On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine devoted its cover story to the new sex segregation movement in public schools. The same day, the Washington Post published one of the more offensively misogynist op-eds in memory, arguing that as a biological matter, women are pretty stupid. Unfortunately, a reliance on archaic gender stereotypes unites the author of that op-ed (Charlotte Allen, of the Independent Women's Forum) and the leaders of the sex segregation movement, as the New York Times Magazine makes clear.
Charlotte Allen writes:
The theory that women are the dumber sex . . . is amply supported by neurological and standardized-testing evidence. Men's and women's brains not only look different, but men's brains are bigger than women's (even adjusting for men's generally bigger body size). The important difference is in the parietal cortex, which is associated with space perception. Visuospatial skills, the capacity to rotate three-dimensional objects in the mind, at which men tend to excel over women, are in turn related to a capacity for abstract thinking and reasoning, the grounding for mathematics, science and philosophy.
Sadly, she is not the only one weighing brains and concluding that women's just don't measure up. The leaders of the effort to promote single-sex schools and classrooms for public school students across the country tell a similar story of biological determinism. For example, Michael Gurian, the author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! and one of the single-sex education advocates profiled, is the founder of the Gurian Institute, which trains teaches on gender differences; as the Times describes, these trainings are full of brain scan imagery and pseudo-scientific assertions about the fundamental physical differences between boys' and girls' minds. For instance, in the Teacher's Guide that accompanies his book, Gurian (a novelist and counselor whose graduate degree is in creative writing) writes:
Girls have difficulty learning some math, perhaps because they are not called on as much but also for biological reasons. Adolescent males receive surges of the hormone testosterone five to seven times a day; this can increase spatial skills, such as higher math. Increased estrogen during the menstrual cycle increases female performance in all skills, including spatials, so an adolescent girl may perform well on any test, including math, a few days per month.
Math teachers trained in these theories are unlikely to expect much of their female students -- at least most days of the month. Leonard Sax, a family physician and the founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, also profiled in the Times article, argues that as a biological matter, girls' brains perform worse under stress, while boys' brains perform better, and thus girls should never be given time limits on tasks, while boys' classes should be structured around competition. Who do you think will perform better in a demanding work environment after receiving such a gender-typed education?
Not all advocates of sex-segregated education are brain difference theorists like Sax and Gurian (or like Allen, whose employer, the Independent Women's Forum, is another enthusiastic supporter of single-sex education). However, most schools experimenting with sex-segregated programs today are doing so on the basis of these theories. And it is difficult, if not impossible, to create a legal regime that permits sex segregation in education without opening the door to programs based on shoddy science and dressed-up stereotypes about gender difference. This is exactly why Title IX was written to prohibit sex segregation -- a protection that was undermined when the Bush administration amended Title IX regulations to encourage the creation of single-sex schools.
As the Times article explains, the science behind these radical experiments in sex-segregated education is shaky at best. Moreover, the overgeneralizations that brain difference theorists promote have pernicious real-world effects. While boys' classrooms are being designed to engage students physically, to allow for hands-on learning, and to make education a game as often as possible, girls' classrooms are places where students are encouraged to sit quietly at their desks and to talk about their feelings. Girls lose when their education is based on the notion that their brains leave them unqualified for abstract thought or risk-taking, just as boys lose when teachers assume that their brains leave them unable to empathize or to nurture. This is how gender stereotypes get perpetuated, and why gender-based discrimination continues. Our kids deserve better.
To learn more about the ongoing fight against this and other forms of gender-based discrimination, visit the ACLU's Women's History Month website.