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Brandeis scholar co-authors book that questions gender stereotypes

Published: December 2, 2011
Section: News

Pink is for girls. Blue is for boys. Math and science are for boys. English and history are for girls. Where do we get the idea that gender is systematized? Where is the research that says boys are more apt to become the next rocket scientists and girls, because of their “empathizing” brains, will become the next generation’s social workers, primary school teachers and nurses?

There is a significant amount of research on this ideology—that boys’ and girls’ brains are wired differently, setting them up to become better suited in certain academic areas. According to Dr. Rosalind Chait Barnett, a senior scientist and researcher here at Brandeis’ Women’s Studies Research Center, however, much of this research is flawed. In their sixth book, “The Truth about Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children,” Barnett and Professor Caryl Rivers, a professor from Boston University’s School of Communication, pick apart the flawed research that has left little room for gender variability.

The book, published by Columbia University Press in late October, challenges parents and educators to break apart the “old” stereotypes that state the learning styles of boys and girls are so entirely different that they require an entirely separate school system. Barnett and Rivers prove these claims wrong by showing the increasing amount of research that supports looking at children as individuals, not as girls and boys.

Although Barnett and Rivers did not conduct any primary research, they reviewed pop literature, films, newspaper articles, quotes from historical people, data and surveys, and many other resources that validated their argument. Through this research, they were easily able to pick out the flaws in the experiment bias.

Barnett found that in the research that they critiqued, “the feelings were so strong and the data was so weak.

“There is a growing disconnect in peer-review literature and what the mass media is telling us,” Barnett said in a sit-down interview with The Hoot. “The research is getting more sophisticated and the media narrative is all the same. There is an enormous gap within gender variability, which makes it next to impossible to simply place your brain in a box: boy or girl.”

Barnett and Rivers are cognizant of the fact that boys and girls encounter different experiences as young children that spark certain emotions and eventually create these gendered stereotypes. They believe, however, that children, specifically girls, must go outside of their comfort zones in order to build a strong sense of character. Barnett argues that if we don’t recognize and act on this, then we are validating the existence of “boy”- and “girl”-specific learning styles.

“People don’t believe it,” Barnett said. “But if we don’t give girls the opportunity, they are shortchanged. We need to learn how to become better consumers of the pink-brain blue-brain arguments.” Barnett continued to argue that the argument of “keeping women out” has always been an essential argument and that this notion of girls and boys being taught in different ways is actually quite sexist.

In “The Truth,” Barnett and Rivers argue that there is no “ideal classroom” for boys or girls. In chapter 9, they feature an Alabama middle school where teachers are encouraged to gear their assignments to a gender when possible, such as assigning a different writing prompt for boys than for girls. They argue, “This ideal classroom—classrooms, actually, separated by gender—could wind up being harmful to both boys and girls.”

“There’s no data out there that shows if we took boys in one class and girls in the other that they would be better off,” Barnett said.

Barnett remarked that there are too many variables—resources, class size, and caliber of the school—that one could never be able to detect gender segregation as the root of success.

For the past five years, Barnett and Rivers have brought their expertise together to bring forth insightful ideas that have for so long been concealed behind flawed research that our society has accepted as factual. In writing this book, Barnett and Rivers concluded that there is “surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.”

Barnett said that she and Rivers wrote this book with the hope that people will begin to start questioning their own stereotypes.

According to Barnett, this book targets anyone who has an investment in young children. She wants these people to understand how their behavior affects young children.

“Kids already have an understanding very early on,” Barnett said. “Girls and boys are aware of gender stereotypes early, even before they can speak. By two, they are well versed in what’s ‘appropriate’ behavior for males and females. These stereotypes put kids in straitjackets, harming their futures.”

Barnett and Rivers are currently working on their seventh book together.