Gender Differences and their Implications for the Education of Women

Mali Brofsky

This paper, which examines how we can best educate young women, is based on new research regarding the development of women and research examining the state of girls’ education today.

Context: I believe this topic can be best understood against the background of the developmental and behavioral differences between males and females (see the work of Carol Gilligan vs. Piaget and Kohlberg). While male development emphasizes autonomy and hierarchy, and finding moral and objective truth in external, logical positions, women view the world through a web of connectedness, and focus on the development and nurturing of relationships. For women, moral decisions are made from a context of responsibility and caring. Truth is seen as developing through joint expression and combinations of differing personal experiences and viewpoints. I believe these differences account for the disparate treatment of boys and girls in school; in addition, they ought to be considered when we think about how to best educate young women.

In the Classroom: Research has proven that boys receive more teacher attention, call out more than girls, draw attention to themselves more than girls, are given more time to respond to questions, dominate the use of classroom materials and space (such as playgrounds), and receive a higher quality of teacher response (boys receive more praise, criticism and corrective advice, girls receive more noncommittal responses, e.g.“O.K.”) In addition, peer-interaction patterns result in a higher quality experience for males. In mixed groups, they receive help from the girls, but do not reciprocate, and tend to dominate the groups. I believe these patterns exist because of behavioral gender differences. For males, self-assertion and behavior in which everyone wrestles for their own advantage, is a natural behavioral style, while girls consider waiting for attention and deferring to others to be appropriate behavior.

In addition, girls have unique emotional issues, the most important being the crisis in self-esteem that, for girls, occurs during adolescence. (Other examples: girls consider peer acceptance more important than academic success, girls who feel out of place among their peers suffer academically to the point of dropping out, girls tend to attribute academic success to luck and failure to themselves.)

Therefore I believe girls will develop best in schools devoted exclusively and undividedly to them and to their unique needs. Such schools, if programmed properly, can probably provide a better academic program for girls, and, more importantly, can almost certainly assist in the development of confident selfhood. Girls flourish in an environment that encourages the development of close, personal relationships with peers and role models, and allows them the space and the opportunity to examine the many facets and directions inherent in their personalities.

Some educational methods that have been proven to work for girls: mentors, small learning communities, girls’ groups, a less adversarial classroom structure, and learning that relates to their own experiences.

Women’s Ways of Knowing: Research has identified five different patterns or levels of knowledge experienced by women. The first three are silence, received knowledge (women who passively assimilate information and consider the authorities to be the ultimate source of truth), and subjective knowledge (women who begin to feel that truth stems not from an external source but from within themselves). The next is procedural knowledge, in which women realize that truth can be measured against external objective criterion. This phase is divided into separate and connected knowing. Separate knowing entails impartial, objective evaluation of the material, in which one distances oneself from the subject in order to criticize the material impartially. Connected knowing involves the attempt to empathetically enter into the thought process of the producer of the knowledge, to understand his perspective, often by understanding his personal experiences and point of view. While women often appreciate separate knowing in the classroom, they prefer connected knowing in their personal relationships. The fifth, most mature level is constructed knowledge, in which women integrate their own viewpoints with those of others, and focus on understanding and balancing the disparate aspects of their lives, within the context of caring for others.

The Classroom: Based on the above research, it is possible to envision the female classroom as a place in which women share their ideas, viewpoints, and interpretations of material. The aim of the classroom environment is both to increase the knowledge of the participants, as well as to create an environment which is not adversarial, but rather in which bonds of connection and mutual insight are forged. The students grow not only in acquisition of information, but rather, through this process of mutual understanding, they acquire perspectives that enrich their entire psyche.

The role of the teacher is to encourage the student to express her ideas, and help the student develop her thoughts to their full fruition. The sense in the classroom is that both student and teacher are thinking together. It is assumed that new ideas are tentative and uncertain, and therefore, tentative suggestions are not immediately challenged, but rather are developed and encouraged by other members of the group.

This does not mean that no criticism or disagreement enters the classroom. Criticism is advanced, but the tone of the criticism is not the rejection of an idea because it “fails” to live up to standard, but rather grows out of a sense that all the students share a commonality of experience and are helping each other reach mutually satisfying truths. In general, these types of classrooms work best when the students interact over a period of time, and the sense of a caring and supportive community is created within the classroom.

Women appreciate connecting the abstract ideas that they learn to their own everyday experiences, seeing how these ideas have operated in their own lives, as well as in the lives of others, and discovering how an idea may have concrete applications in their future experience. Sharing personal experiences is thus a means both for fostering the ties of connection between the women, as well as a satisfying method for uncovering the nature of reality.

Tanakh appears to be the ideal subject matter for a classroom of this sort. As a work that can be analyzed as a piece of literature, it opens itself up to various interpretations and readings that differ with the differing perceptions of the reader. It is laden with ethical implications whose precise nuances are open to different viewpoints. The narrative sections of Tanakh foster discussion of personality and relationships, encourage self-identification with the characters, and are rich subject matter for the exploration of personal application to our daily experiences.

This is not meant to suggest that this style be the only one to which the student is exposed. The student should benefit from all types of classroom atmospheres and approaches. However, including this style among the classrooms a student will enter can enrich the student’s knowledge not only of the text but of herself and of others, and can foster the growth of new ideas that would not flourish elsewhere, which can enhance the education not only of those students but of the Jewish community as a whole.

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