• Educating Gender

Understanding Mediators and Gender Assumptions: Focusing on the Sin not the Sinner



Students want you to know who they are as individuals and they desperately want to seamlessly meld into the crowd, unnoticed and left alone.  

This developmental tug of war has much to do with gender identification and remains a challenge for educators who want to take care of the individual needs of their students and who, they themselves, struggle with implicit thinking concerning gender and gender roles.

This is also where we need to take much greater care in terms of making causal claims about sex differences and their relationship to educational outcomes when they are, instead, really indicators of correlative distinctions. The danger of making assumptions about “discovering” sex differences which are connected to school performance, is that they often end up being interpreted as definitive genetic differences between the sexes. There is a long leap between the level of hormone secretion in early development and why a student might do poorly on her latest geometry exam or his essay on Kafka.

Mediators, such as self efficacy, stereotype threat, or previous histories and experiences with learning are not only more likely to be causally related but more easily identified and addressed in order to support students and create meaningful corrective interventions. Mediators are learned experiences, often through cultural cues or implicit behavioral practice, that can short circuit or interfere with a child’s ability to learn or acquire knowledge. In that they are also measurable releases educators from black and white thinking about a student’s actual abilities and capacities rather than so easily confused with our own biases and prejudices. (See source below)* Social construction and how we view gender, race and identity are too easily categorized as some form of genetic determinism to get us off the hook from truly examining thoughts and attitudes ingrained within us through cultural bias.

There is a long leap between the level of hormone secretion in early development and why a student might do poorly on her latest geometry exam or his essay on Kafka.

And what is the evidence that these mediators are the culprit? Over the past 40 years, as awareness and impetus for change regarding women in math performance has been a concern, young girls and women have significantly closed the gap in results on standardized tests with males and even more significantly in regard to classroom success. If genetic sex differences were the culprit, we would have seen very little to no change, even with thoughtful interventions and changes in teacher practices. Furthermore, if the genetic markers of gender were a pre-determination of cognitive abilities, such as math attainment, then we would see these trends globally across cultures and societies. Not so. Many cultures, particularly in Asian countries, that do not perceive these biases of math abilities according to gender, do not have gaps in performance either in schools or standardized exams. In speaking to educators from Asian countries at conferences, they cannot even understand how we think this way about women or men in regard to any area of educational attainment in schools. In other words, they think we are kind of nuts.

Taking care of these mediators also allows us to more easily address the sin not the sinner.  By paying attention to a child’s sense of self confidence or their anxiety over competing with each other in a subject previously perceived as gender based, we can focus on the child in front of us regardless if they are a boy or a girl.


*Caplan, C.B. & Caplan P.J. (2005) The Perseverative Search for Sex Differences in Mathematics Ability. In A.M Gallagher & J.C. Kaufman. Gender Differences in Mathematics: An Integrative Psychological Approach. (pp. 25-47). Cambridge, Eng. Cambridge University Press.

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