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Social scientists and educational researchers paid relatively little attention to issues of gender in education until the 1970s, when questions emerged concerning equity in girls’ and women’s access to education across the world. Increasing female representation in primary and secondary education was cited as an important factor in promoting national economic development, and therefore seen as a vehicle for social change.
As the feminist movement increased awareness of widespread gender inequality within US society, researchers began to focus on the educational system as a site of and explanation for women’s subordinated status. Feminist scholars documented sex discrimination in educational experiences and outcomes, and this early work led to the passage of Title IX in 1972, legislation that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded educational programs. During the 1970s and 1980s, women gained access to higher education and their share of college degrees climbed. Now women earn more undergraduate degrees than men. Despite this female advantage in college completion, women remain behind men in economic and social status, and a significant gender gap in pay remains. This paradox has led researchers to shift their focus from women’s educational access to their academic experiences and outcomes.
Sex segregation within the educational system persists (England and Li 2006). Research following Title IX documented a wide gender gap in course-taking during high school: girls took fewer advanced math and science courses than boys, and these course-taking patterns left them unprepared to pursue these fields in higher education. Recent research suggests that these gaps are closing, and girls and boys now take similar numbers of math and science courses in high school. In addition, girls are now taking advanced courses such as calculus at comparable rates to boys. However, girls are still less likely to take physics, and technology and computer courses remain highly gendered. Conversely, girls are more highly concentrated in literature and foreign language courses, and they tend to score higher than boys on verbal skills on standardized tests.
Course-taking patterns in high school foreshadow gender differences in higher education, where a high degree of sex segregation remains in terms of degrees and specializations. In the United States, women are concentrated in education, English, nursing, and some social sciences, and they are less likely than men to pursue degrees in science, math, engineering, and technology. As these male-dominated fields are highly valued and highly salaried, women’s absence from them accounts for a great deal of the gender gap in pay. Research suggests that cultural beliefs contribute to sex segregation by limiting what women (and men) see as possible or appropriate options (Correll 2004). Math, science, and technology are regarded as masculine subjects, and women are seen as ill-equipped for these fields. Conversely, subjects such as language arts and nursing are perceived as feminine subjects. Though sex typing in education appears to be a worldwide phenomenon, it varies in degree and scope. In countries where educational access is limited and reserved for members of the elite, women are often as likely as men to have access to all parts of the curriculum (Hanson 1996). However, in countries with more extensive educational systems, women have lower rates of participation in science and technology, fields greatly valued because of their link to development and modernity.
Recently, some educational researchers have suggested that concern for girls’ education overshadows boys’ disadvantages. They stress that boys remain behind in verbal skills, are over-represented in remedial and special education classes, and are more likely to drop out of school. However, these negative outcomes tend to be concentrated among working-class boys and boys of color, suggesting that these problems may reflect race and class inequality rather than disadvantages affecting all boys (AAUW 2008). Research on how the intersection of race, class, and gender shapes educational experiences and outcomes is thus an important direction for the future of the sociology of education.
- American Association of University Women (2008) Where the Girls Are: The Facts about Gender Equity in Education. Washington, DC.
- Correll, S. (2004) Constraints into Bibliography: gender, status and emerging career aspirations. American Sociological Review (69): 93-113.
- England, P. & Su Li (2006) Desegregation stalled: the changing gender composition of college majors, 19712002. Gender & Society 20: 657-77.
- Hanson, S. L. (1996) Gender stratification in the science pipeline: a comparative analysis of seven countries. Gender and Society (10): 271-90.
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