The present study explored secondary school students’ perception of gender identity (masculinity or femininity) and academic achievement. The relationship between these variables was measured. The study adopted descriptive survey design. Respondents included 500 students, 85 principals, 171 teachers, 92 parents and 8 education officers. The study shows that masculinity is generally perceived as lack of emotions and affections, while femininity as beauty conscious and marriage oriented. These perceptions shape attitudes and behaviour in schools, ultimately impacting negatively on academic achievement. The study made important findings that will inform interventions meant to equip boys and girls with skills to enable them balance gender traits in a manner that does not subjugate the innate biological sexual traits.
In general scholars concede that education is a major avenue by which a society’s culture is transmitted from one generation to another. Bennaars, G. A., Otiende, J. E. and Boisvert, R. (1994) views education as a process by which one acquires attitudes and cognitive abilities which society considers desirable and satisfying. Education, thus, provides an important socializing context such that students’ informal interactions in schools are an influential aspect of their socialization into restricted gender roles (EACEA, 2012). Stromquist (2007) presented gender as an important factor in schooling and through interplay of several social and inherent biological traits male and female students are positioned in ways that can produce cumulative challenges to their schooling. Socialization at school level may be effected through various ways including classroom interaction, classroom activities, subject choices, and participation in physical education chores (Sifuna, D. N., Chege, F. N., and Oanda, I. O., 2006). Schools, thus, become one of the society’s most powerful socializing forces that foster and support societal stereotypes for gender behaviour (Skelton, 2001). School as a social institution tends to repeat and instil the cultural labels and values into which individuals have been socialized at the family and community levels. By focusing on secondary schools, the research captured the dynamics of gender equality as they operate within the education system.
While net enrolment rates (NER) at all levels are generally low compared to national averages, data by the Ministry of Education present declining situations especially for boys’ education in secondary school in Meru County.
For instance, in 2009, the NER at pre-school level was at 33.5% for boys and 34.5 % for girls compared to national figures of 41.3% and 42.3% for boys and girls respectively. NER was higher than the national averages – 76.2 % and 78.3% for boys and girls respectively – at 84.1% for boys and 85.9% for girls. However, secondary education NER were 19.1% and 25.3%, compared to a national average of 22.2% and 25.9% for boys and girls respectively (Republic of Kenya, 2012). The data revealed low secondary education NER particularly for boys. This trend raises fundamental questions regarding the role of gender socialization on male and female students’ academic achievement.
There is no doubt Kenya has made significant progress in reducing gender gaps in education. However, considerable gender differences in academic performance remain. While girls out number boys in attendance, they trail behind them when it comes to performance. For instance the 2011 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results show that out of the top 100 students nationally, only 34 were female. Similar results were mirrored at the county level where boys dominated the top 10 positions in 44 counties. The same trend is reflected at the overall performance ranking of schools with only three of the top 10 top schools being girls’ schools. Wide gender gaps in performance are evident in public secondary schools in Meru County. For instance, in 2011, the only four schools that made it to the top 100 best performing schools in KCSE nationally were all boys’ schools.
Socialization and Gender Identities
Crespi (2003) defines gender socialization as the learning of behaviour and attitudes considered appropriate for a given sex. The gender socialization process occurs in multiple social institutions including the family, religious and educational institutions, mass media and peer networks (Sifuna et al, 2006; Stromquist, 2007). In order to conform to the sociallyconstructed gender labels, individuals are compelled to feel obliged to fit into a pre-determined stereotypical model of masculinity and femininity (Chege & Sifuna, 2006).
Gender conditioning and sex stereotyping messages are reinforced through distinguishable allocation of roles at the family level (Wamahiu, 1992; Chege and Sifuna, 2006). Differentiated interactions with children at home along gender lines serve as primary gender models that socialize children as either masculine or feminine. These gendered interactions also communicate gender ideals and expectations for male and female children. These gender identities are identified by their oppositional character, based on the relation of the dominant other. Indeed gender identity definitions mirror typical binary conceptions of femininity and masculinity (Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998). The “neutral”, “genderless” or “androgynous” position allows individuals to express both masculine and feminine traits that they adopt for various situations. However, most individuals strive to fit within the masculine-feminine divide, because non-conformity leads to being labelled as deviant, social misfit, or ostracized (Chege & Sifuna, 2006).
At school level, gender socialization take place through various aspects, for instance, through interaction with teachers, schoolmates, the curriculum and engagement in co-curricular activities. Subjects such as home-science, languages and nursing generally socialise female learners towards professions considered feminine because they have their roots in care-giving roles (Chege & Sifuna, 2006). On the other hand, because masculinity is associated with physical and mental toughness, subjects such as mathematics, sciences and technical subjects that demand either precision or ‘application of mind’, or physical strength and power, are associated with masculinity (Chege & Sifuna, 2006; Jha & Kelleher, 2006).
Teachers directly influence academic environment because they have the potential to modify student behaviour and produce stronger academic student-cultures (Legewie & DiPrete (2012). Stromquist (2007) suggests that teachers are influential role models because students spend most of their time with their instructors. Teachers may, however, socialise students along gender lines because they send multiple gendered messages through the curriculum as well as organizational decisions. Their attitudes may reflect biases toward girls or boys, fostering among the less favoured students, a sense of alienation. Any form of direct or indirect gender discrimination hinder personal, academic, and professional development for the estranged group. Education, thus, plays a significant role in the construction of learners’ gender identity through transmitting society’s dominant values.Likewise, it is through education that desirable changes to stereotypical gender attitudes and resultant deviant behaviour can be addressed.
Gender Socialization and Schooling
A study by USAID (2008) in Jamaica revealed that traditional gender socialization processes and stereotypes are significant factors in the educational experiences, expectations, and outcomes for boys and girls. Gender socialization practices often result in highly-gendered school environments, and form a large chunk of the fundamental factors that constrain learning opportunities, especially for girls. These gendered experiences also encourage gender segregation and stereotypical gender behaviour in school. Further, the interaction of gendered school environments with other factors, such as the quality of leadership, class size and socio-economic status of students, have varying impacts on educational achievement (Dunne and Leach, 2005).