Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


In this issue: Gender and Learning

mccormick school of engineering and applied science students Photo Courtesy of McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science

Research by SESP assistant professor Lois Trautvetter uncovered key strategies for attracting women like these two Northwestern students to engineering programs.

Penelope Peterson

Dear Friends,

I am a mother of two boys and a girl. I often say that I didn’t believe in gender differences until I had kids. Here’s my favorite example: every time I had a birthday party for one of my sons, I would spend a lot of time trying to corral the little boys so we could play a game like Pin the Tail on the Donkey or take turns swinging at the piñata. The first birthday party for my daughter, Elissa, looked slightly different. After greeting the little girls one at a time at our front door and ushering them into the house, I went into the living room only to find that the girls had spontaneously arranged themselves into a circle and were sitting there quietly awaiting directions, some with their hands folded in their laps. I can’t recall anything like this ever happening with my sons!

My daughter doesn’t like to hear this story because she has always viewed herself as just as physically active and energetic as her two brothers. Elissa believes that she can do anything she wants to do and that being a girl has never held her back. Indeed, Elissa now resides in Telluride, Colorado, where she snowboards or skis every day during the winter, mountain bikes during the summer and climbs at all times during the year. By day Elissa serves as the teen librarian in the Wilkinson Public Library, where she works with youth of both sexes. She secretly admits to me that she sees some gender differences when peer culture starts having a greater influence during adolescence. She particularly likes the challenge of working with teen girls because she strives to teach them to be independent thinkers and learners even as peer culture works to draw these girls into traditional sex-stereotyped roles.

In this issue of Inquiry, we investigate gender differences in learning. From my daughter’s perspective, our lead article is particularly interesting, since faculty member Simone Ispa-Landa investigated the ways that gender relates to teens’ school experiences and found that stereotypes often prevail. Given that formal education can provide learning opportunities for those who might not otherwise have them, such gender-related findings reveal ways in which education might need to change. The second article, “Adding Women to the Engineering Equation,” describes Lois Trautvetter’s research on educational interventions that draw more women into the field of engineering. Along with formal education, parenting can also play a role in combatting stereotypes that might lead African-American boys to underachieve and engage in risky behavior. “Helping Mothers of Boys Know Best” describes the parenting program that Jelani Mandara has developed to help mothers of African-American boys parent with respect, order, understanding and discipline.

We’d love to hear your stories and ruminations about gender differences and how they may or may not affect learning. If you are a teacher, parent or grandparent, you probably have anecdotes to share. Please send them to us by e-mail at or by snail mail. We look forward to hearing from you!

Sincerely yours,

Penelope Signature
Penelope L. Peterson, Dean