Journal of Nursing Education

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Female Gender As A Variable In The Educational Process: A Review

Eileen Greif Fishbein, RN, MS

Abstract

It has been well established that in childhood the female achieves at relatively high intellectual levels.1 In fact, in many ways, girls exhibit distinct intellectual and achievement ad va n tage over boy s. This has been documented to exist in their earlier maturation, and in verbal and reading skills." And, when traditional schooigrades are used as an indicator of intellectual achievement, girls have surpassed boys from elementary school through college as shown by comparative studies going back as far as 1929. 3 Yet, despite such academic achievement in childhood, the ultimate performance level for the adultfemale falls considerably below that of the male. For example, despite the recent rapid increase in numbers of women attending college, the national ratio in 1970 remained an unbalanced 59% for men to 41% for women. Such data raise the issue of whether there exist innate biologic differences between ma les and females to explain the discrepant outcome or do we socialize the female in such a way as to create barriers to high levels of academic attainment? The purpose of this paper is to explore the research literature for clues as to the influences contributing to lower achievement in intellectual areas for the female as contrasted with the male.

When the controversy of nature versus nurture is raised in contemporary research, the emphasis has moved from the tendency to dichotomize the two variables to a study of their interaction. As noted by Money, it may never be possible to determine whether boys and girls develop difieren t pa t terns of behavior because they are treated differently or because they exhibit biological differences from the beginning. What does seem clear is that biologic differences do not automatically dictate whatever behavioral differentiation occurs in postnatal life. This has been supported by both anthropologie cross-cultural studies, and by the recent case of Money/ where a sex reassignment was carried out on an identical twin because of a surgical accident iust after birth. In this case, a normal male identical twin was circumcised at seven months with an electro-cautery, which resulted in the burning of the entire penis. Eventually the penis necrosed, sloughed and had to be ablated a t the abdominal wall. After much deliberation, a decision was made to reassign the sex of the child from genetic male to female with reconstructive genital surgery. Hormone therapy is to be instituted at puberty which will result in feminization of the body, however, sterility will, of course, remain. This case has provided opportunity to counsel and observe the parents in their behavior and expectations in raising a child with sex reassignment, and the resultant behavior that is produced in the child. What is apparent is that in the six years of followup, through the selection of clothing, hair styles, toys, and the transmission of expectations of appropriate role behavior, the parents have socialized a genetic boy into a very feminine and typical girl.

Maccoby, in a review of the origins of psychological sex differences, sees social shaping as the most importan t factor in the acquisition of sex-typical behavior. This acquisition does not, however, deny biological predispositions. Maccoby attributes the formation of sex typing to the following processes:

1. Modeling or imitation.

2. Differential socialization of the child so that sex-appropriate behavior is reinforced.

3. Kohlberg's cognitive developmental approach whereby the child conceptualizes a class of behaviors appropriate toa particular sex from a wide range of experiences.

4. Biologic differences.

According to the literature reviewed, Maccoby finds parents trying to socialize both sexes toward the same major goals; however, there are a few biologic differences which…

It has been well established that in childhood the female achieves at relatively high intellectual levels.1 In fact, in many ways, girls exhibit distinct intellectual and achievement ad va n tage over boy s. This has been documented to exist in their earlier maturation, and in verbal and reading skills." And, when traditional schooigrades are used as an indicator of intellectual achievement, girls have surpassed boys from elementary school through college as shown by comparative studies going back as far as 1929. 3 Yet, despite such academic achievement in childhood, the ultimate performance level for the adultfemale falls considerably below that of the male. For example, despite the recent rapid increase in numbers of women attending college, the national ratio in 1970 remained an unbalanced 59% for men to 41% for women. Such data raise the issue of whether there exist innate biologic differences between ma les and females to explain the discrepant outcome or do we socialize the female in such a way as to create barriers to high levels of academic attainment? The purpose of this paper is to explore the research literature for clues as to the influences contributing to lower achievement in intellectual areas for the female as contrasted with the male.

When the controversy of nature versus nurture is raised in contemporary research, the emphasis has moved from the tendency to dichotomize the two variables to a study of their interaction. As noted by Money, it may never be possible to determine whether boys and girls develop difieren t pa t terns of behavior because they are treated differently or because they exhibit biological differences from the beginning. What does seem clear is that biologic differences do not automatically dictate whatever behavioral differentiation occurs in postnatal life. This has been supported by both anthropologie cross-cultural studies, and by the recent case of Money/ where a sex reassignment was carried out on an identical twin because of a surgical accident iust after birth. In this case, a normal male identical twin was circumcised at seven months with an electro-cautery, which resulted in the burning of the entire penis. Eventually the penis necrosed, sloughed and had to be ablated a t the abdominal wall. After much deliberation, a decision was made to reassign the sex of the child from genetic male to female with reconstructive genital surgery. Hormone therapy is to be instituted at puberty which will result in feminization of the body, however, sterility will, of course, remain. This case has provided opportunity to counsel and observe the parents in their behavior and expectations in raising a child with sex reassignment, and the resultant behavior that is produced in the child. What is apparent is that in the six years of followup, through the selection of clothing, hair styles, toys, and the transmission of expectations of appropriate role behavior, the parents have socialized a genetic boy into a very feminine and typical girl.

Maccoby, in a review of the origins of psychological sex differences, sees social shaping as the most importan t factor in the acquisition of sex-typical behavior. This acquisition does not, however, deny biological predispositions. Maccoby attributes the formation of sex typing to the following processes:

1. Modeling or imitation.

2. Differential socialization of the child so that sex-appropriate behavior is reinforced.

3. Kohlberg's cognitive developmental approach whereby the child conceptualizes a class of behaviors appropriate toa particular sex from a wide range of experiences.

4. Biologic differences.

According to the literature reviewed, Maccoby finds parents trying to socialize both sexes toward the same major goals; however, there are a few biologic differences which were found. Males were consistently found to have better visualspatial perception and we re definitely more aggressive. Aggression was not necessarily linked to competitiveness and dominance, however, Maccoby sees these biologic differences as forming a foundation upon which socializing forces then act. Even though parents state that they generally treat children of both sexes similarly, observational studies find that the total interaction is increased with boys. This interaction includes both rewards and punishments. It is unclear whether adults interact more with male children because they find them inherent Iy more in teres t ing, or whether the increased male aggression demands more interaction. Neither of these observed differences in males could be considered to be significant for the individual, but as a class are seen more frequently in boys.5

Maccoby6 drew the following conclusions of sex differences in intellectual functioning after reviewing the literature for average performance on tests of abilities.

1. There is a tendency (or girls to perform slightly higher un tests of generai intelligence during preschool years, but boys surpass girls by the high school years.

2. Girls exceed boys in most aspetti of verbal performance until school age. At that time differences in vocabulary disappear. Girls learn to read earlier, and boys require more remedial reading until the age of ten. Girls remain belter on tests of grammar, spelling, and word fluency throughout the school years.

3. Although girls learn to count earlier, there are no consistent differences in math computation until high school, when boys excel in mathematical reasonmg. These differences become substantial among male college students and adults.

4. Boys do better on spatial tasks from the early school years through the college years.

5. Analytic ability has been defined in two ways. In one sense it is used much the Sime as "field mdependence"and refers to the ability to respond to ? stimulus without being influenced by the field in which it is presented In another meaning, analytic ability refers to the grouping of elements based upon a common characteristic In both me.ininss of the term, nn differences are seen among preschool children but boys are consistently superior Following school age.

6 Creativity is likewise defined in several ways. When it is used to mean the ability to break set or restructure a problem, boys tend to be superior. However, if it is defined m terms of divergent thinking, girls show increased ability.

7. In achievement, as measured by grades in school, girls excell throughout the school years. However, by the time men reach adulthood they "achieve substantially more than women in almost any aspect of intellectual activity where achievements can be compared - books and articles written, artistic productivity, and scientific achievements."6

These conclusions are supported by K. Patricia Cross of the Educational Testing Service. In using traditional standards to evaluate ability to do well in college, women are, as a group, well qualified. On the standardized Scholastic Aptitude Tests women and men score fairly evenly on verbal abilities but men show quantitative superiority. However, when grade-point averages, often considered the best single predictor of college performance, are compared, women show superior academic achievement. A review of the vast amount of data available through the Educational Testing Service, leaves little argument that of the major measures of acade mie in terest and ability "there are no important differences between men and women in their potentials for academic accomplishment."3 If that is a valid conclusion, the question that must then be addressed is why women are not achieving to their fullest potential as productive members of their society. This is evidenced by fl) the lower percentages of women in colleges,-' (2) the fact that 70% of American college women are employed in the traditionally female fields of teaching, nursing, social work, and secretarial work;' (3) that women are underrepresented in professions in which prestige and financia Ire wards a re greatest;' and (4) that even among those women who achieve the academic credentials, the rewards of academe are often less for women than for men.8

A major focus for research in recent years has been to examine the motives and beliefs of women that are relevant to achievement - those psychological dispositions that either inhibit or facilitate academic attainment. One construct that has been developed to look at the discrepancy between ability and achievement is that of "achievement motivation" by McClelland. This refers to a desire to "strive for success in any situation where standards of excellence a re applicable, that is, as a motion that is generalized across achievement areas."1 When the model is applied to white middle-class males, there is good correlation between measures of achievement motivation and actual academic performance. However, this correlation is not seen in females. Two prominent interpretations of this difference between males and females is made. One explanation proposes that in early childhood both males and females achieve to obtain social approval and fulfill affiliative needs. Males then progress developmentally to internalize the motive to do well and strive for excellence, while females continue to achieve only for affiliation and social approval.

Stein and Bailey1 propose an alternate explanation that recognizes girls' motivation to achieve, but the achievement is in areas that are different than middle-class white males, beca use of the cui turai definitions of feminine activities and interests. Because it is culturally acceptable for females to achieve in areas of social skill, it is in social situations where many females are motivated to achieve. Therefore, what has been interpreted as evidence for affiliation is, in fact, achievement motivation, but within the accepted traditional definition of t he feminine role. The authors see most women resolving the conflict between achievement motivation as it is usually defined, and prescriptions for the female role by translating their achievement into a feminine context in the area of social skills. Often those women who are motivated to achieve in traditionally male areas have had to modify the commonly held concept of femininity.

The concept of achievement motivation has been further divided into two components: hope of success and fear of failure. Hope of success refers to the motivation as described above, while fear of failure is based on the work of Horner who postulated that females avoid successful situations in which negative social consequences will accompany the success in competitive situations.9 Horner states her views well in the following passage:

Th e prevalent image of women found throughout history, amidst both scholarly and popular circles, has with few exceptions converged on the idea that femininity and indi vidual achievements which reflect intellectual competence or leadership potential are desirable but mutually exclusive goals. The aggressive and, by implication, masculins qualities inherent in a capacity for mastering intellectual problems, attacking difficulties, and making final decisions are considered fundamentally antagonistic to or incompatible with femininity.10

It is Homer's view that many capable women, when faced with the conflict between their feminine image and developing their own interests and abilities, disguise their abilities and withdraw from competition in the outside world. While there have been some inconsistencies in the "fear of success" literature, Hoffman has recently confirmed the original findings."'11,12 In addi t ion, Hoff man found fea r of success to be more prevalent among honor students than among others, and to be increasing among men.

Another area of study in which some interesting insights into the motivation for achievement have come is attribution theory. This is that branch of social psychology concerned with how people explain events in their lives through (he process of assigning causality. Research in attribution theory aimed at explaining sex differences in achievement behavior has focused on three major areas. The first of these is that males appear to have higher expectations for personal success than do females. This was borne out across many achievement areas, and even in situations where actual performance of the male was inferior. The second area of study refers to findings that males and females make different causal attributions for their own successes and failures. The most common causal attributions made by people to explain their success or failure are: effort, luck, task ease or difficulty. There is some evidence to support t he not ion that females are less likely to attribute personal success to their own efforts than men, and more likely to attribute failure to lack of ability. Both of these attributional patterns would tend to result in lowering female selfesteem,11 The third area of attributional study has to do with the expectations that others hold for male and female success or failure. In numerous studies it has been demonstrated that the work produced by women is frequently rated lower than male work of comparable quality. "The tendency seems to be that females do not expect to achieve as well as males, develop attributions that result in lower self-concept, and regardless of how well they achieve, tend to be evaluated lower than males.

The final group of studies to be explored in this paper concern those background variables that tend to enhance academic achievement for females. According to the work of Stein and Bailey, thefemalechiJdis most likely to adopt achievement-oriented behavior when her parents are "moderately warm, moderately to highly permissive, and when they reinforce and encourage achievement efforts. "The mere granting of independence will result in independence, but not necessarily achievement, unless it is accompanied by high demands, some gentle prodding, and moderate puniti veness. Stein and Bailey further s ta te that "while identification with the rtiother is usually associated with low motivation, the presence of an achieving maternal model appears to fatiiitate achieve m en t -orient ed behavior for females."1 Maternal employment in middle-class families was also found to be associated with high educational aspirations for young girls and decreased sex typing.' Barnett and Baruch11 cite a supportive father as a major element in t he uves of successful women. The work documenting the role of the male in the socialization of his children, however, is at this time quite sparse whencompared with investigations of maternal influence. Until the past decade, the literature has been more concerned with (he effects of male absence than with his presence.

It has been well established that as socioeconomic status goes up, so does college attendance. However, even among people in the same socioeconomic status, parents see it as more important for a son to attend college than for a daughter. What is encouraging is the finding from Census Bureau interviews, that as parents' educational level rises, there is less likelihood of distinguishing between the educational needs of sons and daughters.' Ethnic sta t us seems to be important only in so faras the culture limits the role of the female.

Another interesting variable in achievement motivation and performance is the role of the school environment and faculty. For example, Tangri found that college faculty members appear to be as important an influence in making career choices a s the student's own parents. Another especially interesting finding that has particular relevance for schools such as nursing, is that when a school consists of all females, the behaviors typed as feminine tend to expand, whereas the idea of nonfeminine behavior contracts. The inhibitions found in co-educational schools against female dominance in sports, high office and athletics are not found in female schools. And perhaps of greater importance is the finding that fear of success is much more prevalent in co-educational schools than in all-girl schools, and was found to be in non-existent in co-educational high schools if the girls had attended all-female elementary schools. While this paper has not addressed the process of interventions, Barnett and Baruch stress the need for schools to provide curriculum materials which present women in nontraditional ways, emphasize the importance of their contributions, and stimulate students to examine their own stereotypes.

While the preceding discussion has provided but a brief overview of research efforts to shed iight on a very complex problem, many of the findings confirm what our educational history has made clear. When one considers that over 200 years passed between the founding of Harvard College in 1636 and the admission of the first four women to Oberlin College in 1837, one is not surprised t o hear of a lag in achievement for women, and socialization behaviors that are different for males and females. I had the occasion recently to read some of the arguments presented against co-education in our own country early in this century. Many of the following arguments were still used in a standard treatise of the 1930s; their-impact is best preserved by direct quotation:

. . .women need a course of study and methods of instruction lhat take more account of their peculiar psychological nature and needs and of the special social demands that will be made upon them. Critics have also cited as arguments against co-education: the moral problems created by the free association of boys and girls in high school during the unsettled period ut early adolescence; the election by college women of [he humanistic subjects in such numbers as to drive the men from these courses on the grounds that they are "feminine stuff," thus depriving men of the libera I cui tu re that they greatly need; the difficulties created for deans of women and deans of men in coeducational universities by the round of social activities participated in by men and women who are soabsorbed in the Opposite sex that they develop no serious interest and purpose and study: the more rapid mental development of girls after the twelfth year, often resulting in superior class work on the part of girls and discouragement of the boys; competition with buys and men in meeting tKe exacting intellectual standards of high school and college, which is injurious to the health of young women.14

Sentiments such as these help to explain why women were denied the vote 60 years after it was granted to Negro males and were denied equal educational opportunity until a decade ago. There remains the nagging question of why women accepted such an inferior status for so long. Since the s t udies cited above demonstra te essentially equivalent intellectual capacity in both sexes, I must conclude that the remarkable forbearance of women in the face of such protracted discrimination can only indicate the overriding importance of early socialization.

References

  • 1. Stein A, Bailey M: The socialization of achievement-orientation in females, in Kaplan A, Bean J (eds): Beyond Sex Rale Stereotypes Reading. Toward a Phychology of Androgyny Boston, Little, Brown and Co. 1976, pp 241. 256-257.
  • 2 Mednick M, Tangri S, Hoffman L [eds): Women and Achievement. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1075.
  • 3. Cross K: Women as new students. In Mednick M, Tangri S, Hoffman L (eds): Wowen and Achievement. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1975, p 345.
  • 4. Money J, Ehrhardt A: Man and Women - Girl and Boy. Baltimore, Md, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.
  • 5. Miccoby E, Jacklin C: The Psychology if Sex Differences. Stanford. CM. Stanford University Press, 1974.
  • 6. Maccoby E: The Development of Sex Differences. Stanford, Calif. Stanford University Press, 1966, p 28.
  • 7. Tangri S: Determinants of occupational role innovation among college women, in Mednick M, Tangri S. Hoffman L ieds): Women and Achievement. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1975.
  • 8. Astin H, Boyer A: Sex discrimination in academe, in Mednick M, Tangri S, Hof finan L (eds): Wemen and Achievemnet. New York, John Wiley and Soni, 1975.
  • 9. Barnett R, Baruch C: The Campetent Women. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1078
  • 10. Horner M: Toward an understanding of achievement related conflicts in women, in Mednick M, Tangri 5S Huffman L (eds): Women and Achievement New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1975, p 206.
  • 11. Spence J, Heinireich R: Masculinity and Femininity - Their Psychologiccal Dimensions. Correlates and Antecedents. Austin, Tex, University of Texas Press, 1978.
  • 12. Hoffman L: Fear of success in male s and females: 1965 and 1971, in Medmck M, Tangri S, Hoffman L (edsi: Women and Achievement. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1975.
  • 13. Frieze I: Women's expectations for and causal attributions of success and failure, in Mednick M, Tangri S, Hoffman L (eds). Women and Achievement. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1975.
  • 14. Seligman E, Johnson A: Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. New York, Macmillan Co, 3:161, 1930

10.3928/0148-4834-19820501-09

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