Gender-Biased Learning

By Weiss, Ruth Palombo | Training & Development, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Gender-Biased Learning


Weiss, Ruth Palombo, Training & Development


Does the way we learn (and are taught) come in pink and blue?

* How gender shapes the way we learn has been studied from two main perspectives: One, the examination of sex differences in biology and the cognitive-processing approach of brain research. Two, the perspective taken by sociologists, psychologists, educators, and feminists that cultural programming matters most.

* Research shows that teachers interact with males more frequently, ask them better questions, and give them more precise and helpful feedback.

* The task for any trainer is to try to make conscious the unconscious biases. But examples of discrimination persist in adult education.

It's a girl! The most influential statement about one's development as a human being is announced at birth. Whether male or female, one's gender marks one's entire life from within and without.

"Few elements of our identities come as close to our sense of who we are as gender," says linguist Deborah Tannen in her book, Talking 9 to 5. "Perhaps it is because our sense of gender is so deeply rooted that people are inclined to hear descriptions of gender patterns as statements about gender identity--in other words, as absolute differences rather than a matter of degree and percentage, and as universal rather than culturally mediated."

How our gender shapes the way we learn, from cradle to grave, has been studied from two main perspectives. One includes the examination of sex differences in biology and the cognitive-processing approach used in current brain research. The other perspective is one taken by sociologists, psychologists, educators, and feminists. Many of them feel that although biology and hormones play a definite part in one's sense of gender identity, it is the way we are programmed culturally that matters most.

Because proponents of those two approaches don't always agree, it's important to remember when we look at both bodies of literatures to be cautious of making generalizations.

Many neuroscientists tend to look at gender as hardwired from earliest embryonic development. From Sex on the Brain by science writer Deborah Blum: "The question is, do our genes have a program in mind for each sex? Do they produce a distinct male chemistry that leaps to the fight and a distinct female [chemistry] that turns toward comfort and caution?"

Blum also writes: "If hormones do profoundly affect behavior--which I believe they do, though not all [behavior]--then they must do so as one of many cast members, not as a solo performer. Our behaviors are, in many ways, wide open to many influences: foods, drugs, injuries, and life in all of its dimensions. We can also choose to override an instinct. Think of biology and behavior as dancers: One leads, the other follows. But which does which and when?"

Blum further points out that current research in the field of biology shows complex interconnections between how genes preset our biological programs and how, in turn, our life experiences can affect genetic predisposition.

Most researchers agree that whether we have predominantly male or female hormones affecting the way our brains are formed and maintained, there are more similarities than differences between men and women.

"When women excel at 'male' activities, they are suspected of harboring some secret maleness. When men excel at 'female' activities, their maleness is suspect," writes Phyllis Burke in her book, Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female.

"The general reproductive differences in the bodies of girls and boys have not been shown to cause 'masculine' and 'feminine' behaviors, although the behaviors that girls and boys are encouraged to perform can make parts of their brains more responsive or cause their motor skills, both fine and gross, to develop along different paths."

The silent majority

Not surprisingly, boys and girls (and later, men and women) are clearly influenced in the ways they learn--by their brain chemistry and by society. …

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