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Gender Dynamics in the Classroom

Boys and girls are different. You need not be a geneticist, biochemist or anatomist to observe and qualify that fundamental fact. Indeed, the sexes are an exception to the rule that all members of a species have the same genes (just different alleles, or versions of genes).

For example, the Y-chromosome in males carries unique genes, and beyond that, we are only beginning to understand the infinite complexities of epigenetic regulation (genes regulating other genes). 

So what are the consequences of these differences in the classroom? Let’s pull on one particular thread and see what things unravel.

One common observation backed by neuroscience is the fact that higher testosterone levels (as is the case in males, although females also produce the hormone) lead to more risk-taking behavior and, in a sense, increased aggressiveness/confidence (Jiska et al., 2013, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience).

One might then project how a more aggressive student who is prone to take risks might be prone to suggest an innovative answer, dominate a classroom setting, garner more teacher attention for taking leadership roles or simply not be as hesitant to engage and offer opinions. In this sense, perhaps aggressive boys have a slight advantage.

Of course, there exist spectra within each gender when it comes to aggressiveness/confidence, and they overlap a great deal, so these are by no means blanket statements.

Regardless, students may also grow intellectually because of their increased level of engagement, but is raw aggressiveness/confidence the be-all and end-all of a success story? There is no doubt that assertiveness can be a beneficial trait, but as Wall Street 2008 proved, risk-taking can also lead to disaster.

So what else contributes to optimizing this elusive classroom success metric and, probably more importantly, success beyond? After all, getting the attention of the teacher is a relatively superficial measure for success.

In my experience, students who take ownership and are attentive, organized, inclusive, thoughtful, thorough, very enthusiastic, and who display sticking power and grit are ultimately the most successful.

These sorts of students tend to create more effective collaborations, dig deeper into questions, rely less on opinion, generate more thorough outcomes, and as a result, afford themselves a richer experience.

They are not necessarily the highest profile students in a classroom or laboratory, but they are extremely effective.

They also tend to project career trajectories that are less about impressing others, and more about their own personal interests and aspirations (and thus, they probably end up happier).

So are girls better, worse, or the same as boys when it comes to these particular success metrics? I would suggest that having higher levels of testosterone, while affording moments of leadership and (sometimes risky) innovation, can also lead to many distracted moments with missed opportunities.

Consider the productivity hours spent playing video games (Modern Warfare, anyone?) or watching sports (of course girls watch TV and movies as well) over a single weekend, not to mention the weeknights, or the resulting many hours of lost sleep.

Thus, not having a high index of risky behavior likely positions one to be more productive, more thorough, and perhaps even more rested, which leads to more productivity.

After all, effective innovation comes from taking the time to make thoughtful connections and from cultivating a deep, genuine interest in a topic, issue or problem. On the flip side, aggression can certainly be linked to enthusiasm and energy.

Admittedly, the pharmacology of testosterone is only one aspect of the gender difference in the classroom, and yet it’s easy to see that both genders have many common obstacles, but also their own specific shoals to navigate.

So what’s the take-home message: that girls could be a little more aggressive and confident (they have certainly earned the right!), and boys could stand to be more thoughtful and thorough (there are some boys on campus with awesome intellectual capability that they have yet to tap)?

Sure, but the obverse is also true: we all have our personal strengths and weaknesses and those typically outweigh any gender-specific traits. Maybe the message should be to use your strengths to shore up your weaknesses?

After all, trends are more important than current status: Despite the fact that somewhere between 70-80% of practicing engineers are male (depending on your reference), we are now in the epicenter of a renaissance for females in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) majors and vocations.

Women have always been relatively well represented in the humanities and biological sciences (interestingly, roughly 88% of veterinarians graduating from Cornell are female), but are now catching fire in the physical sciences and engineering as well.

I can say that in my four years as an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and now nine years as a teacher here at Deerfield, I have witnessed a positive trend of female success and leadership in the sciences.

So watch out boys–despite centuries of dominance in the sciences, medicine, and engineering–those footsteps you hear behind you in an MIT hallway may very well be a pair of Jack Rogers.

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