Student Well-Being

Rivers and Barnett Debunk Toxic Gender Stereotypes

By Catherine A. Cardno — March 23, 2012 2 min read
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Remember the old Mother Goose rhyme “What Are Little Boys Made of?” The answer, “Snaps and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails,” is juxtaposed with the ingredients for little girls: “Sugar and spice, and all that’s nice."**

According to recent studies, this often-quoted cliché pointing to so-called “innate” differences between boys and girls is not actually biologically driven.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett have published a book, The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (Columbia University Press, 2011) in which they take on the idea, popularized (as they say) by the media, that “there is a scientific consensus that boys and girls are profoundly different from birth, and that these differences have huge consequences for aptitude and performance in such areas as math and verbal abilities, for how the sexes communicate, for the careers for which they should aim, and for the kinds of classrooms they should attend.”

The truth, as Rivers (a journalism professor at Boston University) and Barnett (a senior scientist at Brandeis University) explain it, is that “girls and boys are far more alike than different in their cognitive abilities and the differences that do exist are trivial.” This is an issue that they have addressed previously in the online pages of Education Week, in an August 2011 Commentarythat discussed the differences between sex and gender and the concept of raising a so-called “genderless” child, and in a February 2012 Commentaryin which they argue that science doesn’t support single-sex classrooms.

According to the pair, single-sex classrooms, gender differentiated curriculum, and parenting strategies are forcing boys and girls into predetermined, stereotyped gender roles. As they write, “We now know that the young brain is not something that is formed at birth and always remains the same. New pathways are constantly being laid down and others are being destroyed.”

Indeed, the authors pull out the big guns and state unequivocally in the Introduction that “Today, parents and educators are being fed a diet of junk science that is at best a misunderstanding of the research and at worst what amounts to a deliberate fraud on the American public.” Their aim is to rectify this misconception that girls and boys are hardwired differently, and in a manner that predetermines their abilities in various fields.

As they say, “The education of our children is too important to the future of our nation to allow this situation to go unchallenged.”

I’m curious to hear what you all think.

The crucial details:

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (Columbia University Press, 2011)
ISBN: 978-0-231-15162-7

**Those, at least, those are the words in the 1916 version I dug up (Thank you Project Gutenberg!)

Photo by Lewis W. Hine: Girl and boys selling papers in Wilmington, Delaware (May 1910). Library of Congress image # LC-DIG-nclc-03612.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.