Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How Do You Talk to Students About Gender Differences?

John N. Gardner

This posting is occasioned by my happening to do a pro bono presentation this week to a group of high school, college bound, high SES, private school, students. Topic was college choice and accomplishing this in a partnership with family, school, and self. It is impossible, of course, to talk about selecting a college without talking about the college experience itself. And when I think about the most striking components of the college experience I can’t help but mentally noting and usually commenting on, how that experience differs significantly by gender.

And when I do mention that, it usually gets the college bound students’ attention. Of course, I have often discussed this with currently enrolled college students. Like many higher educators, I am concerned about the many evidences of under performance by our males. Other than reporting that factually, there are many questions about how one might deal with this topic constructively with the students themselves.
I do start by describing what we know empirically about performance differences and some of the data about how the genders experience college differently. I try not to do this judgmentally or with anything remotely approaching scare tactics. I certainly don’t want to set up negative predictions for the males, nor do I want to over reassure the females about their own probabilities for greater academic success and potential for degree attainment. I guess what I want to do most are several things:

  1. get students reflecting on how their own school experiences to date may have yielded different experiences for the genders
  2. asking what are the cultural influences that suggest models for male vs female behaviors—not only in educational settings but in the larger society
  3. picking generic categories of the student experience and asking them to reflect on how men and women might chose to behave similarly or differently faced with the same responsibilities or challenges.

I find that students do want to talk about this. They are thinking about this. The women have observed that they are doing better in school and while they accrue advantages from this they are concerned about what this may indicate about male potential. The women are also concerned about this because of the implications for their social lives, and ultimate mate selection. On a very fundamental level: what am I going to talk to these guys about? Actually, I find women to be much more concerned about this than young men of college entrance traditional age.

In my own work with students on this topic I have decided that the most productive routes of thinking and discussion have to come down to getting them to think about:

1.     What are the behavioral choices that I make every day that determine my success, or lack of it, and the quality of my daily life experience?
2.     How do I feel about those choices? Are they working for me the way I want them to?
3.     How are my choices influenced by the norms of the groups of which I am a member?
4.     What are the consequences of my choices, particularly when combined with the broader patterns of my choices?
5.     How similar am I to the people with whom I associate, and their choices?
6.     Do I really want to be like these people?
7.     How much in control of these choices am I allowing myself to be?

Where I am going with all this is to get them to conclude, as I finally did in my own development, that “if it is to be, it is up to me.”

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