Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Sex/gender differences in reading and education

I am in the process of preparing a conference paper discussing gender differences in reading (and education more widely).  However, in need of a break from it, so thought a quick post about the topic would provide a welcome rest….

I’ve carried out quite a bit of research exploring gender differences in reading.  While my initial publications referred to ‘gender’ differences, my preference now is to refer to ‘sex’ differences as I am becoming increasingly interested in the distinction between the two.  Indeed, the terms sex and gender are typically used interchangeably in the research literature; however while sex refers to biological differences between boys and girls (and is typically the focus of research exploring sex/gender differences), gender refers to the characteristics typically associated with being male or female. Both boys and girls will vary in the extent to which they identify with traditional/stereotypical masculine and feminine traits (i.e., their gender identity).  It is this variation among boys and girls that interests me more – i.e., can sex differences commonly found within education be better understood from a gender identity perspective?

To date, I have carried out two studies on this topic (see references below).  In Study 1 (McGeown et al., 2012) we explored sex differences in children’s  motivation to read (girls, on average, typically report greater reading motivation) and in Study 2 (McGeown, 2013) explored sex differences in book choices (comparing books ‘aimed’ at boys, girls or gender neutral).  In the first study, we found that children’s (both boys and girls) identification with feminine traits was more closely related to their motivation to read, than their identification with masculine traits.  In the second study, we found that children’s identification with feminine traits was more closely related to the likelihood that they would read gender neutral books (and books aimed at girls).  In addition, girls were more likely to transcend gender boundaries when it came to book choices (i.e., were more likely to read books marketed towards boys, than boys were to read books marketed towards girls).

What both studies illustrate however, is that for both boys and girls, identifying with traditional/ stereotypical ‘feminine’ characteristics (e.g., being kind, caring, compassionate, etc – see Boldizar 1991 for questionnaire used) is associated with greater motivation to read and greater book reading.  This suggests that reading is still perceived as a more feminine activity.

In terms of educational significance, I have suggested that interventions to de-feminise reading, such as providing male role models as readers or more male orientated environments for boys to develop their reading skills could be useful. Also, interventions that are focused towards promoting reading between fathers and their children may also be effective at reducing children’s early perceptions that reading is a more feminine activity.   I also suggest that careful consideration should be given to the types of books available in schools; boys in particular will benefit from having access to books predominately aimed at males, as they are less likely to transcend gender boundaries and may still perceive ‘gender neutral’ books as more feminine than masculine.

Beyond these two studies however, I believe that this focus on gender identity could be a helpful one for studying other ‘gender’ trends within education, as it removes this dichotomy between boys and girls.  Indeed, any psychology/educational researcher interested in sex/gender differences knows that there is greater within group variance (i.e., variation among girls or variation among boys) within specific aspects of education (e.g., attainment, motivation, etc) than there is between group variance (i.e., differences between boys and girls).  As noted by Hyde’s (2005) ‘gender similarities hypothesis’ an over emphasis on studying or discussing gender differences suggests that males and females are more different than they actually are.  Perhaps studying gender identity instead is a better way of understanding the gender trends that are typically found within education.



Boldizar, J.P. (1991). Assessing sex typing and androgyny in children: The Children’s Sex Role Inventory. Developmental Psychology, 27(3), 505–515.

Hyde, J. S.  (2005).  The gender similarities hypothesis.  American Psychologist, 60, 6

McGeown, S., Goodwin, H., Henderson, N., & Wright, P.  (2012).  Gender differences in reading motivation:  Does sex or gender identity provide a better account?  Journal of Research in Reading, 35(2), 328-336. 

McGeown, S. P.  (2013).  Sex or gender identity?  Understanding children’s reading choices and motivation.  Journal of Research in Reading. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2012.01546.


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