Friday, September 28, 2018

The Difference between Boys and Girls

Today, we have news from the gender bending front. It is a somewhat dry and arcane academic study, but it sheds some serious light on the differences between boys and girls. It’s more about social roles and less about the biology of gender.

Susan Pinker reports on the study in the Wall Street Journal. It began when some social engineers decided that single-mother families living in bad neighborhoods should be given housing vouchers in order to move to better neighborhoods. The program sponsors assumed that an improved neighborhood would benefit the children. Apparently, the fact that most of these families lacked fathers did not enter into the calculation.

For the record we know nothing in particular about the two neighborhoods. And, we know nothing about the racial or ethnic composition of either neighborhood, or of the families in question. This to say, the story suffers from numerous lacunae.

When the families were studied, researchers discovered the girls showed improved behavior while boys did not. The differences were stark.

Pinker describes the study:

Imagine you’re a single mother living at or below the poverty line in a troubled neighborhood. If you want to shield your teenager from drinking and mental distress, should you try to move to a better area or stay put? The answer depends on whether your teen is a boy or a girl, according to a new paper published in the journal Addiction.

The lead author of the study, University of Minnesota epidemiologist Theresa Osypuk, investigated the drinking habits and mental health of teenagers whose families lived in public housing in the late 1990s. About two-thirds of the families were randomly chosen to receive housing vouchers, allowing them to move into better areas.

Between four and seven years later, the researchers found, adolescent girls who had moved into more expensive neighborhoods were far less likely to drink to excess than girls who remained in public housing. But boys whose families had moved binged more. This surprising finding challenges the assumption that behavioral risks increase with economic hardship and that poverty affects women and men the same way.

The single mothers showed improved health but no improvement in employment prospects:

To the chagrin of the policy wonks who designed the program, improving where women lived had absolutely no effect on their employment. But it had a big impact on their health. “Rates of obesity were lower, markers of diabetes were better, mental health was better,” Prof. Osypuk said.

But, the real question is: why did boys not benefit from the move? Why did their mental health deteriorate?

Boys are developmentally more fragile than girls, with higher rates of learning and behavior problems. That’s one reason why the well-being of the boys in the voucher groups tanked, according to Prof. Osypuk. Boys who moved out of public housing not only drank more but also showed higher rates of distress, depression and behavior problems, according to a 2012 paper that she and her team published in the journal Pediatrics.

“Boys have mental health disadvantages, and the stress of moving adds insult to injury,” Prof. Osypuk said. Just when these vulnerable boys most needed predictability, their social worlds were upended. “They moved down in the social hierarchy and hung out with riskier boys,” speculated Prof. Osypuk. Meanwhile, girls who moved to better neighborhoods experienced fewer sexual stressors and adapted to their new circumstances more easily.

We would like to know whether the boys living in single-mother homes moved into neighborhoods where other boys had fathers at home. And yet, the most important factor seems to involve social hierarchy. Apparently, placement on a status hierarchy is more important to boys than it is to girls.

Surely, this also tells us something about role reversal marriages. If a family chooses to reverse roles, thus to have the mother be the primary breadwinner and the father the primary caregiver, boys will apparently suffer.

When boys are hanging around on the playground they ask about what their fathers do. They will not judge each other in terms of what their mothers do… because they do not want to grow up to be like their mothers. Boys gain status and prestige from their fathers’ occupations, but not from their mothers’ occupations.

This tells us why the boys in question gravitated toward the lower end of the status hierarchy and hung around with boys who indulged in more bad behavior.

Apparently, the situation with girls is different. One suspects, as a general rule, that girls are less inclined to join gangs or to take drugs. One imagines that girls have their own status hierarchies, but apparently they are not as rigid as their male counterparts. I have not read the study, but I suspect that girls gain status from the boys who pursue them. I also suspect that this is based more on looks and personality than on socioeconomic background.

We do not want to draw strict conclusions from single studies, especially when we cannot evaluate the influence of other factors. And yet, at the least, it’s intriguing.


Anonymous said...

what was the effect on the better neighborhoods and schools of moving all the single mother public housing families in? Cultural enrichment?

Sam L. said...

Studies have gaping holes in them.

Ares Olympus said...

It certainly is an interesting finding, and clearly suggests housing vouchers are not enough to help boys. I wonder if big-brother programs help?

Status hierarchies are certainly real among boys, but its important to see that that's a plural. There are many ways to gain status, with sports and academics as two traditional ones. But I do agree there will always be some fraction who don't find any socially sanctioned way to raise their status, so joining the bad boys is a reasonable choice.

It might be interesting to compare status to self-esteem or maybe self-respect is better. What does it take to say "no" when your friends challenge you to jump off a bridge? Your status might go up if you say yes and live. But your self-respect and status goes up if you know it's stupid and help redirect your peers into more constructive pursuits.

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