In Studies Across Disciplines, Steinhardt’s Social Scientists Challenge Deeply Held Beliefs About Gender

Niobe Way When psychologist Niobe Way set out to study friendships among teenagers from low-income families, she expected to find that boys were more interested in playing basketball with their friends than having deep, meaningful, heart-to-heart conversations.

What she found instead is that boys are deeply vulnerable and speak with passion and sensitivity about their closest male friends. “More than 85 percent of the boys I spoke with indicated that shared secrets are what make their friendships close and why they love their friends so much,” Way says. “They did not say that what they enjoy most is the sports they play together.”

Way’s forthcoming book, Deep Secrets: The Hidden Landscape of Boys’ Friendships, the result of 15 years of study, debunks the age-old assumption that the capacity and need for close intimate relationships is inherently female.   A professor in the Department of Applied Psychology, Way is one of a group of faculty at Steinhardt, who, through research and practical application, are challenging traditional theories about gender and influencing our understanding of adolescent development, attachment, single-sex schooling, and democracy.

Way’s finding might be considered a bookend to the study that Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown published in Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girl’s Development (Ballantine, 1993). The book looked at girls’ development from late childhood to adolescence.

Gilligan has been at the forefront of gender studies since she published In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard University Press, 1982). An NYU University Professor, she holds a joint appointment in the Steinhardt School’s Department of Applied Psychology and NYU’s School of Law.

When she began her research in the 1970s, the field of gender studies was ripe for investigation. “Research on gender within the human sciences began with the discovery of a pervasive gender bias in the field of psychology and in medical research.” Giilligan says. In a Different Voice made the point that girls and women had been left out of the studies in human development, and that this omission had, in essence “misrepresented both women and men.”

In Meeting at the Crossroads, Gilligan and Brown found that while girls are able to articulate their thoughts and feelings in late childhood, by adolescence — when cultural pressure for ‘gender appropriate behavior’ is at its peak — girls silenced their voices for the sake of maintaining relationships.

“This is paradoxical because in silencing themselves they were taking themselves out of relationships with others,” Gilligan says.

Way found that by late adolescence boys who spoke passionately about other boys in their early teen years began severing their ties and using phrases such as ‘no homo’’ (a ‘macho mantra,’ the researcher called it), to disavow any expression of feelings about their formerly close best friends.

Way writes,

The boys in our studies felt the pressure to accommodate to “conventional male standards” and occasionally said it directly: “Now I’m a man, I need to take care of myself and not depend on others,” or “I don’t need to speak about my feelings anymore, I’m growing up,” or simply “I don’t have close friendships with other boys…I’m not gay.” Having intimate male friends and being a heterosexual male were perceived contradictions. “I sound so gay,” says an 18-year-old boy after he claims that it “wouldn’t be so bad” if he still had a close male friend.

“The sharing of deep secrets is something coded feminine within our homophobic and patriarchal framework,” Gilligan says. “Way’s study shows a profound interplay of psychology and a culture where masculinity is premised on separateness and close friendships among men are viewed with homophobic suspicion unless the men are in battle or on the playing field.”

Epidemiological studies show that for both men and women, close friendships are correlated with longevity, psychological resilience, and physical health. The research of Alisha Ali, an associate professor of applied psychology, finds that when people disconnect from relationships, the result is often depression.

Ali and Dana C. Jack, a professor at Western Washington University, are co-editors of Silencing the Self Across Cultures (Oxford University Press, 2010). The volume uses Jack’s ‘Silencing the Self” theory, which draws on Gilligan’s research, to show how men and women in 13 different countries silence themselves in close relationships and how depressive symptoms can be linked to self-silencing across a range of cultures.

“What most of our studies have found,” Ali says, “is that for men and women self-silencing is correlated with depression. There is no gender difference on silencing the self. Women do not score higher than men on this behavior.”

Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, an expert on educational reform and diversity, knows about boys’ self-silencing and its effect on education from his own first hand experience. His book, The Trouble with Black Boys…and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education (Jossey Bass, 2008), begins with the story of his son, Joaquin, a good student whose grades plummeted in the 10th grade. Joaquin can be seen as representative of a sample of Black and Latino boys whose developmental struggles with racial and gender stereotypes impact their academic achievement. Noguera writes:

As he grew older, Joaquin felt the need to project the image of a tough and angry young Black man. He believed that in order to be respected, he had to carry himself in a manner that was intimidating and even menacing. To behave differently – too nice, gentle, kind, or sincere – meant he would be vulnerable and preyed on.   I learned from Joaquin that part of his new persona also involved placing less value on academics and greater emphasis on being cool and hanging out with the right people.

Noguera examines the advantage of educating boys in single sex schools in Theories of Change among Single-Sex Schools for Black and Latino Boys: An Intervention in Search of a Theory (Steinhardt, 2010). The research brief, written with Edward Fergus, reports the finding of a longitudinal study undertaken at Steinhardt’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, which examined seven single-sex schools serving primarily Black and Latino boys aged 9 to 18.

The idea of educating boys of color in single sex schools is an educational reform strategy guided by the premise that dividing children by gender results in higher academic achievement and self esteem, especially for boys who tend to lag behind academically. A three-part education policy breakfast series at Steinhardt in 2008 explored gender and education and its implications for policy and practice.

“The schools we examined were making a concerted effort to create a school culture where masculinity and intellectual achievement were not perceived as being in conflict,” Noguera said.

Noguera’s sample schools engaged strategies focusing on boys’ social and emotional development, as well as their gender and racial identities. Some even offered special events or classes, such as a celebration of fathers and fatherhood, a men’s conference focusing on issues facing boys in the community, and a daily book group called Men Do Read.

But the result of Noguera’s study suggests that separating boys from girls is not wholly responsible for raising boys’ academic achievement. Several co-educational schools studied were as effective as their single-sex peer schools.

“We are not willing to say that separating the boys is the key to their success,” Noguera says. “What we are willing to say is that there are certain characteristics that we have found in some of those single sex schools and the co-ed schools that are very important to the success of boys academically.”

Among these characteristics are strong leadership and teachers who are well trained, supportive, and tolerant of their students’ behavior.

Gilligan believes that there is a paradigm shift spreading through the human sciences, specifically in developmental psychology, neurobiology, and evolutionary anthropology. More studies are revealing that what has been seen as characteristic of women is also true of men, and therefore simply a human trait. She see’s Way’s research as crucial to developmental psychology because her findings show us “why and how these human traits in men become their deep secrets.”

In her most recent book, The Deepening Darknesss: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy’s Future (Cambridge University Press, 2008), written with NYU Law Professor David Richard, Gilligan looked at how the goals of democratic societies are thwarted by the patriarchal psychology of our personal and political lives.

She believes that gender binaries (the social construction of gender that accounts for rigid social roles) and gender hierarchy (the valuing of human qualities that are perceived as ‘masculine’ over those perceived as ‘feminine’) stand in the way of human development and are antithetical to the democratic values of equal voice and free and open conversation that is the right of every citizen.

In the years since she published In a Different Voice, the field of women studies has led to gender studies. Research on infant development, girls’ development, and studies of young and adolescent boys make it clear to Gilligan that we have been telling a false story about ourselves.

“False in part because it is falsely gendered,” Gilligan says. “Women and men both think and feel. Both have a voice, a self, and a desire to live in connection with others and to have close relationships.”