On gender essentialism in public schools, bell curves and CPD.

During the dog-forsaken Bush years, the world’s most infamous C student’s Department of Education issued new regulations, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, clearing the way for public schools to institute single-sex classrooms.  It was a controversial move at the time, not least because then (as now) there was no good evidence of any benefits to such a policy, and plenty to warn against it.  But, conservatives being conservatives, they pressed ahead with their righteous agenda anyway, and soon wingnut infested school boards across the nation were jumping at the chance to create sex-segregated classrooms in public schools, along with educational programs based on widely discredited science and the most ridiculous sex stereotypes imaginable.  Like this one:

boys are better than girls in math because boys’ brains receive several daily “surges” of testosterone, whereas girls can perform well on tests only a few days per month when they experience “increased estrogen during the menstrual cycle.”

Now, eight years later, the ACLU has issued some preliminary findings (pdf) in an ongoing study of public schools that instituted sex-segregated classes in the wake of the Bush debacle.  To no feminist’s surprise, the ACLU’s findings reveal that such practices do not have any meaningful impact on learning, and can actually be damaging to the social and educational experience of our nation’s schoolchildren.

The way this claptrap plays out in schools might be hilarious if it were not so toxic.  For example:

A Wisconsin school district collected materials that trained teachers to ask boys about literature, “What would you DO if…” while asking girls, “How might/would you FEEL if…?”; motivating boys with “hierarchy!!! Competition!!!” while motivating girls by getting them to “care”; and recognizing that boys like “[b]eing ‘On Top’ … Being a Winner!!” while girls like “[b]eing ‘Accepted’, liked, loved!!!”

You know, these people really should meet my mother.  She is by far the most competitive person I have ever known, of any gender.  And I can pretty much guess how she would FEEL if anyone had tried to stop her from kicking the neighborhood boys’ butts in basketball when she was a kid.  Though basketball long ago gave way to competitive ballroom dancing, it’s fair to say that mom really, really likes being a winner (I mean, “Being a Winner!!”).  And unless you’re a judge at a national ballroom competition, she really doesn’t much give a shit whether you accept, like, or love her.  (Although I do.)

Here’s another farcical rationale, this one packing distinct Christianist themes:

Committee meeting notes of a community working group for single-sex programs in secondary schools in Pennsylvania documented a desire among the participants to ensure that students would experience “male-hood and female-hood defined space” exhibiting characteristics of “warrior, protector, and provider” for boys and giving girls “space/time to explore things that young women like [including] writing, applying and doing make-up & hair, art.

Tomboy girls and artistically inclined boys are just out of luck.  I will just note for the record that some of the best hairstylists and makeup artists I have come across in my long and illustrious career as a Vagina-American have been men.  Also: one of the most lethal asskickers I have ever known is a young woman of 25.  One of the more obvious problems with the sex-segregation paradigm is that my amazing hair colorist and my awesome ninja girlfriend are devalued as people, if not entirely erased.  In a gender binary view, they are aberrations, and not unique human beings with a mix of talents and ambitions that have absolutely nothing to do with their gender.  Just like everybody else.

In a piece in Salon about the ACLU report, Lori of Feministing highlights this finding:

…the boys’ classroom “is brightly lit and cool, and the students are allowed to run around to blow off steam. They can sit in beanbag chairs if they wish and their desks are moveable and do not face each other.” On the other hand, the girls’ classrooms “are warm and dimly lit,* and students are expected to remain in their seats and face each other while they work, even if they find that distracting.
 Girls are supposed to discuss their feelings about novels while boys are supposed to discuss the action in the books.”

Well gag me with a Nancy Drew novel. Or a GI Joe doll.  (Or…something. Fer chrissakes.)

The whole report is replete with retrograde nightmares, each one more hideous and insidious than the next.  And this sex segregated classroom trend isn’t isolated to a few backwater counties in the Bible Belt, either:  a multi-year study by the Feminist Majority Foundation found that from 2007-10 “over 1,000 public K-12 schools instituted deliberate single-sex education in all but four states (HI, NH, ND, WY).”

The essentialist view of gender is that it is a biologically fixed trait, with all of the limitations that implies.  Despite what we know about the extraordinary plasticity of the human brain and the broad range of natural aptitudes and abilities we find among all groups of people, the essentialists hold that gender characteristics are “hardwired,” uniquely innate, and not in large part the result of cultural cues and environmental influences.  The problem for them is that whenever anyone takes a serious look at these characteristics, these much-touted innate gender differences have a stubborn tendency to vanish.  And despite all evidence to the contrary, implicit in the essentialist construct is that gender is never fluid, that it does not operate on multiple axes in individuals, and that no matter how you care to define or measure it, it does not fall on a continuum.  Rather, in the essentialist view, a person’s gender can fall only into one of two separate and distinct categories—”male” and “female”—and any variation within each gender is only a secondary consideration—at best incidental, at worst a “problem” requiring a “solution.”

Ironically, for all their focus on math abilities gender essentialists only appear to be able to count to two.  Rather than acknowledging that any real sex-specific cognitive abilities fall on overlapping bell curves—and we will get to those overlapping bell curves in a minute—the essentialists insist that their silly male/female binary is, or more accurately should be, representative of reality.  Incidentally, those (such as yours truly) who take issue with the gender essentialists do not posit that there are no innate biological differences between male and female brains.  My own view is that to the extent any such differences actually exist, (a) they fall on those aforementioned widely overlapping bell curves that we will get to in a minute I swear, and (b) the differences are largely if not entirely inconsequential with respect to nearly any endeavor in the real world.  (I have come across very few people who argue that there are no innate biological differences between male and female brains, i.e. that gender is an entirely artificial construct with no basis in biology whatsoever, and I find their arguments unconvincing.)

I am hardly the first to recognize that political conservatism correlates with gender essentialist thinking: it goes a long way toward explaining the right’s misogyny and anti-feminism, homophobia and anti-gay bullying, hostility to women’s reproductive rights, militarism, and a whole host of conservative attitudes.  While the essentialists would undoubtedly find something “wrong” with the gender expression of most people I know and love (including me), I think I can make a good case that there is something really, really wrong with the gender essentialists—and I think I know what it is.

Long time loyal readers may recall my treatise on Conservative Personality Disorder (“CPD”), a term I came up with to describe the specific constellation of behaviors exhibited by right-wing conservatives in the present day United States of America.  One of the diagnostic criteria of CPD is “limited dimensionality of thought,” which I described this way:

poor critical thinking ability; anxious and unnerved by cognitive ambiguity, and highly motivated to eliminate it by reducing complex real-world phenomena to discrete dualities; literalist, e.g., difficulty grasping metaphor, satire, nuance, irony, or sarcasm; binary thinking (“all-or-nothing,” “either/or” “black & white” “us vs. them”); simplistic; impaired ability to separate correlation from causation;

(There is another diagnostic criteria called “hierarchical worldview” which encompasses the conservative opposition to equality in principle, and sexism itself would be a typical manifestation of this.  But for our purposes here I am referring to a specific defect in cognitive processing, and not necessarily any particular expression that may result from it.)

Which brings us to…

Iris the Idiot’s colorful primer on bell curves and reality.

I’ll be honest: it’s been a long time since I took statistics in college, so I had to look up some of this stuff.  But I think it’s very important for 21st century citizens to have at least a basic understanding of these concepts, and my hope is that this section goes some way toward explaining them without being insufferably boring or getting unnecessarily technical.

When researchers study any phenomenon, they first collect data, then analyze it to try and make sense of it, and (hopefully) draw some useful conclusions from it about a real-world phenomenon.  With certain exceptions that depend on the nature of what is being studied, it turns out that with remarkable frequency, data points tend to fall into something called a “normal distribution,” also known as a bell curve.  Let’s take a look at variations in human height, and I’ll show you what I mean.

According to Wikipedia, “the tallest man in modern history was Robert Pershing Wadlow (1918–1940), from Illinois, in the United States, who was 2.72 m (8 ft 11 in) at the time of his death…The shortest adult human on record is Chandra Bahadur Dangi of Nepal at 0.546 m (1 ft 912 in).”  As you might imagine, such extremes in height are exceedingly rare: everyone else falls somewhere in between.  More important than that, nearly everyone else falls disproportionately around the middle, i.e. the average, mean, or median. (Although these are not exactly the same things, for our purposes here I will use average, mean and median more or less interchangeably.)

Let’s pretend we are doing a Super Secret Scientific Study of human height.  For an entire day we surreptitiously shoot giant laser beams from the Palace turrets at every adult walking on Perry Street, and our badass ray guns measure and record for us the exact height of every person we zap.  Just for giggles, we’ll pretend that Robert Pershing Wadlow of Illinois (at 8 ft. 11 inches) and Chandra Bahadur Dangi of Nepal (at 1 ft. 912 inches) are alive and well and out for a stroll in my neighborhood.  After we spend all day blasting at the hapless denizens of Perry Street, here is what our collected data looks like:

Notice anything about our results?  Well, as we predicted, people of Dangi’s or Wadlow’s stature are vanishingly rare (at least on Perry Street).  Also, very few people, proportionally, are shorter than 4 feet, or taller than 7 feet.  In fact, the closer we get to the middle of the graph, the more people we find at those heights.  Lots more people.

Are you with me so far?

Okay good.

Do you notice anything else about the distribution of our collected data?  It falls more or less in the shape of a bell—thus the term bell curve for a normal distribution:

As it turns out, the average adult height in the United States is just shy of 5 feet 7 inches—right around our median. (Amazingly, the variety in height of all these imaginary people walking down Perry Street today turns out to be perfectly representative of everyone in the entire country!  I am seriously that good with imaginary data!)  In the U.S. the median height for men is 5′ 9½”, but the median for women is only 5′ 4″.  What does that look like?  If we take the data and split it up into men and women—putting aside the issues of (a) sex, like gender, existing on a continuum and not being a precise binary, and (b) how the hell our laser guns are able to determine the biological sex of our research subjects when that is no easy task in my neighborhood—it would look something like this for men:

And this for women:

When we overlap both graphs, we see something like this:

See that big lavender section there in the middle, where the two bell curves overlap?  That is the range where the majority of people of both sexes fall.  So, while we can certainly say that it is true that the median height for men is 5′ 9½” and the median height for women is 5′ 4″, we cannot say that all men are taller than all women.  If that were true, our graph would look like this:

We cannot even say most men are taller than most women.  What we can say is that for vast swaths of humanity, height measurements are similar regardless of sex.  In other words, if we were to measure the next man and the next woman we see walking down Perry Street, there is a slightly higher chance that the man would be taller than the woman, rather than vice versa.  But would you bet on it?  You’d be crazy to.  And that is because of the significant amount of overlap between the two bell curves.

Another very cool thing about bell curves is that whenever data follow a normal distribution, the same principles that apply with respect to human height also apply to many, many other phenomena.  We find a normal distribution when we measure peoples’ vocabulary recall, breast size, jumping ability, aggressiveness, skin pigmentation, marksmanship skill, ability to learn a foreign language, and about a zillion other characteristics that we can measure in human populations.  Granted, the real world is a messy place, and bell curves can appear squished, elongated, stretched, slanted, enlarged, shrunk and flattened—you know, sort of like a penis. Okay, not really anything like a penis.  At all.  But the point is that a bell curve often represents an accurate description of real world phenomena.

Let’s look at female breast size.  According to some random web site I just found on the Internet so it totally must be 100% accurate, here is the breakdown:

AA cup: 2%
A cup: 15%
B cup: 44%
C cup: 28%
D cup: 10%
DD cup: 1%

If we graph that data, it looks like this:

Notice the shape of that graph?  Bell curve.

Getting back to gender essentialism after attempting the world record for longest digression on a blog, like, ever.

Our friends at Wikipedia have a page entitled “Sex and Psychology” where one can find many interesting factoids and citations to relevant research about—surprisingly enough—sex and psychology.

If I have done a halfway decent job here (and you are not afflicted with CPD), you will be able to visualize what the data actually look like when you read a statement like this [citations at the link]:

…a performance difference in mathematics on the SAT exists favoring males…

POP QUIZ!  “a performance difference in mathematics on the SAT exists favoring males.” Is reality more accurately represented by:

All right, that’s an easy one.  You can probably figure out that all men do not score higher than all women on math SATs, which is what the graph on the left indicates. Instead, at the top of the SAT score range, we will find disproportionately more men than women.  But the vast majority of the time men’s and women’s SAT scores are indistinguishable: the bell curves overlap.  What about this statement:

…differences in mathematics course performance measures favor females.

Really.  I had not heard that.  Math class measures favor females.  What do you think the data underlying such a claim would look like?

Here’s a hint that might help you deduce the answer:

In a 2008 study paid for by the National Science Foundation in the United States, researchers found that “girls perform as well as boys on standardized math tests. Although 20 years ago, high school boys performed better than girls in math, the researchers found that is no longer the case. The reason, they said, is simple: Girls used to take fewer advanced math courses than boys, but now they are taking just as many.”[70][71]

Wow!  Why, you might even be tempted—I know I sure was!—to imagine that the math skills data look an awful lot like this:But hold onto your Etch-a-Sketch there Einstein:

However, the study indicated that, while on average boys and girls performed similarly, boys were overrepresented among the very best performers as well as among the very worst.[72][73]

Well, whaddaya know.  Assuming that these studies are capturing a real difference between the sexes in math skills, the bell curves actually look more like this:

For every one female Super Genius Mathemagician, there are several male Super Genius Mathemagicians.  (I cannot be arsed to look it up right now, but IIRC at the far right tail of the bell curve the ratio of males to females is something like 5:1.)  But at the low end of the range, there are also disproportionately more males than females.  So when gender essentialists say that “men are naturally better at math than women” they may actually have a point—if they are referring to the fact that men are overrepresented among the best math performers, while conveniently ignoring that (a) the bell curves show massive overlap, and (b) men are also overrepresented among the very worst performers.  Curiously, nobody is going around screeching that men are innately worse at math than women.  And yet if we apply the same “analysis” to the data that gender essentialists do in order to claim that men have an innate edge in math, we could just as easily point to the low end of the bell curve and claim that men suck at math.

I wonder why it is that we don’t say that?

(No, I do not really wonder why it is that we don’t say that.)

Again, if I have done a halfway decent job here (and I grant you that is a big “IF”), you will forevermore be skeptical about any claim that takes the form of “Men are _____, while women are ______.”  Or “boys are _____, while girls are _____.”  And if perchance I have been successful here beyond even my wildest dreams, what will come to mind whenever you hear such statements is this:

WRONG view of EVERYTHING about men’s and women’s innate abilities.

You just might be a conservative if… you think about men and women like this.

And if you remember nothing else:

Gender essentialism in education = FAIL

Coincidentally, a friend recently lent me a book written by someone he knows, entitled Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget.  Unsurprisingly for a book with such a title, it’s as full of gender essentialist nonsense as anything I have ever read, a tiresome tirade of sloppy thinking, woven incoherently throughout unsupported “just so” stories purporting to be cutting edge evo-psych.  In finding that link to the book on Amazon, I came across a customer review that said this:

Fact is, we don’t know that much about sex differences in memory or intelligence and this book won’t help clarify matters. It’s a collection of stereotypes illustrated by anecdotes with junk science backing it up.

If you’re smart, you’ll stay away.

Maybe the author went to school in a sex-segregated classroom?

* This got me wondering:  is the Palace, like, a girly space?  Jeezus.  And here I thought all the conservatives’ heads on spikes around the perimeter would lend a certain, oh I don’t know… gothic warrior goddess flair to the decor.

8 thoughts on “On gender essentialism in public schools, bell curves and CPD.

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  2. Great piece. I’m late to the party here, but I just found this. I think your figures are wonderful and do a good job of illustrating the fallacies of the either/or “essentialism” concept with regards to gender/sex and most other things as well. The human fondness for dichotomizing and pigeonholing people based on traits that actually fall along a spectrum would be amusing if it didn’t have the potential for so much harm.

    If you don’t mind my asking, where did you get your graphs? I’m doing a piece about gender essentialism in another context (writing), and I would love to use the example you provided re height to illustrate the fallacy.

    • Hi Erica-

      Welcome and thanks for the kudos. I made the graphics myself, and you are welcome to use them with attribution (“Iris Vander Pluym, perrystreetpalace.com” – for online publications please use a live link to this post). Let me know if I can assist further.


  3. Your comment that we cannot even say most men are taller than most women is wrong. If the male median is higher, then most men are taller than most women. Your curves are also misleading, as the curves should not be the same shape: adult male heights are on average 70 inches (5’10) with a standard deviation of 4 inches. Adult women are on average a bit shorter and less variable in height with a mean height of 65 inches (5’5) and standard deviation of 3.5 inches. I’ll stand with you on Perry Street (wherever that might be) and bet with you on the next man v the next women and give you two to one odds and take a lot of money off you. You obviously aren’t an idiot, Iris, but you might be indulging in wishful thinking about height. Men are taller than women, and it is a great injustice. (Notice that I didn’t say all men are taller than all women)

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