Rethinking Venus and Mars

By J. Goodrich

The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children
By Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett
Columbia University Press

Consider this vision of the ideal classrooms: one for girls, one for boys. The first is filled with quiet, focused girls comfortable sitting at their desks for long periods of time. Their teacher speaks in hushed tones; classical music may be playing in the background. The students learn about such subjects as chemistry by analyzing “girly” substances like cosmetics, perfume or household cleaning products. In contrast, the boys’ classroom is filled with noise as they move about, expending physical energy on projects such as dismantling a motorcycle to understand how engines work.

In The Truth About Girls and Boys, Rivers and Barnett examine the educational vogue based on “gender essentialism,” which says the sexes are biologically and permanently so different from each other, yet so similar within their genders, that boys and girls are best educated apart, using different teaching methods and even studying different topics. Touting this thesis are family physician/psychologist Leonard Sax and author/corporate consultant Michael Gurian, who argue that girls are from Venus and boys from Mars and that the very existence of gender differences proves they are both biological and immutable. Their followers organize schools in ways that honor these differences, educating boys to become leaders and competitors and girls to become mothers or enter the “caring” occupations. Rivers and Barnett report that in one school run according to Sax-Gurian principles, drama is offered only to girls, computer applications, only to boys. In another, girls learn to write by describing their dream wedding dress while boys write about where they would most like to hunt. Any gender differences that result from culture or environment are guaranteed to be reinforced by this approach.

As Rivers and Barnett prove in chapter after chapter, the “science” most quoted in Sax and Gurian’s biological gender-determinism is iffy, outdated, flawed or simply nonexistent. No, girls don’t have such acute hearing compared to boys that they should be taught in whispers. As to girls’ presumed ability to sit quietly for hours, research has found that exercise is linked to better learning for both sexes.

While single-sex schooling may have other justifications, it’s increasingly being accepted as a pedagogy based on state-of-the-art neuroscience. In the U.S., 524 public schools now have at least one single-sex classroom; nine years ago there were only a dozen. The gender-education movement’s veil of pseudo-scientific objectivity provides cover for school districts that wish to train children into suitably traditional roles by teaching girls to cooperate and boys to take charge.

What happens when the students graduate from these single-sex classrooms? Sex-segregation enthusiasts don’t seem to care that girls must learn how to compete and debate and that boys must learn to sit still and concentrate in order to function in real life. This fad endangers both girls and boys when it ignores the real differences between individual youngsters, whatever their sex, and when it fosters self-replicating stereotypes that ultimately discourage children from expanding their own horizons and honing their individual skills.

J. GOODRICH writes the popular feminist blog Echidne of the Snakes.

Excerpted from the Summer 2011 issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, join the Ms. community.

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Photo from flickr user Argonne National Laboratory under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Lisa.Bessen says:

    We are in the process of choosing between a 2000 student co-ed public high school and a 400 student all-girls private high school for our daughter. This is what I’ve learned so far…

    The experts you chose have a particular bias to their research and look at schools that force students into classical gender-based roles. The best single sex schools do just the opposite. The girls have to do all the jobs – from Student Council President to Stage Crew. At an all-girls school, the girls don’t learn to flirt in order to get the geeky boy to dissect the cat. There are few or no gender stereotypes because girls do all the jobs, and they learn to do them well!

    When the girls socialize outside of school, they interact with the boys as equals because they know beyond a doubt that they are competent and worthy of respect.

    LB in Denver, CO

  2. Stephanie B. says:

    Wooow. Talk about a throwback to gender norms. I read the title and thought optimistically that a girls-only school would, I don’t know, illustrate that girls are good/interested at math and science? Ugh, disappointing.

  3. Oookay, the school you just mentioned has officially become my greatest nightmare. I hope my parents never send me to places like that.

  4. LB: I’m excited for your daughter! I went to a small private all-girl’s high school myself and I cannot recommend it enough for those who are able (although I believe I and others benefited most girl’s middle school). Needless to say this wasn’t some wretched “Venus and Mars” school, but a normal single-sex school. I’m a quiet person and at a larger co-ed school I am positive I would have blended into the background and never been forced to learn to be outspoken. I would caution you that it isn’t *quite* as rosy as you’re painting it– girls do reinforce gender norms on each other to a degree, especially socially, and wealthy all-female environments can be a hotbed of eating disorders. And there’s not much done to illuminate privilage. But after graduating I hear so many ludicrous myths about women: that we can’t get along due to in-fighting and cattiness, that we’re just not made to handle most ‘mens work,’ we’re not funny, we’re not supportive of each other… etc. There is nothing like knowing from an early age, beyond a doubt, from personal experience that this crap is false. (my favorite myth: that girls together have their periods at the same time, therefore all 1000 or so girls are having PMS at the same time and we need to be taken seriously as a potential riot and risk to the general public. WTF?!) Good luck to you!

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