The New York Times’s Upshot blog reported on Tuesday that the “behavior gap” (which includes a combination of cognitive and social skills) between boys and girls when they start kindergarten is even bigger than the gap between high- and low-income children. In short, girls, on average, start kindergarten with better behavioral skills – attentiveness, control, and task persistence, among others – that can lead to greater academic achievement. Perhaps, then, this may be part of why women are outpacing men in degree attainment at all levels of higher education.
How should we understand the differences between these girls and boys starting kindergarten – differences that many fear will translate into life-long disadvantages for some at the expense of others? Is there really a “boy crisis”?
Some argue that this early female advantage is due to biological differences between men and women, boys and girls. It’s understandable why people like to appeal to our genetic and hormonal differences, namely because it absolves us of any sort of social responsibility. But like all forms of knowledge, biology too is socially constructed, and no less so when addressing gender differences. While individual parents often claim that they treat their boy and girl children exactly the same, social science research shows that is not the case. It starts in infancy, as girls are described by their parents as more delicate while infant boys are described as stronger, even in the absence of any observable differences. In preschool, girls are encouraged to behave differently than boys; for example,e girls are much more likely to be told to raise their hands before speaking than boys are.
This matters because succeeding in school is not just about reading, writing, and arithmetic. Our educational system also contains a hidden curriculum that prepares people to eventually enter the workforce. Doing well in elementary school certainly requires cognitive skills, but it also requires a mastery of the body. Even a child genius won’t do well if he cannot sit still, listen to the teacher, wait to use the restroom, or stay awake when class gets boring. The same factors that can help students do well in school – in particular self-control and putting the interests of others before one’s own – are also traits that are associated with femininity. The problem isn’t single mothers, or that girls are grabbing too much of the pie, but that we don’t teach boys in most contexts that getting good grades is just as cool as being good at sports, or that being a good listener is just as important as speaking the loudest.
Even so, once boys and girls leave school, the advantages that girls have in elementary school do not translate into better outcomes in the workplace. The same traditionally feminine characteristics that may help girls in school also end up translating into traditionally feminine jobs centered around nurturing, service, and taking care of other people’s needs. These jobs pay less than those that are centered on independence and toughness. Women are more likely to end up in just a few female dominated occupations and are more likely to be concentrated in low-wage work. Women on average still earn less than their male counterparts, even when they have the same levels of education and similar jobs.
And those same learned traits also feed into the notion that women should be the ones who take on the majority of family caregiving which, when coupled with our nation’s lack of workplace policies to address work-life fit, has negative repercussions for potential earnings and career trajectories.
We should be concerned about the behavior gap between young children who are just starting out in school. Not because it results in women having a leg up in the world and leaving men in the dust, because the data shows that is clearly not the case. But it does show that the way we teach boys to be men – which means above all else not being like women – has negative repercussions that can and do coexist with male privilege.
Sarah Jane Glynn is Associate Director for Women’s Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.