Critical English Online

English and gender

The relationship between gender and English/literacy achievement continues to be a hot topic in New Zealand. However, the focus tends to shift, as to ways in which the "problem" is constructed. It is perhaps fair to say that the focus in the later 80s and early 90s was on the "plight" of girls in the educational system, especially as constructed in terms of a feminist analysis of the situation. This focus is reflected in such academic titles as The school curriculum in New Zealand: History, theory, policy and practice (McCulloch, G. Ed.[1992]. Palmerston North: Dunmore) and in such titles (from that volume) as "The gendered curriculum: Home-makers and breadwinners" by Anne-Marie O'Neill, and also in Sue Middleton & Alison Jones, Eds.(1997) Women and education in Aotearoa 2 (Auckland: Auckland University Press).

By the mid-Nineties, the attention had shifted to boys. An investigation by Maureen Rutledge (1996), Boys and literacy: an investigation into several key aspects of the gender differential in reading in New Zealand (MEd thesis: University of Auckland), came to three conclusions.

  • that the early gender disparity in reading documented by the 1991 IEA survey is not a recent development in New Zealand
  • that these gender differences persist beyond the initial years of schooling
  • that research examining such gender differences in reading has been relatively insignificant.

The issue, of course, has been well and truly aired in the New Zealand media, featuring such headlines as "The gender gap: Why girls are doing better at school" (NZ Listener, January 17-23, 1998).

Talk around the topic has been fuelled by such findings (reported by Rudledge) as boys predominating in special education classes; boys presenting up to 75% of problems related to speech and language difficulties; boys comprising two-thirds of pupils in the national reading intervention programme, Reading Recovery; boys representing the overwhelming majority of pupils assisted by the national reading programme for children with severe reading difficulties carried out by the Resource Teachers of reading; and boys reported as having greater difficulties and poorer results than girls in the areas of written composition, handwriting, spelling general school progress and promotion and intellegence tests.

Roy Nash and Richard Harker (31 March, 1997), in their Progress at school: Final report to the Ministry of Education, reported that in English, 40% of girls were "successful" as compared with 29% of boys. Of those students with a School Certificate award, 4 in 10 girls, but only 3 boys in 10, went on to obtain at least a pass grade in Sixth Form Certificate English.

In recent research, Sally Hansen of Massey University College of Education, has examined gender differences in writing at year 11 in New Zealand. (See "Boys and writing: Reluctance? Reticence? Or rebellion?"). Hansen discovered gender differences in writing attitudes, with boys reporting a higher level of negative writing satisfaction and less writing enjoyment in the English classroom. She also found gender differences in the preferred writing genres of boys and girls. However, she found no significant gender differences in student's self-efficacy beliefs in respect of specific writing competencies nor in students' perceptions in respect of writing as an inherently gender-biased activity. (For the research in full, see Hansen, S. (2000). Gender differences and writing: Self-efficacy beliefs, attitudes, preferences and perceptions. Thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Philosophy (Education), Massey University, Palmerston North.)

As far as English in Aotearoa is concerned, gender-oriented writing in the early 90s is directed at gender bias in texts and the need for girls to find a voice. However, come 1998, the journal dedicated issue 35 (September 1998) to English and Gender. The issue was introduced by Elody Rathgen ("With boys it's all maximum revs") and included articles by Adrienne Roberts, Penny Raine, Vicky McLennan, Helaina Coote, Peter Thomas (England), Wayne Martino (Australia) and an interview with Australian Annette Patterson. (For a complete list of articles in English in Aotearoa, check out EIA Index.)

Predictably enough, the articles constructed the "problem" in two ways:

  • The boys will be boys (or essentialist) construction, which poses the problem thus: If boys (or girls) are like this, then how can we render our subject and English/literacy learning meaningful and productive for them?
  • There is nothing essential about the way boys/girls are being constructed as boys/girls. How can we incorporate notions of the constructedness of gender into English classrooms and help our students critically contest the versions or representations of gender they come across in a range of texts?

The other gender-related issue, of course, is the place of lesbian and gay issues in the English classroom and the ways English/literacy programmes address the needs of lesbian and gay students. For one view on this issue, see Kathleen Quinlivan (August, 1992), "Lesbian and gay issues in the English classroom", in English in Aotearoa 17, 27-34.