'I am looking for [help] with my A-level Sociology coursework...especially on subject choice...and why girls don't choose physics' (writes Sara from England)

'Have you anything on gender and educational inequality, especially on [early school] likes and dislikes,..toys, jobs etc?' (writes Jenny from England)

This topic is also well discussed in many of the standard textbooks, but a bit unevenly and a bit oddly. Thus Haralambos and Holborn (1990), or Barnard and Burgess (1996) have good sections specifically on gender and educational achievement. However, rather strangely, the section on education is treated almost entirely as a sort of empirical matter and not linked very well to the other admirable sections on gender generally, or gender in the family or work sections. This is especially odd in the Bilton et al (1996) classic, written by a team that includes a prominent feminist (M Stanworth) and which has good sections on genderas an organising pespective in the theory and methodology chapters.

So, one suggestion is to take the material specifically on gender in education, but to read up the topics more widely and generally in the other relevant chapters as well. As before, I'll try to show how this might be done via my own glosses and interests:

Early work focused on female underachievement in the formal education system, which was (finally) considered to be as much of a 'dysfunctional' outcome as underachievement by working class kids ( see file on connections between educational policy and functionalist models of stratification). If the educational reforms of the period in Britain after World War 2 were designed to make sure the most talented kids got to the highest levels of achievement, we would expect as many girls as boys to hit those levels -- selective schools, sixth-form, examination success, university entrance or whatever. This was clearly not the case in the 1950s and 1960s. These gender differences began to be explained initially using the same sort of factors that had been used to explain working-class underachievement.

1. Early theories suggested that females were not as able or as intelligent as males, and there is still a lot of stuff around on relative brain sizes or supposedly innate cognitive limits. There are obvious objections to this view too, of course -- such as that the tests of intelligence are likely to be value-laden. Equally, there is a methodological problem, one which runs through all the work on gender that involves biological explanations - biological accounts are reductionist in that they try to reduce a number of complex social differences to one simple set of biological differences (always a suspicious move). At the common-sense level it is easy enough to equate obvious biological differences with social ones, but there are problems. It is not as if there are just simple divisions between men and women in this matter -- some women do achieve in education, some achieve better than men in some subjects, or in some environments (there was early excitement in the discovery that women did better than men at the UK Open University, for example- see Harris 1987). All these complexities are enhanced by research that shows that social class and ethnicity also have an effect on attainment -- that 'women' are not just one grouping of people but are subdivided into various important subcategories (thus the OU excitement evaporated somewhat when it was discovered that the successful women were also middle class and well-educated ones).

Further, as with debates about intelligence and 'race', biologistic arguments are often invoked as an 'argument of residues' -- the differences between men and women on some measure cannot be explained entirely by the known social factors (income or parental education), and so the residual factor must be biological. This is weak because we know there may be other factors, as yet unknown, and it is also poor biology: a proper biological explanations, you could argue, should really have a much stronger component than that, such as some genetic link, perhaps.

2. Cultural circumstances connected with the home and the family might be relevant. We know of all the work on parental attitudes as a major variable in working -class underachievement ( see my file ), and it is easy to apply this to work on gender. Thus girls especially might be the object of low parental ambitions or low levels of parental interest (since they were once expected to get married quickly and not have a career). Here we have also a strong tradition of feminist work on the family to draw upon, even though it is not customary to do so in the chapters on education in A-level texts. Thus 'traditional' families were also highly structured in terms of rigid gender roles, where women and girls were expected to do much of the unpaid domestic labour -- not only is this time-consuming and fatiguing but it is also demeaning and hardly likely to lead to high ambitions, it could be argued. The same might be said, of course, for typical paid women's work, notoriously offering poorer pay and conditions than men's work (look up the data in any edition of Social Trends). Thus the debates about whether or not modern families are becoming more 'symmetrical' has a significance for educational debates too -- and still needs investigation.

3. Other cultural factors have also been identified -- the peer group and the wider commercial popular culture. There has been some work on the nature of female peer groups, for example, and whether or not they might be seen as sources of high self-esteem and high ambition (see Delamont 1994) for a review). The usual view might be that girls 'hold each other back' in some way by maintaining  traditional 'girly' values like attractiveness to the opposite sex or developing some sort of appealing vulnerability. Work on female bullying, and just one study I shall cite below might support this view, but, as you can imagine, it is not a popular one with feminist writers, who have done much to develop a more positive, supportive view of female peer groups. It is still worthy of research, of course!

One element of agreement in the more posittive work seems to be that boys form more openly-hostile oppositional peer groups (or 'subcultures') at home and in school, and use them to 'resist' the labels which schools offer them (see below). In doing so, of course, boys often embrace strong 'masculinist' orientations which unfortunately increases their negative views of women too (see Willis 1977). However, writers like MacRobbie have seen considerable strengths in the apparently passive and conformist elements of girls' social groups -- such as the 'bedroom culture' she studied (in Hall and Jefferson 1976), or the all-girl groups at local dances (in McRobbie and Nava 1984). More specifically at school, classics like Fuller (in Hammersley and Woods 1984) or Mac an Ghaill (in Woods and Hammersley 1993) indicate that (black and Asian) girls are quite capable of achieving well by managing a clever compromise between 'accommodation' to the ore useful and helpful school values and yet 'resistance' to the more conservative or problematic ones (of which, more below).

Work on popular culture is also substantial here. Early classics pointed to the gendered nature of toys (eg Sharpe 1976), where girls played with dolls and boys with 'action' toys. Even 'educational' toys reproduced this kind of division of labour. This may be changing nowadays -- but I still get funny looks from some of my relatives when I buy their daughters Lego instead of My Little Ponies. There is, I am sure, an enormous amount of work on this, much of it on the Web if you wanted to pursue it -- the controversies over Barbie, for example, (eg see http://www.adiosbarbie.com/) and whether she encourages or exaggerates the traditional views of women. To update the material a bit, you might also consider reading some of the stuff on electronic games -- Gray (1992) for example, who argues that electronic games embrace a strongly gendered technology, or even Kinder (1991) who launches a general assault on electronic games (and much of kids' TV too). Her work links nicely to discussions of postmodernism and whether it has left behind the old divisions of class and gender -- 'postmodern' TV programmes (like Muppet Babies) are experimental in almost every other respect, says Kinder, but still offer conventional gender roles.

Then there is, of course, film and television. Here, there has been much work on gender, much of it interesting as well in that it teaches us how to analyse things like toys and their promotional advertising, or reading schemes and the representations they use. I can't do much more than offer a crash course in feminist media studies here, but you can check some of the media files on this site if you want to follow up. Anyway, main factors for feminist work include:

Representations of women on TV or in film. Media women are usually rather traditional -- dumb blondes, dangerously flirty brunettes, tarts, nuns or mothers (or one of the many minor variants). Women play the emotional roles, they care, empathise, support and fall in love -- even sensible career women irrationally fall in love at the drop of a hat and give it all up for a man. Where do you see ordinary, sensible, clever, strong or ambitious women -- if you are lucky, in things like soap operas or melodramas or other 'ghetto areas' (see Geraghty 1991, or so the argument goes. This sort of stereotyping might arise from a number of sources -- the straightforward biases or material interests of the men who control the media, perhaps -- or they might lie deeper in our culture, so that a pretty blonde woman with a large bosom has become a convenient and powerful sign for 'sexual threat', and showing one adds immediate layers of meaning that just do not have to be spelled out in words. Of course, you might want to contrast this traditional view with more recent representations of women -- female athletes, sportswomen, female newsreaders, high-profile anchorwomen and reporters and the like, or feisty women in film (like Thelma and Louise?) -- but do these really drastically contradict or overthrow the conventional views?

Narratives are also important -- the stories that are commonly told in films and TV programmes and whether or not they centre on women, women's interests, women's emotions, women's dilemmas and the like. What part do women typically play? According to one famous account (Mulvey 1982) they are objects in narratives and only rarely subjects - they are there to be looked at, to be the object of the 'male gaze', while all the central characters, and the point of view of the film itself, very often, are male. Of course, there are exceptions again -- strong females who refuse to remain as mere objects for male gazes and who are 'narrative stoppers' who exceed the limits of their role (Marilyn Monroe or Mae West are the usual cases). Finally, we know from other allied work, that narratives can have the power to convey values (or ideologies) to audiences in particularly sneaky ways, by pretending to be 'neutral' or 'realistic' while quietly privileging one dominant view (see my file on 'realism' ).

Now this general approach has been applied in several distinct areas, as well as mainstream Hollywood movies like Bond films ( files on this too ), that you might like to explore for this project -- kids' TV I have already mentioned (and there is famous work like that on the British TV series Blue Peter), or how about Disney movies? (see Bell et al 1995). There is some classic work on teenage girls' magazines like Jackie (see McRobbie in Waites et al 1981) Music videos or music TV could be another example. Kids watch this a lot -- and what images of women or what stories depicting women do they see? A number of writers like Kaplan (1987) have mentioned the terribly conventional pictures of women in such videos, despite all the highly epxerimental nature of the genre, while others have also found 'resistance' again, usually in the more experimental pieces, including, famously, Madonna videos (see Fiske 1989 for an example of how Madonna fans have used Madonna videos to develop their own empowering versions of femininity). Again, much of this needs researching further and in a more recent framework.

I have suggested that work in media studies offers a basic kind of approach to all elements of popular culture --you could look at the representations and narratives in advertising, window displays in shops, theme parks, supermarkets and shopping malls or wherever you please. Of course, you might need to think about both the methodology and some controversies about this work

The methodology in media studies is probably not what you are used to in Sociology, and much of the analysis in films turns on rather 'literary' forms of comment that looks far more like English, or poetry criticism, than anything social scientific. What counts as a good analysis? One that convinces you subjectively? One that seems to explain the text more fully? One that adds to your pleasure? One major problem with much of the work is that it tends to suggest there is   ONE  'dominant' or 'centred' or 'preferred' reading of the film, the one uncovered by the analyst using various combinations of personal insight and various theoretical or political commitments. But will all viewers see the same meanings? Will 'ordinary' viewers be influenced as much by the dominant meanings as the critics usually infer? Will films deemed sexist or patriarchal (or liberating) by critics actually affect viewers and make them (more) sexist or patriarchal or liberated?

Media studies these days has its doubts. We have discovered the 'active viewer', who is quite capable of detecting and resisting sinister ideological meanings in films or TV programmes, just as they resist, for some researchers, the sexist assumptions of the school (see below). Women viewers view Dallas ironically, for example, knowing it has ultra-conventional depictions of women, but not for one moment taking these depictions seriously (according to Ang's famous study 1985). Alternatively, women can find some personal, important and supportive meanings in films and TV programmes designed to simply reproduce stereotypes -- the so-called 'redemptive' readings of soap operas or melodramas, where strong women come through, or where wild men get domesticated in the end, where a whole series of looks and glances can be interpreted by those skilled in reading emotional subtexts (Gledhill 1987). In these circumstances, it is no surprise that the whole project of offering 'centred' readings of films, somehow on behalf of the actual viewers, has experienced methodological problems. Audience research now seems essential -- although it is still hard to do. Still -- we'll come back to this point in a minute.

4. So -- we have done families and subcultures or audiences. Let's get on to school factors in their own right. Just as with the work on working class underachievement, the attention of researchers shifted to look critically at schools. This sort of research is not at all popular, usually, with teachers, I should warn you. Students encounter pressures at school which prevent them from achieving to their full potential, it was argued. Two factors were identified especially:

Teacher expectations were held to be vital in motivating students (see my general account here . Kids were supposed to change their behaviour according to the expectations teachers held of them -- if teachers expected females to do well they often did, but if they had low expectations, kids tended to underachieve. Many famous studies then ensued, first to examine teacher expectations and then to investigate the effects of these expectations and how they were transmitted. Let me summarise some findings pretty quickly:
Teachers do have different expectations of their kids, based on social judgements that they make, reflecting their own culture and background. These can be revealed by surveys or ethnographic research. However, teachers also have particular ways of testing and assessing kids' achievements and a professional commitment to 'treat each child as an individual' which might outweigh their prejudices (to cite a current dispute). Further, we might expect teacher expectations or prejudices, to use a nastier word, to be complex -- one might believe generally that girls are worth less effort than boys, but still  do everything possible to encourage one particular girl, just as some people do not like black people in the abstract, but would not dream of being nasty to an actual contact who happens to be black (and vice versa, of course)
The real task has been to find a transmission mechanism for these expectations. If teachers successfully keep their expectations to themselves and appear convincingly to treat everyone equally, there is no problem. However, teachers transmit their expectations in classroom behaviour. A number of studies have looked at teacher-pupil interaction, for example, and noticed that there is a connection between high expectations and a willingness to interact (see the classic Brophy and Good study in Hammersley 1986a -- it is also worth noticing that this correlation was not found again when Brophy and Good repeated the study!). Interaction includes permitting some students to initiate more topics in classroom discussion or to 'take turns' (see French and French in Woods and Hammersley 1993). Stanworth (in  Hargreaves and Woods 1984) merely describes some aspects of classrom interaction, it is true, but she looked rather carefully at teacher's views, asking if teachers normally used sex as a discriminator among pupils (they did), checking to see which student names were familiar to teachers (more males than females),and gathering predictions about likely careers (again largely conventional in terms of gender). Others have looked at informal grouping or streaming practices within schools, so that 'good' pupils get to sit together at a few 'good' tables (see Rogers in Hammersley 1986a). Of course, these measures have been rather crude and ambiguous -- is it always of benefit to be interacted with by teachers? In general, 'interaction' is rather difficult to study in much more detail or subtlety, although much might depend on a look or a tone of voice.
The other main factor has been curriculum choice (which became important before the National Curriculum and before the Sex Discrimination Act limited the 'choices' available). Here, girls chose particular subjects (languages, arts) and left others unchosen (notoriously science and engineering). Some early work (e.g. Samuel's two pieces in Whyld 1983) identified a male bias in science syllabi, with science applied mainly to 'male' examples (which often assume a good deal of experience in 'tinkering' with metal wood and hand tools, says Samuel), while later work confirms the notion we explored earlier -- that personal computers are seen as 'boys' toys'. As a result, substantial efforts were made in some schools to attract girls into science subjects -- the usual formula included (a) a high-powered but conventionally attractive female science teacher, pictures and drawings of female scientists and so on (b) 'girl-friendly' examples (the thermodynamics of cooking, perhaps, or the mixing of liquids  illustrated by using not petrol and water but vinegar and French dressing in another of Samuel's examples)) (c) some policy to positively advantage girls in the actual classroom -- e.g.taking care to stop the boys pushing to the front to take charge of the scientific apparatus or computer.

There is much to investigate here too, though. Measor (in Hammersley and Woods 1984) found, for example that girls wanted to be conventionally girly in science lessons, that they found it necessary to dislike science in order to have the chance to show they were 'proper girls'. Their commonly-voiced 'reasons' for disliking science should really be read as rationalisations -- they weren't really afraid of the apparatus, since, after all, they had coped perfectly well with equally dangerous apparatus in domestic science lessons, for example. I couldn't help thinking of a kind of opposite case (not researched yet to my knowledge) -- why boys seem to dislike languages: my own son and his friends disliked the examples where they were to speak French (shopping , or writing personal descriptions of yourself for mythical penfriends), and they disliked the whole ambience of French lessons which involved a lot of public speech (very uncool for an English male adolescent).

We are talking here of suggested unpredictable  'audience reactions' again, of course. Despite the best intentions of teachers and course designers, the members of the audience are imposing their own meanings and values on what they are doing. If this is typical, it suggests that very little will be achieved in policies aimed at gender equality in schools -- girls and boys will always find in lessons a chance to expose their differences, try as the school might to suppress those differences. Perhaps this is why some feminists have advocated entirely single-sex teaching -- but even here I have my doubts about whether it would work, given the influence of factors outside schools.

Finally there is one major uninvesitgated area -- assessment and marking practices. This is still the 'secret garden' of education. It seems OK if we are talking about major public examinations, like GCSEs or A-levels, where candidates are anonymous. Here, students can succeed despite low opinions of them in their actual schools -- indeed this is what the black girls in Fuller's study relied upon, knowing that they could risk a certain level of disapproval from their teachers as along as they did well in their exams. However, much less is known about the processes of informal assessment and 'judgements' in secondary schools (or, indeed, in universities and colleges where there are no equivalents to the public exams of school life). Here, it is interesting to see the A-level texts relying upon some work on France, by Bourdieu. Bourdieu (1988) makes it clear that gender is indeed one of the factors that affect the (largely unconscious) judgements that educational insitutions make of their students. It is also true, he suggests that parents invest less cultural capital in their female children, producing a complex picture where class, gender and cosmopolitanism affect your chances of success. What we now need is a British Bourdieu to see if the same factors affect us.

Concluding comments

So far we have considered the factors as a kind of list of variables, based, as we began by arguing, on the parallels with work on working class underachievement. For many feminists, I suspect, this would be a dubious procedure. The argument is that the experience of women is much more of a totality that cannot be really broken down into separate and distinct 'variables' like this, as in 'malestream' Sociology (se the discussion in Bilton et al 1996 ch.5). Instead, we need to consider these factors as combining into a total experience for women, a whole cycle of events that affect them -- some will be working at school, others in their families of origin, others in theoir peer groups and so on. A distinctive project therefore suggests itself -- to look at how these and other factors are integrated into the life-cycle of actual women or girls via the actual experience of such women and girls. The methodology here would involve some sort of open-ended life-history approach,using perhaps the most famous technique -- the ethnographic diary or journal, with the researcher as a collaborator and participant in analysing the events of the daily cycle.

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