What role does sexuality play in the academic gender gap?

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Newswise – Washington, DC – The question of how gender shapes school performance has been a subject of study for several decades, revealing the “rise of women” in education as a central demographic transformation and defining a “new gender gap between the sexes” in education which refers to the academic underachievement of boys. Indeed, these trends have captured the attention of academics, policymakers and the popular press. But in documenting these patterns, researchers have largely ignored a critical axis of inequality: sexuality.

Joel Mittlemanassistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, begins to rectify this relative invisibility of sexuality in educational stratification research in her new study, “Intersecting the Academic Gender Gap: The Education of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual America”, which appeared in the April 2022 issue of American Sociological Review.

Mittleman analyzed college completion rates for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) adults, looking at overall completion rates and also disaggregating them by race/ethnicity and birth cohort. Then, using the US Department of Education’s first cohort study to assess student sexuality—specifically the 2009 Longitudinal High School Survey—he analyzed the performance of LGB students on a full range of measures of success and achievement.

Mittleman’s study reveals two demographic facts. First, women’s increasing academic advantage is largely confined to heterosexual women: although lesbian women have historically outnumbered heterosexual women, in contemporary cohorts lesbian and bisexual women face significant academic disadvantages, including lower grades. , increased alienation from the culture of their schools, and even “dropping out” of high school at significantly higher rates. Second, the well-documented underachievement of men actually masks a group with remarkably high levels of academic achievement: gay men.

Given these facts, Mittleman proposes that being marginalized from dominant gender norms has significant, but asymmetrical impacts on the academic achievement of men and women. For boys, a perceived distance from masculinity can be beneficial academically. But for girls, alienation from femininity could be academically risky.

To illustrate this point, Mittleman applied what he calls a “gender predictive” approach. Using machine learning methods, Mittleman analyzed approximately 7,000 student survey items to identify response patterns that are highly predictive of being a boy, such as time spent playing games. video games, expectations of becoming a professional athlete, and talking to friends about your personal life. problems. Summarizing these elements, Mittleman found that gay boys academically benefit from being largely estranged from the culture of masculinity reported by their heterosexual peers. Mittleman concludes that “the distance gay boys feel from hegemonic masculinity not only allows them to avoid the academic costs of masculinity, but also encourages them to pursue particularly high levels of academic achievement. Academic performance provides an accessible realm of competitive self-mastery. Additionally, “while the rules of masculinity may seem obscure or unattainable, the school rules may seem low-key and manageable.”

In contrast to the consistent advantages of gay men, Mittleman found that “lesbian women’s educational outcomes varied significantly by birth cohort and race/ethnicity. Within the overall population of American adult women, lesbian women have significantly higher bachelor’s degree levels than heterosexual women. However, on closer inspection, this overall advantage is concentrated entirely in women from earlier birth cohorts. And when I looked at lesbian women separately by race/ethnicity, I found that the bachelor’s degree advantage that historically accrued to lesbian women was concentrated among white lesbians.

Mittleman’s work suggests that an area for future research could be on transgender and other queer populations, as well as work that continues to break down the gender binary that is prevalent in studies of educational stratification.

“By making the margins of the academic gender order visible,” says Mittleman, “LGB students allow us to see the spectrum of academic performance in a new light. By incorporating sexuality into the study of educational stratification, we find the persistent sanctions for women who defy the dictates of hegemonic femininity and the enormous possibilities for men outside the bounds of hegemonic masculinity.

For more information and to obtain a copy of the study, contact [email protected].

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About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a nonprofit association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, to advancing sociology as a science and a profession, and to promoting the contributions and use of sociology by the Society. the American Sociological Review is ASA’s flagship journal.

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