ERG SES H 02, Learning and Education
Gender stereotypes are generalist assumptions about male and female’s dispositions and behaviours (Haines, Deaux, & Lofaro, 2016). Widely held by teachers, parents, and students themselves, gender stereotypes in schools typically portray boys as superior learners of STEM subjects while girls as better learners of languages (e.g., Tenenbaum, 2009). In fact, such a ‘female advantage stereotype’ targeting language learners has been documented across countries, such as Germany (Kessels, 2005), the U.S. (Heyman and Legare, 2004), and China (Li, 2016). However, two questions remain unanswered:
1) In which aspects do students perceive typical female and male language learners as different?2) How do students’ perceptions vary among themselves?
Two hypotheses were proposed by the researcher. First, the female advantage stereotype, as perceived by students, might actually operate on two levels. On the macro level, converging evidence suggests that the female advantage stereotype may consist of three aspects: aptitude (e.g., Tenenbaum, 2009), affect (e.g. Dewaele, MacIntyre, Boudreau, & Dewaele, 2016), and achievement (e.g. Schemenk, 2004). In other words, it was assumed that students may consider females as more gifted in, enthusiastic about, and higher achievers in languages. Furthermore, on the micro level, since language education typically covers six domains (grammar knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, listening skills, speaking skills, reading skills, and writing skills), students might rate females more favourably in all these domains. More specifically, it was speculated that student might potentially think females are better than males in as many as 18 plausible ways: aptitude for grammar, affect for grammar, and achievement in grammar, and etc. To sum up, it was hypothesised that students might regard females as better language learners in 21 ways on two levels.
The second hypothesis is that students’ opinions may vary due to their gender, region, and grade. Previous research has shown that male and female participants differ in stereotype endorsement (Haines et. al, 2016). In addition, regional disparities in stereotypical attitudes are also found: Huo and Randall indicated that compared to the north, the subculture in the south was more masculine-oriented, and southern people tended to harbour more rigid gender stereotypes (1991). Another influencing factor is age: as Biernat (1991) has discovered, as children grow up, they are more likely to view males and females as opposite ends of the same scale. Combining the above findings, it is therefore assumed that students’ endorsement of the female advantage stereotype may differ according to gender, region, and grade.
Given that studying gender stereotypes circulating around language classrooms will inform educators about their teaching practice as well as promote gender diversity in language-related domains and careers, the current study was carried out to understand the components of the female advantage stereotype about language learners.
1,298 students (aged between 15 and 19, among which 41.9% were girls and 34.4% were boys) from 8 high schools in China participated in the study (3 from the north and 5 in the south), where they completed a paper-and-pencil questionnaire devised on the basis of the hypothesised ‘female advantage stereotype’. In Part 1, participants were asked to rate learners of one gender (female or male) regarding the 21 stereotypical aspects on 7-point Likert-scale. Then, in Part 2, the participants rated learners of the opposite gender. This way, one part of the questionnaire measured people’s stereotypical image of female learners, and the other part people’s shared portrayal of male learners. In this way, the questionnaire will measure two constructs: typical-female-learner and typical-male-learner. The comparison of these (achieved by MANOVA procedures, see Findings section below) was interpreted as the ‘female advantage stereotype’. The headmasters of the schools were asked to act as the gatekeeper of the research. Students who gained written parental consent were given a printed version of the questionnaire for them to fill out and return in a week. After a four-step data-screening procedure, 959 responses were deemed genuine and thus retained for analysis. Two additional procedures were used respectively to assess the construct validity and reliability of the questionnaire. In terms of the former, Principal Component Analysis (PCA) was employed, which revealed a two-component solution explaining 47.413% of the total variance. A Varimax orthogonal rotation was employed here to provide a rotated solution, which exhibited 'simple structure' (Tabachnick and Fidell, 2013). The interpretation of the data was consistent with theoretical design of the questionnaire: it was designed to measure with strong loadings of typical-male-learner items on Component 1 and typical-female-learner items on Component 2. This provides solid evidence for the construct validity. This study used internal consistency coefficients (Cronbach’s α) as the indication of reliability. According to Tavakol and Dennick (2011), it is the most common reliability estimate for questionnaires using multiple Likert-scales to measure a single unidimensional latent construct. Results showed that the questionnaire had a high level of internal consistency, as determined by two Cronbach's αs (one for each latent construct): the Cronbach’s α for the typical-male learner items was .946, and that for the typical-female items was .940.
Two MANOVAs were performed on two levels respectively. For the three dependent variables on the macro-level (aptitude, affect, and achievement), a 2 (participant gender) × 2 (region) × 3 (grade) × 2 (learner gender) mixed MANOVA was performed. It was found that: 1) participants stereotypically believed that female learners had greater aptitude for, stronger affection towards, and better performance in English compared to their male counterparts; and 2) students in higher grades had stronger stereotypes regarding affect and achievement. On the micro-level, another MANOVA was performed on 18 dependent variables. It was found that: 1) participants stereotypically believed that female learners had an advantage over their male counterparts in all 18 areas; 2) compared to boys, girls had a weaker sense of gender stereotype regarding grammar achievement, writing aptitude, grammar aptitude, and listening affect; and 3) compared to boys, girls held a stronger gender stereotype regarding speaking affect. These findings raised practical concerns about how the female advantage stereotype may prescribe language/literacy as feminine domains. Further research into how it might explain the gendered-pathways in higher education is in need.
Biernat, M. (1991). Gender stereotypes and the relationship between masculinity and femininity: A developmental analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(3), 351-365. Dewaele, J. M., MacIntyre, P., Boudreau, C., & Dewaele, L. (2016). Do girls have all the fun? Anxiety and enjoyment in the foreign language classroom.Theory and Practice of Second Language Acquisition,1(2), 41-63. Haines, E. L., Deaux, K., & Lofaro, N. (2016). The Times They Are a-Changing… or Are They Not? A Comparison of Gender Stereotypes, 1983–2014. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40(3), 353-363. Heyman, G. D., & Legare, C. H. (2004). Children's beliefs about gender differences in the academic and social domains.Sex Roles,50(3-4), 227-239. Kessels, U. (2005). Fitting into the stereotype: How gender-stereotyped perceptions of prototypic peers relate to liking for school subjects. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 20(3), 309-323. Li, J. (2016). Male foreign language majors: Self-identified minority on campus. In Z. Lu, Y. Lu, and G. M. Davies (Eds.), Tertiary Education: Issues and Perspective from Asian Contexts (pp. 189-199). Hong Kong: The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Tenenbaum, H. R. (2009). ‘You'd be good at that’: Gender patterns in parent‐child talk about courses. Social Development, 18(2), 447-463. Schmenk, B. (2004). Language learning: a feminine domain? The role of stereotyping in constructing gendered learner identities. TESOL Quarterly, 38(3), 514-538.
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