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, research consistently finds that gender status beliefs – or cultural expectations about traits girls and boys possess – associate boys with increased competency and social esteem. From kindergarten through college, students perceive boys as more intelligent. In the workforce, women’s participation rates are the lowest in academic fields where raw intelligence is considered integral to one’s success, including in philosophy, math, and physics. How do school processes shape students’ gender status beliefs?
My in-progress book manuscript, tentatively titled Becoming Brilliant, identifies how school processes differently shape White, Asian American, and Latinx 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.
With its longitudinal and intersectional approach, Becoming Brilliant develops a new understanding of how routine, taken-for-granted school processes shape students’ gender status beliefs. It reveals how, over the course of sixth through eighth grades, students 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 identifying how school processes socially construct boys as exceptional, Becoming Brilliant makes two contributions to scholarly understandings of gender, education, and social inequalities. First, most existing education research has focused on students of color attending schools in low-income, urban areas – schools where educators’ disciplinary practices encourage students to perceive girls as academically superior to boys. Becoming Brilliant shifts the focus to a suburban school, revealing how lenient school processes serve as a protective force for race- and class-privileged boys. Second, existing research shows that academic tracking often perpetuates race and class inequalities in education, but Becoming Brilliant brings gender into this body of research. I reveal how girls' and boys' dispositions towards varied based on their race and course placement in ways that naturalized social inequalities 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.