge progress for women such as the greater freedom to go into paid work, and the greater degree of choice over whether they marry or cohabit, when and whether to have children, and whether to take part in a heterosexual or same-sex relationship or to simply live on their own.

The increased choice for women and the rise of the dual-earner household (both partners in work) has helped create greater equality within relationships. Somerville argues that ‘some modern men are voluntarily committed to sharing in those routine necessities of family survival, or they can be persuaded, cajoled, guilt-tripped or bullied’. Despite this, however, ‘women are angry, resentful and above all disappointed in men.’ Many men do not take on their full share of responsibilities and often these men can be ‘shown the door’.

Somerville raises the possibility that women might do without male partners, especially as so many prove inadequate, and instead get their sense of fulfilment from their children. Unlike Germain Greer, however, Somerville does not believe that living in a household without an adult male is the answer – the high figures for remarriage suggest that heterosexual attraction and the need for intimacy and companionship mean that heterosexual families will not disappear.

However, it remains the case that the inability of men to ‘pull their weight’ in relationships means that high rates of relationship breakdowns will continue to be the norm which will lead to more complex familial relationships as women end one relationship and attempt to rebuild the next with a new (typically male) partner.

What Feminists thus need to do is to focus on policies which will encourage greater equality within relationships and to help women cope with the practicalities of daily life. One set of policies which Somerville thinks particularly important are those aimed at helping working parents. The working hours and culture associated with many jobs are incompatible with family life. Many jobs are based on the idea of a male breadwinner who relies on a non-working wife to take care of the children.

Somerville argues that in order to achieve true equality within relationships we need increased flexibility in paid employment.

Evaluation of the Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

  • Sommerville recognises that significant progress has been made in both public and private life for women
  • It is more appealing to a wider range of women than radical ideas
  • It is more practical – the system is more likely to accept small policy changes, while it would resist revolutionary change
  • Difference Feminists argue that this is an ethnocentric view – it reflects the experiences of mainly white, middle class women. (See this post for more detail – Is the UK really the 18th most gender equal country in the world?)
  • Her work is based on a secondary analysis of previous works and is thus not backed up by empirical evidence
  • Radical Feminists such as Delphy, Leonard and Greer argues that she fails to deal with the Patriarchal structures and culture in contemporary family life.

Marxist Feminism

(See also –A Marxist Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth)

Marxist feminists argue the main cause of women’s oppression in the family is not men, but capitalism. They argue that women’s oppression performs several functions for Capitalism

  1. Women reproduce the labour force – through their unpaid domestic labour, by socialising the next generation of workers and servicing the current workers (their husbands!)
  2. Women absorb anger – Think back to Parson’s warm bath theory. The Marxist-Feminist interpretation of this is that women are just absorbing the anger of the proletariat, who are exploited and who should be directing that anger towards the Bourgeois
  3. Women are a ‘reserve army of cheap labour’ – if women’s primary role is domestic, and they are restricted from working, this also means they are in reserve, to be taken on temporarily as necessary by the Bourgeois, making production more flexible.

Key thinker – Fran Ansley (1972) argues women absorb the anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Ansley argues women’s male partners are inevitably frustrated by the exploitation they experience at work and women are the victims of this, including domestic violence.       

Key thinker 2 – Penny Red’s Socialist Feminist Blog

“The freedom that’s offered to everyone under Capitalism is the freedom for a few to self-actualize in an extremely narrow, homogenous way by shopping and consuming, whilst the rest of us work long hours for low wages or no wages. Freedom from economic exploitation isn’t the sexy kind of female empowerment we’ve all become used to, but without it we won’t be moving forward.

The way in which women’s labour is used and abused—the concentration of women in low-paid or unpaid caring and domestic roles, for example, is not only one of the things that sustains patriarchy, it also sustains capitalism. Without the work that women do for free, the markets would be on their knees in a day. And yet, it just goes to show that there is, in fact, plenty of work out there, it’s just that most of it is being done by women, for free.”

Marxist Feminism – Solutions to Gender Inequalities within the family

For Marxist Feminists, the solutions to gender inequality are economic – We need to tackle Capitalism to tackle Patriarchy. Softer solutions include paying women for childcare and housework – thus putting an economic value on what is still largely women’s work, stronger solutions include the abolition of Capitalism and the ushering in of Communism.

Evaluations of Marxist Feminism

  • One limitation is that this sounds very dated for the 2020s: women today are just as likely to be in paid work as men, and so they no longer act as a ‘reserve army of labour’ for example.
  • A further limitation is that women’s oppression was clearly in evidence before capitalism – if anything, women are probably more oppressed in pre-capitalist, tribal societies compared to within capitalist societies.
  • There appears to be a correlation between capitalist development and women’s liberation – suggesting that capitalism has the opposite effect from that suggested by Marxist Feminists.

Radical Feminism

(See also – A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth)

Radical feminists argue that all relationships between men and women are based on patriarchy – essentially men are the cause of women’s exploitation and oppression. For radical feminists, the entire patriarchal system needs to be overturned, in particular the family, which they view as root of women’s oppression.

Against Liberal Feminism, they argue that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Instead women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal – men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour. Some Radical Feminists go further arguing that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.

Radical Feminists also argue that, for many women, there is a ‘dark side of family life’ –  According to the British Crime Survey domestic violence accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 4 women will experience DV at some point in their lifetime and women are much more likely to experience this than men

Key thinker –Kate Millet (see below) was one of the leading American Second Wave Feminists in the 1960s and 70s

Solutions to gender inequality

In short, Radical Feminists advocate for the abolition of the traditional, patriarchal (as they see it) nuclear family and the establishment of alternative family structures and sexual relations. The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and Matrifocal households. Some also practise political Lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual relationships as “sleeping with the enemy.”

Evaluations of Radical Feminism

  • In some ways this perspective is less relevant today than in the 1960s – women are much less likely to suffer from the dual burden and triple shift, for example.
  • In some ways, however, it still seems very relevant. For example, the ME TOO campaign and the Harvey Weinstein scandal both show that harassment and sexual abuse of women remain common.

Supplement: Kate Millett: On the sociology of Patriarchy

Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family. It is both a mirror of and a connection with the larger society; a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole. Mediating between the individual and the social structure, the family effects control and conformity where political and other authorities are insufficient. As the fundamental instrument and the foundation unit of patriarchal society the family and its roles are prototypical. Serving as an agent of the larger society, the family not only encourages its own members to adjust and conform, but acts as a unit in the government of the patriarchal state which rules its citizens through its family heads.

Traditionally, patriarchy granted the father nearly total ownership over wife or wives and children, including the powers of physical abuse and often even those of murder and sale. Classically, as head of the family the father is both begetter and owner in a system in which kinship is property. Yet in strict patriarchy, kinship is acknowledged only through association with the male line.

In contemporary patriarchies the male’s priority has recently been modified through the granting of divorce protection, citizenship, and property to women. Their chattel status continues in their loss of name, their obligation to adopt the husband’s domicile, and the general legal assumption that marriage involves an exchange of the female’s domestic service and (sexual) consortium in return for financial support.

The chief contribution of the family in patriarchy is the socialisation of the young (largely through the example and admonition of their parents) into patriarchal ideology’s prescribed attitudes toward the categories of role, temperament, and status. Although slight differences of definition depend here upon the parents’ grasp of cultural values, the general effect of uniformity is achieved, to be further reinforced through peers, schools, media, and other learning sources, formal and informal. While we may niggle over the balance of authority between the personalities of various households, one must remember that the entire culture supports masculine authority in all areas of life and – outside of the home – permits the female none at all.

Although there is no biological reason why the two central functions of the family (socialisation and reproduction) need be inseparable from or even take place within it, revolutionary or utopian efforts to remove these functions from the family have been so frustrated, so beset by difficulties, that most experiments so far have involved a gradual return to tradition. This is strong evidence of how basic a form patriarchy is within all societies, and of how pervasive its effects upon family members.

A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

Families Revision Bundle Cover

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle which contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.

Related Posts

Sources Used to Write this Post 

  • Haralambos and Holborn (2013) – Sociology Themes and Perspectives, Eighth Edition, Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
  • Chapman et al (2015) A Level Sociology Student Book One, Including AS Level [Fourth Edition], Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
  • Robb Webb et al (2015) AQA A Level Sociology Book 1, Napier Press. ISBN-10: 0954007913

Footnotes

(1) This division goes back to Alison Jaggar’s (1983) Feminist Politics and Human Nature where she defined four theories related to feminism: liberal feminism, Marxism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism

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