Gender stereotypes at college

While it is generally considered that the development of a child’s gender identity crystallizes around the age of seven (Boyd and Bee, 2015), studies suggest that the construction of gender identity is dynamic and can be reorganized during the child’s further development (Mieeya and Rouyer, 2013). In any case, most college students will already have internalized many of the characteristics, attitudes and behaviours traditionally associated with their gender through gendered socialization (SCF, 2018). Gender stereotypes mark gender differences, and these differences are more apparent amongst students who are considered “at risk” in terms of their schooling (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012a, p. 34).

Identity development

The issue of identity development must be approached from the perspective of school perseverance by sex for two main reasons. First, the development of gender identity continues in college and identity construction in boys and girls is marked by significant differences. Second, the path taken by students as they develop their identity can greatly influence their motivation to study, which is one of the key factors in student retention (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012b). Most college students are “at an age and in a place—college—where the quest for identity is experienced intensely (Roy, 2011)”. (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012a). Examining the differences specific to each sex and how they construct their identities makes it possible to understand young people better as they make their way through this time of experimentation, and to foster their success at school.

According to the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (2002), the transition from secondary school to college seems to be a critical step in the academic and personal progress of students in a context of social change that adds to the difficulties they must already deal with as they attempt to define their personal and professional identities. Three main dimensions emerge from the literature on the subject: the teacher-student relationship, the students’ relationships with their parents, and their involvement in school activities (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012a). Although gender differences do appear for the first two dimensions, it would seem that involvement in extracurricular activities has a fairly significant influence on identity development in both boys and girls since it allows them to learn more about themselves (strengths, interests) and to assert themselves more clearly as a person (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012a).

Identity construction in boys

Some elements more specifically mark identity construction in boys. First, “it would seem that boys have more difficulty with the transition from secondary school to college” (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012a, p. 62). Indeed, when they arrive at college, they are markedly less certain about what they want to do later in life and make their career choices later than girls do (Boutin, 2011). They also arrive at college in search of independence, which they perceive as a condition necessary for their own identity development. In keeping with their desire for emancipation and their affirmation of identity, boys “seem more inclined to develop individual learning styles and to circumvent the rules determined by the school world” (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012a, p. 62).

Identity construction in girls

There is little documentation dealing with identity construction in college girls. In contrast to their male classmates, female college students begin their post-secondary studies with a firmer idea of their career choices and become involved in extracurricular activities so as to count on the support of the other members of the group associated with their activity and to forge their identity by building on their membership in this group (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012a).

Gender identity development

Ultimately, both boys and girls may continue to build their gender identities into adulthood. According to the LGBT Family Coalition (2018, p. 2), gender identity is an individual’s gender experience which may or may not correspond to their biological sex or the one assigned at birth. Consequently, any individual may identify themselves as a man, a woman or somewhere between these two poles, regardless of their biological sex. All people—regardless of sexual orientation—have a gender identity. College students may, therefore, wonder about their gender identity or be trans; in other words, their gender identity might not be the same as their sex at birth whether their transition or coming out has actually occurred or not. Gender identity is not necessarily linked to a young person’s interests (activities, clothing, career choices). So it is important to avoid thinking, for instance, that because a boy is interested in a so-called feminine activity, he sees himself as a girl, or vice versa (SCF, 2018).

Gender stereotypes in young college students

As they build their identities, young people rely on and learn from the various models they have encountered in their lives—within their families, amongst their friends, in the media, their teachers, etc. Some of these models may reproduce gender stereotypes that today seem natural to us. For instance, we associate cooperation, reading, softness, relationships and calmness with women, whereas competition, sports, strength and independence tend to be associated with men.

In young college students, these stereotypes are expressed in different ways. According to a literature review on the subject, “girls appear to be more involved in the relationships they create through their social networks (Boisvert and Martin, 2006; Gingras and Terrill, 2006; Rivière and Jacques, 2002). The spirit of cooperation would more often than not be an important reference value that they have integrated well at college (Roy, 2006). As for boys, individualism and competition appear to generally have greater value to them (Roy, 2006). Their social networks generally appear to be less rich than those of girls (Cloutier, 2004)” (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012b, p. 9). In addition, “boys appear to be less likely than girls to use existing resources if they encounter problems (Cloutier, 2004; Dulac, 2001; Larose and Roy, 1994; Tremblay et al., 2006). […] Brooks (1998) schematically illustrated the contradictions between the requirements set for receiving help (i.e.: revealing one’s private life, waiving control, being vulnerable, introspection, coping with one’s pain and suffering, etc.) and some traits associated with male socialization (i.e.: hiding one’s private life, maintaining control, being invincible, acting and doing rather than looking inwards, denying one’s pain and suffering, etc.)” (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012b, p. 9).

Amongst the various behaviours and characteristics marked by gender stereotypes, the most common are the following:

Are more sensitive and emotionalAre more rational and do not show their emotions
Are better at reading, languages and artAre better at sports, science and mathematics
Take care of others moreAre more independent

This being said, these stereotypes are not based on biological characteristics, nor have they been scientifically proven. At birth, the brains of boys and girls differ only in reproductive function. Children aged 0 to 3 years old therefore have the same cognitive (intelligence, reasoning, memory, attention, spatial identification skills) and physical skills (Vidal, cited in Piraud-Rouet, 2017). The differences between boys and girls that develop are attributable to the brain’s plasticity, that is to say, its ability to transform according to its learning and its environment (Piraud-Rouet, 2017). As for the psychological or behavioural differences between the sexes, while they tend to increase from childhood to adulthood, they are nearly absent in infants and young children (Cossette, 2017).

This may explain why there are nevertheless differences between female and male college students: they have had more than 16 years to learn the social standards expected of girls and boys because they were socialized differently!

Differentiated socialization

Differentiated socialization is the process of inculcating in children the behaviours expected of their sex in keeping with the standards that exist in the society in which they are growing up. Much of this differentiated socialization takes place without our knowledge, totally unconsciously. Foremost, it occurs through family influence and this influence continues to have an impact until children are old enough to attend college. According to a study on identity construction in college boys, some respondents said that their “parents appear to have encouraged them to develop their independence more than that of girls by raising them in a manner that is less protective, emphasizing that they need to learn to ‘figure it out for themselves’. Some boys reported learning the ‘hard way’ more than their sisters who were more often protected” (Roy, Bouchard and Turcotte, 2012b, p. 63). Thus, when asked about this subject, young people perceive these differences in the way their parents behave towards them, since they change their behaviours depending on the child’s gender. This differentiated socialization, also transmitted by the media, society, school and by many other agents, also greatly modulates the relationship boys and girls have with school and learning. These specificities are presented here.


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