A Q&A with the Author of Why Gender Matters, and What He Thinks is the Future of Child Development

Here’s why Dr. Leonard Sax thinks acknowledging the two sexes in school curriculums will lead to a better future for everyone.

There is a gender gap that permeates our society in obvious as well as subtle ways—notice the imbalance through a disparity in wages, personal-care product marketing, and even the way children’s toys are designed. Both parents and the education system continue to ask “How can we fix this so that everyone is on an equal playing field?”

Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, wants to start at what he thinks is the root of the issue. He argues that the origins of this rift come from the current education system that does not acknowledge nor adapt to the biological differences between the two sexes. “Every child is unique,” he wrote. “I’m not saying that all boys are the same or that all girls are the same. But the fact that each child is unique and complex should not blind us to the fact that gender is one of the two great organizing principles in child development—the other principle being age.” One example Sax shares is the way that boys and girls process and express emotions, which can translate into communication issues in school.

It’s an uncommon and lesser known theory when it comes to raising a well-educated and well-rounded next generation, especially as more people are working toward strengthening co-educational environments and letting go of binary constructs of gender.

To help clarify Sax’s theory and research, and what he means exactly by the possibly polarizing title of “Why Gender Matters,” here is a Q&A conducted with the author.

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Books for Better Living (BBL): Based on the research you cite in your book, the sexes learn differently. Does it make sense then for parents to send their children to single-sex schools?

Dr. Leonard Sax: I’m a little uncomfortable with the statement that “the sexes learn differently.” Cognitive differences between girls and boys are very small; but differences in motivation are large. That’s a fancy way of saying that there are only small differences between girls and boys in what they can do, but big differences between girls and boys in what they want to do.

If teachers don’t understand those differences, the result is boys who think Jane Eyre and Emily Dickinson are for girls and girls who think computer coding is for boys. I lead workshops for teachers, sharing what I have learned from my visits to more than 400 schools over the past sixteen years. I’ve learned that girls can be just as interested in computer coding as boys are, and they do just as well in it as the boys (or better, even), but you have to know how to get the girls interested. Likewise, I’ve learned that boys can be just as interested in Jane Eyre and Emily Dickinson as the girls are, but you have to know how to get the boys interested. I share some of the strategies I’ve learned in chapter 5 of Why Gender Matters.

The single-sex classroom format is one strategy among many that can be deployed to help teachers accomplish these objectives. However, I’ve learned that just putting boys in a room without girls doesn’t necessarily accomplish anything good, and can actually lead to bad outcomes if the teachers don’t have training in how to use the all-boys format to broaden educational horizons and break down gender stereotypes. And likewise for girls. I’ve been at all-girls schools, such as Korowa in Melbourne, Australia, which are astonishingly effective in getting almost every girl interested in physics. But I have also seen how many of those strategies, pioneered at girls’ schools, can be deployed successfully in coed schools.

The goal isn’t to have more single-sex schools. The goal is to have more teachers who understand gender differences and who know how to use that understanding to help every girl and every boy to fulfill their potential. Coed schools can do this!

BBL: How do you see a learning curriculum and environment more tailored for each gender’s learning strengths that will eventually break down the gender stereotypes?

Sax: I’ve seen this first-hand, in many of the schools I’ve worked with over the past sixteen years. There’s no “eventually” about it: it’s happening right now. When teachers understand how to use these boy-friendly strategies, the same boy who loves football also loves Emily Dickinson and Jane Eyre. The same girl who loves fashion design also loves computer coding and physics.

BBL: How do teachers/parents differentiate between gender-based information that may be helpful towards child development and gender-based information that is rooted in the justification and preservation of traditional sex roles?

Sax: I encounter this confusion all the time. I will say something like, “There are hardwired differences between girls and boys, and those differences have implications for best practices in the classroom.” Some critics will then say, “Oh, you’re claiming that girls aren’t as good at computers as boys are, and boys aren’t as good at writing as girls are.” No, I’m not saying anything of the sort. I’m saying that the best way to get girls excited about physics is different from the best way to get boys excited about physics. In the new edition of Why Gender Matters, I show how some of those differences may be traceable to hardwired female/male differences in the human visual system. That doesn’t mean that boys are better physicists than girls; it doesn’t mean that girls are better poets than boys. But, for historical reasons, the way we now teach physics in the United States tends to favor boys, just as the way we now teach poetry in the United States tends to favor girls. If you want to break down those barriers and broaden horizons for both girls and boys, you need to understand these differences.

But you asked how teachers and parents can tell the difference between people who are trying to use “gender-based information” to expand horizons vs. people who are trying to justify and preserve traditional sex roles. The simplest answer is to read what the person is saying. It’s usually pretty clear what the writer is trying to do. James Damore (the ex-Google programmer who wrote a viral memo in July about women in technology), like Harvard president Larry Summers before him, made no secret of his belief that women are, on average, innately less capable of excelling in technology. He chose to cite only those papers that supported his position. It’s not clear that he was even aware of other research that contradicts his position. After all, Mr. Damore has acknowledged that he wrote the memo on a twelve-hour flight to China.

BBL: Has political correctness done more harm than good when it comes to discussing gender as it relates to child development?

Sax: I think it depends in part by what you mean by “political correctness.” There is certainly a brand of political correctness in the United States that maintains gender is just a social construct, something that society invents; that we should encourage all boys to play with dolls, and all girls to play with trucks; and that any boy who wants to play dodgeball, or any girl who wants to play with dolls, should be directed toward more androgynous activities. I do encounter this type of political correctness all across the United States. It’s based on several assumptions about gender, every one of which turns out to be incorrect. Some of those assumptions are

1. Gender is just a social construct, something humans invent. In Why Gender Matters, I use several lines of evidence to show that assumption just isn’t accurate. One line of evidence comes from research with other primates, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and monkeys. Many of the female/male differences we observe in our species have now also been documented in chimpanzees, gorillas, and monkeys. But monkeys don’t spend much time watching TV or looking at Instagram. So it’s hard to argue that the sex differences we observe in monkeys are caused by sexist bias in human cultures.

2. If we encourage boys to play with dolls, boys will become more nurturing. Actually, we now have good longitudinal studies in which researchers followed families where boys were encouraged to play with dolls compared with neighboring families where boys were not encouraged to play with dolls. Boys who were encouraged to play with dolls did not become more nurturing. No benefit was seen on any parameter. And, most boys who were encouraged to play with dolls did not play with them in the same way that girls play with dolls. They didn’t dress them or cuddle them. Instead, the boys were more likely to use the dolls as weapons or as projectiles.

3. Androgyny is the ideal. “Androgyny” means “a roughly equal mix of feminine and masculine.” I devote a big chunk of chapter 12 of the revised edition of Why Gender Matters to exploring where this assumption came from, why it’s so pervasive today, and whether it’s accurate. It turns out that androgyny is not ideal for most girls or most boys. Every child is unique. But there is no benefit, and there may be harm, in telling a very feminine girl that she’s not allowed to take ballet, that she has to play soccer instead. There is no benefit, and there may be harm, in telling a masculine boy that he’s not allowed to play soccer, he has to learn to knit and do macramé instead.

As I write in chapter 12 of Why Gender Matters: “We’re all a mix. A particular girl might be more masculine than she is feminine, while a particular boy might be more feminine than he is masculine. Differences do not imply an order of rank. A feminine girl isn’t better or worse than a masculine girl (a tomboy). They’re just different. We should celebrate those differences. They expand the range of human experience, making all of us more three-dimensional, more real. In my own marriage, my wife fixes the lawn tractor and does most of the outdoor chores, while I shop for groceries. I like to shop for groceries, and she doesn’t. She enjoys fixing the tractor, while I wouldn’t know where to begin. But she has a much better eye for colors than I do, and I am better at targeting a moving object than she is. People are a mix.”

Gender is complicated. Four of the twelve chapters in Why Gender Matters are devoted to exploring the variations: gender-nonconforming (what we used to call “tomboy” and “sissy”); lesbian, gay, and bisexual; transgender; and intersex. Gender is complex. But just because gender is complex, doesn’t mean that gender doesn’t matter.





Photo Credit: PeopleImages/iStock



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