Successful Sex: It's All In Your Genes
Following is the text of a presentation which was given to a local school district.

Victor Charlton

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This topic was prompted by a casual observance of a disparity in achievement of Rutherford scholarships between boys and girls at Paul Kane. The question then arose of whether gender bias was influencing the results.

I'll be providing a few statistics on this a little later. And, as with all statistics, their truth, like beauty, is more in the eye of the beholder. In trying to unravel the statistics to reveal some cause and effect relationship. I'm reminded of that famous law of physics - or chemistry - biology - or just about any area of study; that is, Muir's Law, which states that whenever you try to look at something by itself you find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

By this law of infinite connectedness, which, incidentally, is further expounded in Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective (Douglas Adams), especially the field of quantum mechanics, two fundamental differences in the philosophy of research are revealed: one that calls for a holistic view and the other a reductionist or atomistic view. In holism we cannot take something apart to study it because doing so destroys its very essence; in fact, the mere presence of an observer, it is suggested, affects experimental outcomes.

In atomism, the parts are studied so the whole can be better understood; knowing how the parts work, it is suggested, enables us to understand the part-to-whole relationships-in other words, why something works the way it does. This philosophical, research bifurcation lies at the root of disparate achievement of boys and girls.

But before delving further into this I would like to paint a picture of the future...which is based on educational trends...which determines business trends...which affects societal trends. Already, I'm setting the stage for the research conundrum: Should education be studied to see its effects on business? Should business be studied to see its effects on society? Or is society composed of education and business and therefore should be studied in its completeness? But, paraphrasing Michael J. Fox, let's get back to the future.

The year is 2050. We are witness to a nascent, maternalistic dynasty that will replace the paternalistic one of the past 10,000 years. The president of the U.S. is a woman as is the Prime Minister of Canada, which as we know is not an unusual, if ephemeral, circumstance for Canada. All the knowledge-based, technology industries are dominated by women, as are the professions: doctors, lawyers, biologists, teachers, geneticists-speaking of which, with cloning, by 2050 men probably won't be needed at all .... Over half of the Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO.

Now we step back in time. It is 1850. Someone called Darwin is suggesting there's a process called natural selection that determines a species' success...though he doesn't get too much into gender bias. In 1850, women, even from the wealthiest families, receive only a minimal education. Their future is dependent on their marriageability-a prospect that awaits men in 2050.

Now the year is 1997 and in high school in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada seemingly innocuous questions are raised on the trends in the results of the Rutherford scholarships, and perhaps more importantly, whether gender bias is influencing these trends.

The Rutherford results by themselves are merely rents in the fabric of society, portents of a metamorphasis from paternalism to maternalism that will take place over the next 50 years.

So what trend statistics do we have:

Male% of Recipients of Rutherford Scholarships
(P=Provincial; PK=Paul Kane High School)

1990-1991 P 42.6
PK No Figures
1992-1993 P 41.5
PK 44.2
1994-1995 P 40.5
PK 35.1
1996-1997 P 40.3
PK 29.0

NOTE: Gender distribution: 458 male; 458 female - totals for grades 10,11, and 12.

University of Alberta - Spring/Fall Sessions

1996 Male undergraduates 2056
Male graduates 514
Female U 2915
Female G 441
1986 Male undergraduates 2331
Male graduates 487
Female U 2511
Female G 338

NOTE: Compared to 1986

Given these trends, can we offer any reasons for the apparent, increasing success of female students; and, the concomitant, futuristically speaking-though this is moot point-changes in male:female relationships in the structure of society?

Part of the answer lies in the philosophical divide I mentioned earlier between holism and atomism, but also in something called Biological Determinism.

Biological Determinism, or as Professor Loewentin calls it, Biology as Ideology, posits that our abilities are innate, determined by our genes; further, that these abilities are inherited; and finally, that as a species we are pre-disposed to organize ourselves in a hierarchical fashion. It is this hypothesis that has spawned such groups as the Association for Bright Children and advocates for the Gifted and Talented; it also, paradoxically, supports the educational status quo. It is also a hypothesis that is speciously premised. (For discussion: Studies of twins, studies of adopted children into extended families, studies of Dr. Barnado's homes in UK.)

What, then, determine's a student's success in school? Neglecting the multitude of reasons that combine for a successful milieu both in school and out of school, and just using performance in school as the measure, the ability to read in grade one is the greatest predictor for success in grade six. Academic achievement in grade six is the greatest predictor for success in high school.

Completion of grade twelve with the greatest success, then, is a corollary of reading ability in grade one. In short, if your child is not reading by the end of grade one, his chances for later success-in school and in life-are diminished. To give just a few statistics on high school success rates: After four years of schooling, from grade nine, the completion rate for high school in Alberta is about 55%; after six years it's a about 70%.

Now I said 'his' for good reason. While it's true that teachers are more likely to call on boys than girls in the classroom-a situation suggested by researchers into gender bias as an example of how boys are favoured-what is not clear is whether this helps boys at all. What is known is that boys in eighth grade in America are 50% likelier than girls to be held back a grade, comprise the majority-about 80% in the elementary grades-of any remedial classroom, and in high school constitute 68% of the "special education" population (Diane Ravitch).

Further, boys are twice as likely to drop out of school (Economist), which means of those 30% of students not completing high school, two thirds are boys. From here we could continue with crime rates, alcoholism and drugs according to gender. But the picture isn't all doom-and-gloom for boys. Before going on to an area where at least a few of the male gender succeed, I'd like to relate a supporting anecdote. Notes: It's a boy meets girl story. You can imagine the scene. Guy meets gal and following a whirlwind, weekend romance decide to get married immediately. On Monday they're married. On Tuesday they're catching a plane to Hawaii for the honeymoon. But on the plane he decides to make a confession: "I'm an avid golfer," he says, "More than avid. When I'm not playing golf I'm watching golf, when I'm not watching golf I'm reading golf magazines. I eat, sleep and breathe thinking about golf." "Well," she says, "seeing as we're making confessions, I have one. I'm a hooker." "What!" he says, "That's no problem. Just keep your left arm straight, your eye on the ball, and make sure you follow through with your swing."

Men, it would appear, tend to be linear in their thinking and to use their brains differently from women; in other words, focused on their own thing. Putting this into the research context, in a recent study of science tests, teenage boys who scored in the top 5% outnumbered girls 7:1; in reading comprehension, however, girls outperformed boys. As a group, men excel in spatial orientation tasks; they can read a map, for example, without having to turn it so it lines up with the road . On the other hand, women, as a group, are better at communication-verbal and non- verbal (Christine Gorman) there's a surprise, and it took a team of scientists with a million-dollar brain scanning machine to discover this-probably because the scientists were all males.

What scanning the brains of men and women discovered is that women appear to have more pathways between the two hemispheres than men. So when men are tackling problems of a spatial nature-something that could be handled by the left or the right side of the brain-they tend to use the right side and, because they have fewer pathways between the hemispheres, don't receive-or in the case of golfers are oblivious to- signals from the other side; they are thus able to concentrate better- stay on track.

None of this, however, suggests what causes these differences. Are these differences innate? Is it a result of how boys and girls are brought up? Is there a factor in the earliest stages of children's education that amplifies these differences as they get older? Some studies suggest this is so.

One postulation is that early elementary math curriculum focuses on those interactive, memorization skills with which girls come prepared (an assumption here of innateness), only to shift later to the higher order, abstract concepts that depend on spatial visualization, which is supposedly a boy's skills (Selma Greenberg). The mainstream curriculum, in addition, is predominantly male-modeled where knowledge is achieved through debate and argument (Ong, 1981). The classroom style then becomes one of discourse and competition, favouring boys, rather than conversation and consensus, favouring girls. Through this style of teaching and learning, boys may acquire, incidentally, the higher-order abstract thinking that is needed for solving the more complex math and science problems of a spatial nature.

Hearkening back, now, to Muir's Law, or Dirk Gently, nothing is unconnected. I mentioned earlier to two factors influencing education and learning. The first is the research dichotomy, that is, the holistic or atomistic viewpoints guiding research and hence guiding instruction; and the second is biological determinism, that is, we are what we are mainly because of our heredity and that's the proper order of society- both of which brings me to an area of personal interest: Reading-an area which we have established as the most critical determinant for success.

Reading instruction, which as most of you are aware, today, is subject to a debate of methodology in the academic circles. One school of thought suggests that learning to read is a natural process, as natural as learning to talk, that its instruction, therefore, should not be fragmented but kept whole. This reading methodology has come to be known as whole language.

The opposing viewpoint contends that reading and writing are man- made artifices, that they are not natural skills; rather, they have to learned; and that the best way to learn these skills is break them into assimilable parts. This reading methodology has come to be known as phonics.

CONCLUSIONS: Without going into the history of this reading debate, I'd like to leave you with some thoughts on where we should begin with concerns of gender bias in education. It is, of course, with the foundation of all learning, reading.

Here is a quotation: "Reading occupies a central role in school curriculum. First, learning to read is the object of beginning instruction. No other single activity occupies as much time in the school day of a first and second grade child. Second, reading is the primary means of acquiring skill and knowledge in other subject matters. Social studies, sciences, foreign languages, and even mathematics and art require reading. Thus reading is the sine qua non of the school curriculum from the first day through to the end of a student's formal education." (Perfetti & Curtis, 1986)

It is quite possible, then, that the prevalent reading philosophy that has held sway over reading instruction in our schools-a philosophy predicated on holism and biological determinism-is the most important factor influencing gender differences in academic performance.

This speech is the sole work of Victor Charlton and reflects his opinions only. To make comments, contact the author by e-mail at

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