Gender – Our Achilles Heel

For as long as I can remember, gender has been a sore spot in large-scale assessment. Often overshadowed in the media and federal regulations by race and ethnicity, it is a difference in test results by gender that can cause the most trouble for those of us in testing.

The problem, you see, is that there are fewer other explanations for gender differences than there are for other group differences.

  • Students with disabilities and English learners – Well, sure, we want those kids to receive the appropriate instruction they deserve and perform better but the expectation of a difference in subgroup performance is kind of built in.
  • Economically Disadvantaged: See Coleman et al. (1966).
  • Race/ethnicity: Basically, a recipe for group differences. Start with socioeconomic status, add in opportunity-to-learn with all that it encompasses, fold in just enough debate about whether the standards themselves are racist or unfair, and you have a pretty big cushion of expected differences to mask any problems caused by the test itself. Hey, I don’t make the rules.

With gender, however, we are long past the day when you might see explanations like these, outside of Twitter, in reporting on  differences in SAT results:

Possible hormonal contributions to the discrepancy [in mathematics results] have been hypothesized by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth…

The female decline in verbal scores is something of a puzzle. Some test critics ascribe it to the existence of too many concepts based on sports and science.

No, with gender, the spotlights and microscopes turn pretty quickly to the test as the prime cause of score differences, whether it’s the content of the test or the test-taking environment. And we have few arrows in our quiver or tools in our toolbox with which we can attempt to reduce the differences.

Adding writing to the mathematics and science tests in the 1990s was a quick fix, at least temporarily – really, it worked.

Adding more contexts of little interest to boys was another partial solution. Note the distinction here, replacing contexts supposedly of little interest to girls was not as effective at reducing differences as adding contexts that didn’t engage boys.

The driving force behind all of these machinations was the belief that there should not be a difference in performance based on gender. That is, of course, unless that difference favored girls as it did in reading, writing, and sometimes social studies when we used to test that.  It’s true, gaps that favor females or racial/ethnic subgroups like Asians are not considered a problem until someone makes a federal case out of them. Again, I don’t make the rules.

Discussing gender was often just as difficult as dealing with gender differences.

Enter Achilles, Sex, and Gender

As I said, I don’t make the rules, but back in the day academics had rules about gender and sex. One person I encountered who seemed to thoroughly enjoy calling people out on those rules was a professor named Charles Achilles. By all accounts (and I have read many) he was a good researcher and a fine man. But in my interactions with him over a 3-5 year period, he was a cantankerous, curmudgeon of a discussant who took pleasure in calling out authors who described their samples or reported results in terms of gender rather than sex.

He would explain, in that special way that only the most seasoned of professors have mastered, that sex was a biological construct, a classification with two categories (female and male), gender was a social construct, and it was clear that the author had divided their sample based on sex and not gender. What can I say? We all have pet peeves. We all have go-to moves we use as discussants. We all need a hobby.

Sadly, Prof. Achilles is no longer with us. I imagine, however, that he, and the old friends and minions who applauded him after each discussant performance, would be both appalled and flummoxed by the current state of affairs with regard to sex and gender.

The lines between sex as a biological construct (with two categories) and gender as a social construct (and always a continuum) have become blurred, if not totally erased, and not only in casual or informal use. As a testing professional and member of society, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that.

Gender as a social construct

There are so few well-defined problems with clear solutions in education (and in life), but for the past several decades it appeared that gender was one of those. The issue seemed clear.

Problem: Gender is a social construct manifested by societal or cultural norms and expectations that have been ascribed to individuals based on sex and are used to differentiate between the sexes.

Solution: Stop doing that. Break down and eliminate the social construct. Get rid of artificial distinctions between sexes.  Anything you can do; I can do better.

For years, that was the paradigm, the theory of action, the logic model, etc. that we were working under. There were metrics to measure outcomes, evaluate effectiveness, and determine success. It appeared that progress was being made on several fronts and there was some real success to celebrate. Low-hanging fruit had long ago been picked and we were beginning to take on more difficult and intractable aspects of the issue that were deeply embedded and spread throughout the system like a cancer.

But then suddenly the game changed.  Flipped 180°.

It is a seismic shift to go from “ignore the sex of the person across the table from you” to “your paramount concern is not misgendering people in a meeting.” Oh, and by the way, still ignore all of those all gender norms.

How did we move so quickly from

  • The person sitting across from you in the meeting is a person and their sex shouldn’t have anything to do with how you perceive them, to
  • Icebreakers like I identify as ‘x’ or ‘y’ or ‘xy’ and these are my preferred pronouns…

What did I miss? Was there a tipping point? Something on TikTok?

Reenter Achilles, Newton, Heisenberg, and Large-Scale Assessment

Gender was no longer a social construct to be eliminated. Gender was part of an identity to be embraced, acknowledged, and respected.

Those two concepts are so far apart, I should not even be writing the two sentences next to each other. They should be on opposite sides of an abyss. But it is an abyss that feels strangely familiar.

Like the rest of us (i.e., humans), I tend to try to place things that I know I don’t understand within the framework of things that I think I understand. In this case, the thing that I think I somewhat understand is educational measurement and large-scale assessment – at least I have thought about it a lot.

One of the problems that has kept some of us awake at night for the past three decades is trying to figure out how to apply a science (i.e., a set of tools and procedures built around a theory) designed to describe and predict group performance to the measurement of the ability, achievement, or performance of individual students within the group.

It’s a wicked problem. We have compared it to the difference between Newtonian physics (groups) and quantum mechanics (individuals). Our attempts to bridge the gap between a unidimensional IRT model and a theory of everything have produced learning maps that resemble a Jackson Pollock.

At the society/group level, I can see that gender is a social construct, an artificial edifice, unrelated to the biological construct sex (no correlation, no causation). I can then argue that gender serves no purpose and that it needs to be deconstructed.

At the individual level there are, well, individuals. At the individual level, the constructs of sex and gender function or are perceived very differently than they are for groups.  Sex and gender might not function as separate constructs (sex and gender) or a single construct (sex or gender), but rather as some type of blended construct (sex x gender). Further, that blended sex/gender construct is a very important part of the individual’s identity.

Let’s recap. What do I know?

  • I know that because of the fusion of the terms sex and gender so long ago, any effort to separate them could only have resulted in the confusion that we are now experiencing.
  • I know that making changes to a body, either chemically or surgically, is related to something other than the social construct of gender.
  • I know that pretty much all of this is well beyond my ken and certainly beyond the scope of this blog post.

Practical Matters

Although I know that I am way out of my league with issues of sex, gender, and identity, one area that I am pretty comfortable with is the importance of understanding the problem that you are trying to solve. With that in mind, let’s stroll back into the minefield that is preferred pronouns.

What is a pronoun and what is its purpose? I turn to Merriam Webster for answers to those questions.

  • Pronoun: any of a small set of words (such asIsheheyouitwe, or they) in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose referents are named or understood in the context
  • Apronoun is a word that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase. Pronouns refer to either a noun that has already been mentioned or to a noun that does not need to be named specifically.

The primary function of pronouns has been to streamline communication (written and oral) and not to confer or confirm gender or identify. Appropriating pronouns for the latter purpose does not serve the former well.

That is not to say that has been no value-added in having gender-specific pronouns to help in streamlining communication. Consider this example from a conversation discussing a key scene from a Christmas movie with my best friend:

Maggie and Ben see each other from across the hall. From the look on his face, she knows immediately that something is wrong.

In that case, the use of “his” and “she” help streamline the conversation.

Those gender-specific pronouns would not have been helpful had the characters been named Pat and Chris – unless, of course, my friend had also seen the movie, or if these were real people and both my friend and I knew Pat and Chris.  Same if the two characters had been named Maggie and Molly or John and Ben. Context.

I am also not making the argument that word usage never changes. I have finally adopted the convention of using the plural they/them in writing when referring to a generic individual rather than alternating between he/she and she/he because it is less awkward to read and write and in no way detracts from a reader’s understanding of the sentence.

The same cannot be said of the need to tie individualized, unique pronouns to every individual referred to in speech or writing. And it certainly doesn’t help to borrow pronouns that already have meaning.

If traditional sex/gender-based pronouns do not work anymore and the purpose of pronouns is still to streamline communication, the solution is to agree on a new set of sex/gender-neutral pronouns. I believe that we started out in that direction a few years back and may yet end up there when all is said and done. Language changes sometimes work that way.

On the other hand, if we have decided that personal pronouns need to serve a higher purpose than streamlining communication, fine, but we need to make that clear. Then let’s focus on solving that problem effectively and efficiently.

Either way, I do think we have to ask ourselves whether personal pronouns were ever our personal possessions – even the possessive ones.  As poets from Delbert McClinton to Taylor Swift have reminded us, pronouns might not be ours to choose or to lose

‘Cause it was never mine.
‘Cause you were never mine.
‘Cause he, she, her and his were never mine.

Image by delta1 from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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