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Why Gender Matters    by Leonard Sax order for
Why Gender Matters
by Leonard Sax
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2005 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I've never been comfortable with the politically correct perspective on science, and especially on gender differences. Though I've always felt strongly that individuals should not be judged by external characteristics, it seems important to deal with reality, rather than denying it because it does not fit one's belief system. So, Dr. Leonard Sax's clear-eyed look at the science and its implications in Why Gender Matters is very welcome to me, especially since it makes clear that many well-intentioned social stands are damaging those they're intended to help.

The author describes existing books on gender as attempting to 'either deny innate sex differences, or to use sex differences in child development as a justification for maintaining traditional sex roles'. He emphasizes that 'boys and girls enter the classroom with different needs, different abilities, and different goals.' Sax goes on to explore scientific research into physical differences in brain structure, in hearing and in visual abilities. I found it interesting that 'Girls Draw Nouns, Boys Draw Verbs' in kindergarten, having always wondered that my younger son's early language was so verb-oriented. And I was fascinated to read that, while much of the brain activity associated with negative emotions moves up to the cerebral cortex in adolescent girls, it stays 'stuck in the amygdala' in teen boys. I've been very frustrated by unproductive attempts to find out what's bothering my teen sons, and now better understand why language fails. Sax also discusses the fact that, while women's brains are generally smaller than men's, women tend to use advanced areas of the brain more than men do, emphasizing the bottom line that 'the brain is just organized differently in females and males.'

With respect to education, Sax points out that 'the fact that each child is unique and complex should not blind us to the fact that gender is one of the two great organizing principles in child development - the other principle being age.' He mentions that boys tend to systematically overestimate, while girls underestimate, their own ability, giving the example of a teacher's 'dare training' for girls. He discusses differences between male and female bullying - boys participate in playful aggression and need socially acceptable outlets (not violent video games) while female meanness can simmer under the surface, and is often not taken seriously enough. Schools like students to interact in class, and Sax explains why this is more socially acceptable for female than male students, and also why a teacher's face-to-face communication works best for girls, and shoulder-to-shoulder for boys. He also discusses why small group self-directed learning works better with girls than boys, and why a male teacher can be perceived by girls to be shouting, while male students often have difficulty hearing a female teacher. And young men often learn better under moderate stress, while it's detrimental to female learning (this has implications for tests like SATs).

Boys and girls operate on different developmental timetables, with sex differences looming larger in childhood than in the adult years. Sax tells us that attempting to teach skills to a child who is not developmentally ready can turn them off (many boys are not ready to read in kindergarten, and tune out). The author tells us that the effects of gender-blind education hurts boys in kindergarten and early elementary, while girls often don't get the teaching they need in middle and high school (since young men and women use different brain areas for spatial tasks, making it important to present subjects like geometry to them differently). He also discusses the implications of boys talking less than girls, and of adolescent male interests, in teaching literature. He emphasizes that there are differences in how to best teach young men and women, not in what they can learn, telling us that the 'great mission of education is to enable every child to fulfill their potential, to discover that corner of the field of knowledge they can call their own.'

Dr. Sax discusses the implications of gender differences in today's culture of precocious sexuality, and why 'hooking up' is so dehumanizing to young women. He tells us that most girls feel pressured to participate, relationships are determined by rank order, parents are often clueless, and that ultimately this 'body-part sex' damages boys just as much, since they have the greater need for permanent relationships later in their lives, when women are better at developing support systems. Sax postulates that current early sexual activity is harmful to both sexes, and suggests approaches that parents can take to avoid it for their children (rules to make, and alternate activities to encourage). The author goes into reasons for use of drugs and alcohol by both sexes (self-esteem issues versus risk-taking), and how to talk to boys and girls about the risks. He discusses the 'oozing of parental authority' in our society and recommends both effective (age and gender relevant) discipline and the protective effects of a regular family dinner together. He covers the trend to 'medicalization of misbehavior'. And he discusses issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adolescents, as well as the sissy and the tomboy.

The book ends with a call to move away from a 'gender-blind society', which has left adolescents feeling like 'an explorer without a compass in a trackless wilderness, unsure of the path or the destination.' The author talks of inter-generational tribal molding as working best in single sex contexts, and gives examples of single-sex education (including a 'dual academy' approach for a coed school). Dr. Sax ends by advocating for 'a society that has the courage and wisdom to cherish and celebrate the innate differences between the sexes while at the same time enabling equal opportunities for every child.' Why Gender Matters is an important book that I recommend as a must read to parents, educators and anyone concerned about positive societal evolution.

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