The Effects of Stereotypes on Success in School
Competency development in children
Many people, especially parents who have children of different genders, believe that gender stereotypes are traits their children are born with. According to this logic, girls are naturally kind and sensitive, are instinctively inclined to take care of others and are fond of the colour pink. Boys, on the other hand, are supposedly all independent, competitive, logical, reckless and aggressive.
The brains of boys and girls are similar at birth and develop in accordance with each person’s experience and learning, not on the basis of biological sex. While there are sometimes differences between boys’ and girls’ performances on certain tests, these can be explained by education and habits.
Moreover, studies have shown that boys who choose games that are typically the preserve of girls develop the competencies that go along with these games.
Behavioural differences between the sexes are explained, rather, by differences in gender-based educational practices. While boys spend more time on video games and building blocks (88% of building block sets purchases are for boys), girls lean more toward role playing and playing with dolls. The choices children make are based on what society expects of them, even if it often seems that they choose intuitively. It also seems that such choice differences become more firmly established as children grow up.
It is through toys and activities that children develop the competencies required for success in school, such as spatial perception, concentration, dexterity, creativity and imagination. When toys are divided into “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys,” children do not have the same opportunities for development and success. Hence, it is important to encourage them to explore a range of activities, so that they can diversify their knowledge and learn new skills.
Stereotypes in school subjects
There is a widespread belief that girls are better at language than boys, and that boys are better in math. This stems from stereotypes claiming that boys are more rational, Cartesian and therefore more gifted in science, and that girls are more emotional and creative and therefore better in the arts and literature.
Even if everything seems to suggest that it is natural, this difference is explained not only by differences in education but also by the fact that society has different expectations based on gender. Many adults think that girls do not have the natural ability to succeed in mathematics, so they encourage girls to consider careers outside the field of science. As a result, girls are more anxious about science subjects and more easily lose the motivation to continue in them. The situation is similar for boys, who generally have more problems in language because they associate the subject with girls and are therefore less likely to take an interest in it. Believing that one is “naturally” less capable of doing something can actually make it harder for students to stay in school.
Another widespread belief is that school is more suited to girls and that, consequently, girls do better there. In fact, the stereotypical education offered to girls tends to prepare them for school. From early childhood, they are praised when they are calm, attentive and industrious. They are also encouraged more strongly to communicate and to value reading as a “girl’s activity.” When they assimilate these stereotypes, they have a head start in reading and writing, which fosters success in the other subjects.
In short, since boys and girls are encouraged from birth to develop different competencies based on sex, it is possible that their results in these two subjects differ. Moreover, young people tend to become more involved in activities they are familiar with, and in which they feel competent.
Therefore, it is important to adapt education to the personality and ability of each student, in order to encourage them in their studies. Each student must be encouraged in the subjects that they can master with a certain degree of ease, without letting gender stereotypes limit or orient their choices. To achieve this, they should also be encouraged to discover and develop competencies normally associated with the other sex.
Many studies have shown that gender stereotypes can have an impact not only on motivation and academic performance but also on career choices later in life.
Effects on academic success
In elementary school, learning difficulties and behavioural problems are more common among boys than they are among girls. The school intervenes, therefore, specifically to help boys. However, intervention must not reinforce existing stereotypes. For example, instead of creating a “boy’s section” in the class library, it is better to create thematic sections that can interest everybody: Adventure, Animals and Nature, Mystery, etc.
If you work in an educational institution, you can answer the following questionnaire to help you evaluate your teaching practices: Does your teaching promote gender equality?
Diversity among teaching staff
We often hear that the high proportion of women teachers has a negative impact on boys’ success. There is no evidence for this. Several decades ago, boys were already dropping out more often than girls, and this was in the collèges classiques, where most of the teachers were men. Various studies indicate that the number of women in teaching is not a factor in why boys drop out.
However, we should still aim for greater diversity in the teaching staff in order to provide students with different role models. This is important in enabling students to feel that they are not limited in their choice of career, regardless of gender.
Effects on girls of dropping out of school
The gap between the dropout rates of girls and boys has dropped by half in recent years. Without underestimating the effects of dropping out on boys, it is important to keep in mind that the consequences of dropping out are greater and more long-lasting for girls than they are for boys.
The jobs available to girls who leave school without graduating pay much less than the jobs available to male dropouts. Female dropouts often have service jobs, while their male counterparts tend to work in the manufacturing sector, where salaries are higher. For example, during the period 2017-2019, the median hourly salary of a hairdresser was around $15, while that of a tile setter was around $34.75. Yet both jobs require roughly the same level of education.
In 2017 in Québec, the hourly wage of women without a university degree was 80% of that of men without a degree. The more education a woman has, the lower the wage gap: a woman with a university degree will typically earn 90.7% of the average hourly salary of a man in the same situation. Still, despite having the same level of education, women are paid less than men.
Note too that, even though boys tend to drop out in greater numbers than girls, more of them return to school before the age of 25.5 In fact, the more time that goes by, the less likely girls are to resume their studies.
Also, reasons for dropping out are not the same for boys and girls. According to a study conducted with young Canadians, compared to young women, twice as many young men said they quit school because they wanted to, or needed to, work; young women, on the other hand, were four times more likely to have quit school for personal reasons, such as taking care of a child or preparing to do so, or to deal with health problems or problems at home.
Since staying in school is a key element in ensuring gender equality, girls must be encouraged to continue their studies until they graduate.
Advice for stimulating the love of learning
As adults, we must listen to what children have to say, encourage them and support them along their path through school. Here are a few practical tips:
- Encourage children to play with all sorts of toys regardless of any associated stereotypes. This will further the development of the full range of children’s competencies.
- Avoid placing girls and boys in different play areas; be careful not to use colours in a stereotypical manner to separate the children into a girls’ play area and a boys’ play area.
- Since girls often feel that they are not as good at math as boys, support and encourage them in this subject.
- Boys are often less enthusiastic about English and reading; help them to discover how much fun these subjects can be from an early age.
- Avoid transmitting sexual stereotypes by saying, for example, that girls write better or more neatly; and intervene if you hear others making such remarks.
- Offer children activities that cover various areas of interest without saying that they are either for girls or for boys.
- Focus on differences between individuals rather than on gender differences: remember that everybody is strong in some areas, instead of saying that boys perform better in physical education or that girls are quieter.
- Make sure that girls are not always the ones put in the position of offering help.
- If you work in a school, keep track of the time allotted to boys and girls for speaking or expressing themselves in a group; balance this out if necessary.
For more information on success in school and at work, go to the jobs of the future website, or to the page entitled The Effects of Stereotypes on Success in School.