Middle School Voices on Gender
Between 1991 and 1992 I interviewed 2,000 middle school students in grades five through eight in 15 schools in New York City and in the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Florida, California, and Ohio. Because young adolescents sometimes answer questions with what they think the teacher or other adult wants to hear, I used a 52-item open-ended "statementaire" to encourage them to express their views honestly, in their own language and in their own voices, on a variety of topics. Although I selected many of the items of inquiry, the students and classroom teachers in the pilot research provided additional topics.
My goal was to identify, among middle level students, trends of thought that would act as indicators of interests to help educators create a curriculum to address middle school students' thoughts regarding school, life issues, and the culture of young adolescents. This article will focus on three of the statements from the statementaire: The best thing about my gender, The worst thing about my gender, and The biggest difference between the sexes.
The responses to these three statements mirror the results in Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,1 the findings of Carol Gilligan, Nona P. Lyons, and Trudy J. Hanmer,2 and those of Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown 3 in their work with young adolescent girls.
The 10 to 15 age range and the differences between genders were reflected in the responses, especially when viewed through Piaget's theory on the development of cognitive thinking. Piaget's theory identifies four basic levels of cognitive development: sensorimotor (birth through about 2 years of age), operational (between 2 and 7 years of age), concrete operational (lasting from 7 to around 12 years of age), and formal operational (from around 12 years of age). It is important to remember that each child enters these stages at her or his own rate and that within each classroom children may be at very different levels.
The best thing about my gender
Fifth through eighth grade girls demonstrated hesitancy and difficulty when responding to this statement during the class dialogue. Few if any girls' hands rose to respond and their body language, as they sat slumped in the seat, heads down, eyes looking at the floor, was almost unanimous. It took some encouragement to pull verbal responses from the girls. Common responses, both verbal and written, included: I don't know. Can't think of any. Nothing. A better selection of clothes. Being pretty. We don't have to go to war. Boys. Going shopping. Having babies. Don't have to do boy things. Fool around with hair and make-up. I can look sexy. Being delicate. Men treat you well and always think of you first. Don't have to pay for dates. Having Seventeen and YM to help us in our daily lives, the women's movement, and defending ourselves by telling guys to get a life. Loving and caring. We're noticeable and provocative.
The blank faces of the girls in class were paralleled by the abundance of blank spaces on their statementaires. It was apparent that the girls really had to struggle to respond to the best thing about being a girl.
Meanwhile, during the open dialogue the boys were most eager to respond. Sitting on the edge of their seats, with their chairs tipping forward and their hands wildly waving, saying, "I know, I know," the boys eagerly waited for me to call on them. Often they just yelled out their responses. Sad to say there is no exaggeration in this description or the comparison of the boys' and girls' responses to The best thing about my gender. It was clear the boys thought that distinct advantages and comfort exist if you are a boy. Unfortunately, the girls thought so too.
I first experienced this reaction in a seventh grade class; at the time I thought it unique, but in the next class, in the next hour, on the same day, in same school, the same thing happened. Without fail, the same reaction occurred in all grades, in all the schools, in every city and state. The responses that the boys were so quick to give fell under two categories: "We can do more things" and, most common, "Not being a girl."
In each class dialogue this last response was met with laughter, including that of teachers, whose reactions tended to parallel those of their students. The girls did not appear to view this response as unexpected or humorous. In some classes girls would even say, "I know what boys think is the best thing about being a boy; it's not being a girl."
Other than the "I don't know" and "Nothing" responses from the girls, the next most common responses given by them focused on their hair, their make-up, shopping, and clothes selection. The fifth grade girls seemed most interested in their hair while the eighth grade girls favored shopping.
Additional common responses given by the boys were: Don't know, all sorts of things. Don't have to have babies. Being able to play lots of sports. Everything. I'm tough. I'm strong. I don't have to wear a dress. We get to do things that girls don't get to do. We have fun. We don't have babies. Stronger. Don't have to worry about getting pregnant. Most men explore more things. No PMS. We have more opportunities in life. We can go out and get real dirty. I have to be rude. Nice to have bikes, skateboards, and three wheeler. Making girls pregnant. Can't get pregnant.
Boys clearly saw themselves as able to do more, be more active in sports, have more fun and more opportunities, and have sex while not worrying about getting pregnant.
The fifth grade boys focused mostly on sports and doing more things. Although the eighth grade boys were still interested in sports, puberty gave them new interests and more feelings of freedom than it gave the girls, who found themselves more restricted.
The worst thing about my gender
While girls had difficulty identifying positive aspects of being a girl, they had little difficulty in identifying negative things about being a girl. The fifth grade girls' responses indicated that their physical appearance and their biological processes are concrete issues. As the girls mature and enter Piaget's formal operational level of cognitive development they become more abstract in their thinking about gender issues. They are beginning to realize that they are treated differently, perceived differently, that they experience different expectations, and have different responsibilities in life.
On the other hand, when boys were asked to respond to The worst thing about my gender they most commonly responded "Nothing" or "I can't think of anything." At the same time as the girls are feeling lots of "worst" things the boys are feeling very confident and comfortable with their role of being a boy.
Some frequent responses from the girls included: Don't get to have short hair. Don't know. I don't get to do boy things. Men don't think we can do anything. Guys take advantage of us. PMS. People don't take us seriously. We have to have kids. Can't play professional sports. We can never get as good a job as men. I have to be home at a certain time. Being ladylike. Being proposed to. Having to wear dresses and pantyhose. People don't think we are as good as boys. Pregnancy. Growing up. People are sexist and think women can't succeed in life. The stereotype that men are better than women. The monthly cycle. Dirty jokes about women. Getting treated unequally.
Recurring responses from the boys included: The girls pick on us. Some girls don't like boys. Can't do a cartwheel. I have to go last. I can't have a girl as a friend. We do all the work. Overworked. It hurts to get kicked you know where. Nothing, it's awesome. Puberty comes slow. Different thoughts. We are always at fault. Nothing like being a boy. There isn't one. I am not real strong. Pressure. Want to have fun with each other. Teachers favor girls, contrary to surveys. Males are expected to do more work. We usually die earlier. People blame us for stuff.
The fifth grade boys, like the fifth grade girls, view the worst things about their gender as concrete things such as physical pain (getting picked on and getting kicked). As the boys enter the formal operational level of cognitive development they see their gender as having a more difficult work load. But the most common response for the worst thing about being a boy was "Nothing."
The biggest difference between the sexes
For the girls the biggest difference between the sexes varies greatly by age group. Fifth grade girls, again, see the difference in concrete terms. As the girls turn 11 and 12 their answers become a little more abstract: Rights. The way we think. Boys are mean and girls are sometimes nice. They can't usually get along. Men think they are better than women. The attitudes. Male ego. The way we view things. Boys act cool. Actions. Boys seem to get everything. Men think women stay at home, clean house, and take care of kids.
By 13 and 14 years of age, the girls express: It's a man's world. PMS. Girls have a fashion sense, boys don't. Opportunities. Guys get paid more. Men mainly think they are more important and are really hogs. How we act. It's a man's world. Guys can fool around in class and it's no problem socially, just considered dorks but girls are considered barbarous if we fool around and are called ditsy. Boys act like they are cool and that girls act simple. They each value different things. Women are more sensitive and men are a good distraction. Women's lib.
For the boys the biggest difference between the sexes, again, differs according to the age group. The fifth grade boys, like the girls, look at the concrete. The pubescent boys in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades view the difference in very concrete terms of sexuality: Girls have breasts. The bodies. Boys don't have a period. Girls have curves, boys don't. The girls are stuck up. The girls think they are so mature. The girls have to worry about getting pregnant.
The boys used a variety of derogatory terms to refer to the body, especially when referring to girls' body parts. A few girls' responses described the differences between the sexes in terms of body parts, but not one girl used a street term to express it.
Occasionally some seventh and eighth grade boys' thoughts included: Girls have different feelings about things. The way we view things. Attitudes. Making love. Emotions. Boys don't have a period. I'm the man. The 12- to 13-year-old boys in this research definitely viewed the biggest difference between the sexes as physical.
Both the boys and the girls thought that boys can do more, are viewed as better, have different expectations, and have different restrictions. The boys thought of themselves as having a great deal to enjoy just by being a boy. They found little problem with being a boy and saw the biggest difference between the sexes as biological, with different biological restrictions and expectations.
The dramatic gender perceptions in this study parallel those in Linda Riley, Lorayne Baldus, Melissa Keyes, and Barbara Schuler's replication of the Colorado study My Daddy Might Have Loved Me.4 The Riley et al.5 study, titled My Worst Nightmare, echoes the earlier study. Although most of the girls and boys in My Worst Nightmare were satisfied with their gender and would not want to change, both genders did think that boys' lives were easier and more fun while girls' lives included more responsibilities, were more serious, and that girls had more to worry about, including appearance, relationships, pregnancy, and world peace.6
The girls in my study struggled to find good things about being a girl and easily identified a variety of negative aspects; they were very aware of society's different expectations of and the responsibilities imposed on each sex. The average middle school girl thinks that boys can do more now and that they will continue to be able to do more as they grow up, they will have higher status career expectations, they will get paid more, and will have more fun and less domestic responsibilities.
Middle school students are at the turning point of their lives and it is important that both our girls and our boys have the opportunities to develop fully as individuals. Educators are responsible for helping them succeed and can start by understanding their needs as perceived by the young adolescents themselves. If teachers can read these middle school quotes, explore their own thoughts about these statements, listen to their own students' voices, and create a plan of action to address them, then avenues of communication will open that should encourage mutual respect.
The worst thing educators can do is to pretend there aren't problems and to continue to do things "the way things have always been done." Society's changing views and attitudes regarding appropriate gender behaviors send mixed messages to young adolescent students. It is particularly confusing for these adolescents because they are engaged also in a developmental stage of identification. Both male and female young adolescents want help in this process, they won't ask for it, but they want it, and they know they need it.
The voices of the young adolescents in this study have clearly spoken their perceptions of gender and the reality of those perceptions for them. Their thoughts must not be taken lightly. It is important for educators to ask what their students think about gender issues and then to validate their thoughts by openly addressing them in classes and curricula.
Recommendations for teachers
When male teachers sit only with male teachers and female teachers sit only with female teachers in the lunchroom and during assemblies and meetings, they are modeling unintentional, subtle behaviors and attitudes that perpetuate gender bias. This kind of behavior demonstrates to students how adults are expected to behave and so has great significance in the eyes of a young adolescent. The following recommendations offer many opportunities for teachers to model and encourage gender equitable behaviors:
Be aware of the research on gender issues in schools. Include your students in a dialogue regarding their thoughts and projects to help identify and address equity issues in the school and the curriculum.
Involve your students in their learning process; have the curriculum evolve from them. Listen to the ideas and experiences students bring with them. Ask them what they want to learn; what they like to read about; what they like to think about; what they dream about; what they talk about. Connect their learning environment to their living environment.
Provide a diverse curriculum that exposes students to women, people of color, and people with disabilities in history, science, mathematics, and so on. Provide bibliographies that include a rich variety of authors and individuals of both sexes and of diverse cultures.
Arrange mentors for middle school students to provide opportunities for work with women and men in professions nontraditional for their gender. Connect the students with male nurses, female doctors, male child care workers, female engineers, female mathematicians, homemaker dads, female architects, and so on.
Provide a wide variety of activities so both genders can discover different things they are interested in and good at. Students need an opportunity to expand their skills, talents, and interests. Exploratory programs in middle schools can expose students to new activities and new experiences.
Teach media literacy and critical viewing skills. The mass media propagates misconceptions about gender, gender identification, and socialization. Young adolescents are heavy media consumers, whether through TV, videos, music, or magazines. Much of what they learn, value, and believe is acquired through media. Students need to be able to distinguish myth from reality. Use and discuss everyday visual experiences: covers of magazines, book jackets, newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, record/tape/CD covers. Have students critique TV shows, commercial ads, situation comedies, and newscasts for how genders are represented.
Address harassing behaviors between genders and within genders. In addition to not tolerating harassment between genders, correct harassing and inappropriate behaviors within genders. Often girls can be mean to other girls, and boys often threaten other boys. If these behaviors are not addressed, students may think they are okay and expected. If your school does not have a harassment policy, create one, post it in every classroom, and make it a part of the student and the parent handbook. Contact your state equity coordinator for assistance.
Examine how language is used in the classroom. Use gender inclusive language and expect students to do so also. Recast sentences to avoid using "he" or "she or he," use "humankind" rather than "mankind," "chair" rather than "chairman" or "chairperson," and so on. Once teachers and students become aware of biased language, identification of bias become easier. Give students credit or kudos for recognizing other gender biased language. Have them examine the hidden messages of their textbooks.
Provide a rich array of visuals of women and men of diverse cultures active in a variety of roles for bulletin boards and class displays. The images that surround us provide overt and covert messages. Connect the world of the young adolescents to what is happening in your school and in your classroom. Encourage them to create displays, providing opportunities for choice and collaboration. Insist that students use an equal number of female authors, politicians, scientists, athletes, mathematicians, and so on.
If your school leadership is not supportive of these issues provide them with current literature and lesson plans on embracing equity issues. There are many sources of information, including your local library, bookstore, university, and local and national resource organizations.
Some of these recommendations are not easy to do. But if the faculty commits to creating a bias-free school environment, the process is exciting and teachers learn a lot along the way. We need to help both girls and boys feel better about themselves, so they can feel good about the other gender. We can change "boys will be boys." Let us help our children break down harmful stereotypes so they can build new, more positive models.
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