Gender stereotypes amongst Mi’gmaq college students

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 & 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 & Turcotte, 2012d). Most college students are at an age and in a place—college—where the quest for identity is experienced intensely (Roy, 2011, in Roy, Bouchard & Turcotte, 2012c). Examining the differences specific to each sex and how they construct their identities and make it possible to understand young people better as they make their way through this time of experimentation, and to foster their success at school.

Interplay Between Personal, Professional, and Cultural Identity

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. On top of this, indigenous students also have to deal with the necessity of valuing their cultural identity, which is a minority amongst the dominant culture of the student population. Besides, young indigenous college students mentioned having to drop out of school at some points to re-engage with this identity and come back to their academic progress stronger (Gauthier, 2015a). Yet, valuing their cultural identity is a key element of their academic perseverance as studies have shown that indigenous students who succeed best have a strong attachment to their ethnic identity. Therefore, the most persevering students have used their ethnic identity as an emotional anchor point building their confidence and a sense of security while facing adversity and cultural discontinuity (Joncas & Lavoie, 2015, p. 18).

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 et al., 2012c). 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 people (Roy et al., 2012c).

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 et al., 2012c, p. 62). This transition can be particularly difficult for young indigenous boys, who then no longer have an environment that is familiar to them and are suddenly part of a cultural minority (Gauthier, 2015, p. 13; Joncas & Lavoie, 2015). Indeed, when they arrive at college, indigenous and non-indigenous boys 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 et al., 2012c, p. 62).

Identity Construction in Girls

There is little documentation dealing with identity construction in college girls, indigenous or not. In contrast to their male classmates, more 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 et al., 2012c). Many female students are also constructing their mother identity at the same time, alike Innu female students in Baie-Comeau’s CEGEP—who are for the most part single mothers (Santerre, 2015), which complexifies their identity construction.

Gender Identity Development

Ultimately, both boys and girls may continue to build their gender identities into adulthood. According to a conceptualization by John Robert Sylliboy (2019, p. 106), a two-spirited Mi’gmaq, the identity of a human being (L’nu) has four dimensions (emotional, spiritual, physical and mental) and encompasses both historical traditions and contemporary practices. Therefore, Mi’gmaq children develop their gender identity while balancing its spiritual dimension, rooted in cultural traditions, and its mental dimension that reflects contemporary practices. The physical dimension on its part is associated with sexual identity, for example the child’s biological sex, while the emotional dimension is associated with gender identity. 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.

Figure 1. L’nu Model (Sylliboy, 2017)

In many First Nations, people with a gender variant identity are called two spirits (Sylliboy, 2017). If the definition of the term “two-spirits” changes from one Nation to another, “Albert McLeod defines it as ‘a term used to describe aboriginal people who assume cross- or multiple-gender roles, attributes, dress and attitudes for personal, spiritual, cultural, ceremonial or social reasons.’” (Monkman, 2016). There is no specific word in Mi’gMaq to adequately represent this concept, although undergoing studies might determine which Mi’gmaq expression would represent it best (Sylliboy, 2019).

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 Mi’gmaq 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, their communities Elders, 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. The spirit of cooperation would more often than not be an important reference value that they have integrated well at college. As for boys, individualism and competition appear to generally have greater value to them. Their social networks generally appear to be less rich than those of girls (Roy et al., 2012d, p. 9). In addition, boys appear to be less likely than girls to use existing resources if they encounter problems. 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 & 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

Table 1. Male and female stereotypes

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 often have had more than 18 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 et al., 2012a, 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.


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