Not feminized, but modernized

In the public debate Norwegian schools are criticized for being feminized. But according to Professor Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen, it is not the schools that are poorly suited to boys – it is the girls who are better suited to the demands of modern working life.
Illustrationphoto: Colourbox

“When I began studying girls and boys at school in the 1970s, the girls sat still in their chairs or giggled shyly when they had to speak aloud in class. Some still do that, but these days many girls are self-confident and active in the classroom,” says Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen.

Her recently released book entitled Skoletid (”School days”) is based on an unusually long-term research project. The professor visited the first grade class of “City School” for the first time in 1992, and during the next nine years she spent one week each year in the class. The last time she had contact with “her class” the pupils had turned 23 years old. In other words, Bjerrum Nielsen has an unusually rich body of material to draw on when she compares these pupils with those she met in classrooms in the 1970s.

Girls are still intensely interested in relationships, but there is no longer a discrepancy between having self-confidence and being concerned with intimacy, as Bjerrum Nielsen observed in previous studies of children. She sees that boys have changed as well.

“It may still seem that boys have a more hierarchical group structure than girls, but I also saw that boys can be very caring,” she says.
The boys know how to comfort each other and praise each other, and eight-year-olds may become a bit jealous when one of them gets a hug from his mum who happens to stop by the classroom.  Bjerrum Nielsen emphasizes that the group of children were mainly from middle-class Norwegian families and that her findings only apply to this one school class. Nonetheless, she believes she has made some observations that are by no means coincidental.

While girls in the 1970s giggled shyly when they had to speak aloud in class, girls in the 1990s spoke up without hesitation.(Ill.: Colourbox)

“And although boys and girls as a group are still rather different, for example girls are more concerned with relationships and boys are more interested in doing something, this is not manifested in the pupil’s role in the classroom as much as it used to be,” she explains.

Girls have a head start 

From the first grade, the girls dominated this class academically.

“The girls mastered the school situation better, and there is no doubt that socially they were more mature than the boys when they started school. In other words, girls get a head start right from the beginning,” Bjerrum  Nielsen believes, and adds that this tendency becomes magnified throughout the school years.  However, the professor has a completely different interpretation of this than what is typically portrayed in Norwegian media – that the schools are not well suited to boys.

“This has nothing to do with the feminization of the schools. It has to do with modernization. The requirements of modern working life are different than before. People must be able to plan their own work and work well both independently and in groups. Girls are more capable of this than boys,” the professor believes.

“The requirements of modern working life are different than before.”

The young people agree with her: She interviewed all the pupils when they attended the fifth and ninth grades, and both boys and girls thought that girls were better at school.

“By the same token, it’s not the case that boys have fallen through the cracks. Statistically speaking, their marks are 0.3 points lower than girls’ by the time they are finished with lower secondary school,” says Bjerrum Nielsen. She also points out that when she got together with “her” pupils when they were 23 years old, almost all of them were doing well.

“Some of the boys were a little more easy-going when it came to their education, while the girls were more goal-oriented. My impression is that the girls were a bit less certain that they would succeed and as a result they were more serious, whereas the boys master a different kind of modern demand: they are flexible and can reorient themselves quickly,” says the professor, who emphasizes that these are only tendencies. There are some girls who are more relaxed, and the four pupils who had not yet taken any type of education after the upper secondary level were all girls.

See also: Gender equality creates new school boys

Boys get even

Girls’ objectification of boys does not have the same impact as boys’ objectification of girls, according to Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen (Ill.Colourbox).

However, some new problems arose in lower secondary school, including for the tough girls in the class.

“Our culture offers the boys something they can use to get even with the academically strong girls, namely the girls’ bodies. And the girls become vulnerable because the boys can adopt a herd mentality,” says Bjerrum Nielsen.

The researcher observed that some of the girls tried to retaliate by commenting on the boys’ bodies, but the boys’ criticism is more organized and consequently has greater impact, such as when a group of boys discusses the size of one of the girl’s breasts.

“It’s difficult for the girls to reconcile this objectification with the image they have of themselves as academically successful and goal-oriented. Some of them react by becoming more insecure in the classroom. But the girls are not always innocent victims since many of them take active part in creating this extremely gendered environment in lower secondary school. They don’t fall for the ‘nice’ boys who have never objectified them. They are attracted to the cheeky, ‘bad’ boys, although they can also become irritated by the boys’ behaviour,” says Bjerrum Nielsen.

“Girls in today’s society are supposed to be perfect: incredibly slim, beautiful and smart.”

She observed the greatest effect from the boys’ teasing and criticism and the girls’ insecurity about their bodies in the ninth grade, but she believes that this follows the girls as they grow older.

“Girls in today’s society are supposed to be perfect: incredibly slim, beautiful and smart. This has to do with individualization in modern society, the demand that you must invent yourself. Physical appearance also has more importance for boys today, but it seems that this hits girls harder. There is quite a lot of pressure on them,” says Bjerrum Nielsen.

See also: Why are we so obsessed with good girls?

Active, socialized children 

In the wake of this long-term project, Bjerrum Nielsen has some feedback for the field of child research.
“As a backlash against developmental psychology, which has described children’s development in terms of universal laws, child research has taken a strong constructionist approach in recent years, whereby children are seen as actors who create their own culture and developmental process. I don’t disagree that children do this, but through this long-term project it has become clear to me that developmental psychology and socialization are also important,” says the professor.

Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen. (Photo: Heidi Elisabeth Sandnes)

She believes that child research has become too one-sided by taking a constructionist approach and that this may be because it does not follow children over time. When viewed in a longer term perspective, it becomes evident that children’s development is a complex interaction between physical growth, greater cognitive and social skills, and the active constructions of common frames of reference by the peer group’s culture.

“All children are themselves throughout their school years. Of course, they change somewhat in response to positive and negative feedback, but they retain their same basic way of relating to the world. This stability in the child’s way of reacting and contributing to the world at large has been given too little attention in child research,” says Bjerrum Nielsen, and continues:

“When these small, stable subjects come together, however, they continually create something new in a reciprocal process between group affiliation and individuality. This constructive work is based both on the cultural expressions they have access to and on the fact that they are growing and becoming older, in other words, developmental psychology. It is therefore not an either-or matter of choosing between theories on children as actors or developmental psychology and socialization, but rather it is a fascinating combination.”

She believes that this ability to view children from both perspectives is crucial for child researchers and teachers, as well as for others who work with children. Understanding development requires a multi-theoretical perspective. Pupils must be viewed simultaneously as unique individuals and as members of various social groups linked to, for example, gender and ethnicity. No two children are alike, but at the same time clear social patterns are formed in the classroom.

Translated by Connie Stultz

Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen

Professor Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen is the director of the Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo. She holds a cand. philol. degree in Danish and psycholinguistics from the University of Copenhagen.

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