Boys Will Be Boys
Girls outperform boys in most areas of education, including grades, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment and completion rates. Despite girls’ achievements, boys and girls as young as six perceive boys as more intelligent - a pattern that persists through high school, college, and the workforce. Men – especially White men – also are overrepresented in jobs and occupations where “natural” intelligence is considered integral to one’s success. This includes the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM], leadership positions in politics, and CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies. What accounts for the uneven character of gender inequality, where boys are perceived as more exceptional and thus better suited for fields that prioritize “natural” intelligence and leadership capabilities? How does race intersect with gender in school contexts to shape young people’s perceptions of their academic capabilities and subsequent career interests?
My in-progress book manuscript, tentatively titled Boys Will Be Boys, examines the social construction of exceptionalism in early adolescence. This project – supported by the National Science Foundation, the American Association of University Women, and the Haynes Foundation – draws on two and a half years of longitudinal ethnography and 196 interviews I conducted with sixth- through eighth-grade students and teachers at a racially- and socioeconomically-diverse middle school in Southern California.
With its longitudinal and intersectional approach, Boys Will Be Boys reveals how academic tracking, school disciplinary processes, and educators’ pedagogical practices placed girls and boys from different racial and socioeconomic groups on different academic academic trajectories. It also reveals how students’ gendered and racialized perceptions of their academic capabilities legitimized this hierarchical sorting process. Over the course of sixth- through eighth-grades, students gradually learned to perceive affluent, White boys as the most exceptional ones in the school – not only in comparison to girls, but also in comparison to Asian American and Latinx boys.
By revealing how school processes inform the social construction of exceptionalism in early adolescence, Boys Will Be Boys makes a key contribution to sociological understandings of inequality. Existing ethnographic research on gender, race, and education has primarily focused on students of color attending schools in low-income, urban neighborhoods – schools where boys average lower levels of academic achievement and are perceived as academically inferior to girls. In these schools, educators subject Black and Latinx boys to harsh disciplinary practices, which places boys at an increased risk of being suspended, expelled, and dropping out. Yet because academic achievement gaps are much smaller – or favor boys – among affluent, White and Asian American students, Boys Will Be Boys shifts the focus to gender and race relations in a high-performing suburban school. In doing so, my work builds on and extends earlier studies of academic tracking (published by scholars like Jeannie Oakes and Hugh Mehan), as well as scholarship showing how acts of resistance in school originate from youth’s racialized and classed expressions of gender (including the work of scholars like Paul Willis, Ann Arnett Ferguson, and Julie Bettie).
Who Wants to be an Engineer?
Middle school is a time when girls – especially girls of color and girls from low-income families – experience sharp declines in their interest in STEM. Existing research, however, tends to examine inequality in STEM after this tipping point, such as in college or the workforce, leaving the processes initially discouraging girls from STEM undertheorized.
Drawing on the same longitudinal ethnographic data I collected with middle schoolers, an in-progress article identifies how girls’ career aspirations are shaped by the forms of inequality they encounter in middle school electives and extracurricular activities. A second in-progress article connects racialized divisions in girls’ friendship groups to Latinx girls’ declining interest in STEM. Along with developing an interactional and intersectional framework to understand inequality in STEM, these projects propose early interventions to increase the representation of girls and women in STEM at the beginning of the occupational pipeline.