Girls are outperforming boys in almost all aspects of education, including averaging higher grades, high-school graduation rates, and college enrollment and completion rates. Despite girls’ achievements, children as young as six perceive boys as more intelligent – a trend that persists through high school, college, and the workforce. Men – especially White men – are also overrepresented in educational fields and occupations that place a premium on traits such as brilliance and confidence. This includes the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM], leadership positions in politics, and CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies. What are the processes encouraging students and teachers to perceive White boys as more intelligent and confident than their peers?
To answer this question, my in-progress book manuscript, tentatively titled Becoming Brilliant, identifies how school processes differently shape White, Asian American, and Latino students’ academic trajectories. This project – supported by the National Science Foundation, the American Association of University Women, and the Haynes Foundation – draws upon two and a half years of longitudinal ethnography and 196 interviews conducted with sixth- through eighth-grade students and teachers at a racially- and socioeconomically-diverse middle school in Southern California.
By illustrating how intelligence and confidence are traits with which affluent, White boys come to be associated, Becoming Brilliant makes two contributions to scholarly understandings of gender, race, and education. First, Becoming Brilliant identifies how students and teachers come to perceive White boys – whose misbehaviors were treated with the most tolerance in honors courses – as academically and socially superior to their peers. Second, existing research shows that academic tracking often perpetuates race and class inequalities, but Becoming Brilliant brings gender into this body of research. Girls' and boys' academic self-concept varied based on their race and course placement, ultimately illuminating how school processes naturalize inequality in early adolescence.
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.
To develop a new understanding of how gender inequality in STEM operates, this project draws on 2.5 years of longitudinal ethnography and 196 interviews conducted at a racially- and socioeconomically-diverse middle school in Los Angeles. I identify the school-based processes systematically discouraging middle school girls from STEM. Along with developing an interactional and intersectional framework to advance scholarship about STEM-based gender inequality, this project proposes early interventions to reduce gender inequality in STEM. These findings may inform early interventions to increase the representation of girls and women in STEM at the beginning of the occupational pipeline.