We love to debate the question: How are boys and girls different? It is a topic of fascination, speculation, and research. Are boys and girls innately different? Or are boys and girls socialized differently?
We will not address the "nature or nurture" debate here. However, we do want to remind parents that developmental issues for boys and girls are unique to each gender. In the middle school years, the messages we send to boys and girls begin to hit them with full force as they become aware of and struggle to understand what it means to be a man or a woman in our society.
We know that in adolescence girls self-esteem suffers. They often begin to feel less than competent and unsure of themselves. Some girls begin to lose their "voice" or "go underground" with their gifts and abilities as they absorb messages about what it means to be "feminine" in our culture. In response, girls tend to act in, which expresses itself in eating disorders, depression, teen pregnancy, and lowered academic achievement in core academic areas such as higher level math and science. These conditions in turn, lead to women's increased vulnerability to poverty.
On the other hand, adolescent boys, experiencing pressure to conform to "masculine" stereotypes, often "toughen up" and act aggressively in all facets of their lives. Boys receive messages that it is not all right to be nurturing and caring, to express their feelings. In response, boys tend to act out, which can express itself in disruptive or violent behavior. In middle school, academic failure puts many boys at risk and studies show there is a positive correlation between failure in school and disruptive behavior. They are more likely than girls to be suspended from school and to fail to graduate.
How do these stereotypes affect the career choices of boys and girls?
Because of our deeply rooted stereotypes about men and women, gender continues to have a significant impact on the career paths of our sons and daughters. Parental beliefs about scholastic ability and attitudes about performance are some of the most powerful influences. Many still believe that boys are better at math, mechanics, and logical thinking and expect boys to be engineers, doctors, and architects. Girls are expected to be better at verbal skills, intuition and nurturing, so they are expected to be nurses, social workers, or teachers. While all career choices should be equally respected and valued, the fact is, traditional career choices for girls tend to cluster them in lower-paying jobs.
If you ask your adolescent girl and her friends, "Will you work outside of the home if you have children," don't be surprised by the answer. Studies still report that a majority of the girls will answer with a resounding, "No!" However, today's 16 year old girl can expect to work 30 or more years outside the home.
The good news for girls is that many are breaking out of these stereotypes, changing the face of higher education and the workforce. In general, girls are doing better in school and are pursing education at higher rates than boys. Their impact in the world of work and in their own family units is increasing.
But at the same time, our boys are disengaging from school. While more women are attending college, young men have stopped pursuing higher education. Young men's literacy is declining. Young men are less likely to be valedictorians, to be on the honor roll, and to be active in organizations like student government. Young men are more likely to get poor grades, be suspended or expelled from school, drop out of school, and commit suicide. This situation bodes poorly for their ability to participate in a labor market needing higher skills and postsecondary training.
Some facts about women and work
US Department of Labor data from 2005 (http://www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/Qf-laborforce-05.htm) provides the following picture of women in the workforce:
- For ever 100 women over the age of 16, 60 are in the labor force. For every 100 men, 75 are working or looking for work. For every 100 persons in the labor force, 47 are women.
- The median weekly earnings of women working full-time were $585, or 81 percent of men's $722. Female college graduates working full-time had median earnings of $809 a week, compared with $1,089 for men.
- For every 100 mothers with children under the age of 18, 72 are working. In 1972, only 47 were working. The biggest increase occurred among women with children under age 3; 61 of every 100 mothers in this category work.
- About 5.4 percent of working women were self-employed in 2002 compared with 7.3 percent of men. However, women make up a much higher proportion of self-employed workers than in 1976, up from 27 to 40 percent.
- In 1970, wives' earnings accounted for almost 27 percent of their families' incomes. By 2001, the proportion had grown to 34 percent.
- A growing proportion of wives also earn more than their husbands. Eighteen percent of working wives whose husbands also worked earned more than their spouses in 1987. In 2001, this proportion was 24 percent.
Some facts about boys, education attainment, and other factors
National data assembled by The Boys Project (http://www.boysproject.net/statistics.html) provide this story about boys:
- For every 100 girl babies born there are 105 boy babies born. For every 100 girls enrolled in elementary grades there are 107 boys enrolled. For every 100 girls who graduate from high school 96 boys graduate
- For every 100 girls suspended from public elementary and secondary schools 250 boys are suspended. For every 100 girls expelled from public elementary and secondary schools 335 boys are expelled.
- Boys make up about two-thirds of the students labeled learning-disabled.
- For every 100 women enrolled in college there are 77 men enrolled. For every 100 American women who earn a bachelor's degree from college 73 American men earn a bachelor's degree.
- For every 100 girls ages 15 to 17 in correctional facilities there are 837 boys behind bars. For every 100 women ages 18 to 21 in correctional facilities there are 1,430 men behind bars. For every 100 women ages 22 to 24 in correctional facilities there are 1,448 men in correctional facilities.
What can parents do to help both girls and boys?
As parents, your words are powerful and affect your son's or daughter's self-concept and aspirations, attitudes and performance in school, at home, and in the world. Be thoughtful! Use the tips throughout this Web site. Additionally, consider these ideas:
- Both girls and boys should be encouraged take math and science throughout high school.
- Suggest activities and experiences for your son or daughter that may be traditionally reserved for the opposite gender: boys might sign up for dance or a babysitting course, girls might explore a programming and pre-robotics course for instance.
- Let your son or daughter know its all right to make mistakes - nothing worthwhile is gained without risk. The important thing is to decide what you want and go after it.
- Encourage your daughter or son to seek challenges, to "push the envelope" of their skills and abilities!
- Expose both girls and boys to non-traditional career opportunities; this is effective in broadening career aspirations.
- Introduce the idea of multiple roles (work, family, community) early, and work on making your own situation a model for how to balance these roles.
- Emphasize that personal relationships and domestic roles apply to both boys and girls, men and women.