Personal Foul: The Role of Gender Norms in Classroom Cheating // Lauren Clinton

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A few days ago, my partner, a 7th grade teacher in the Bronx, came home with a disheartening story. While collecting homework assignments from a science class, he noticed one student pick up another students’ paper, quickly erase the name at the top of the page, and write his own it it’s place. This student proceeded to hand in the burgled assignment, leaving his own blank worksheet on his desk. Upon examining the handwriting, my partner easily determined the work to have been completed by one of his best and brightest female students, whom herself had not turned in an assignment that day.

“Why did you do this?!” the student was asked, “Why did you just give him your work?” “He’s my friend, he needed help,” she replied, “I didn’t think he was keeping it, just copying the answers. But I guess that’s what he needed”. My partner was bewildered; this talented student had not only allowed a boy to cheat off her work, but when he unexpectedly stole her assignment altogether, seemed to just shrug it off. Moreover, the perpetrating student seemed completely content, not only his plagiarism, but with his “friend” receiving a zero in his place. Why did this happen? Why did the female student so readily give her work away, and accept when it was stolen from her altogether? Why did the male student feel entitled to her work, and flippant about his own? Why was one student so comfortable with letting the other flounder, while the other would sacrifice their own grade to provide assistance?

Though the answers to these questions may be complicated, subjective, and hard to generalize, it can be theorized that gender roles may have had a strong influence. Current literature on femininity suggests that in Western culture there are socially determined and endorsed facets of gender, which one may conform to in varying degrees (Mahlik et al., 2005). In Mahalik and colleagues’ (2005) factor analysis of feminine norms, they found eight distinct components of societally deemed feminine norms. Included in these norms are traits such as modesty, fidelity, and being nice in relationships. In contrast, literature reports masculine norms as importance of winning, primacy of work, pursuit of status, and power over women (Mahalik et al., 2003). While all persons’ reading this blog are aware that many women can, and do, make work and status a priority (and men can, and do, value emotional relationships), current research supports that American culture and society endorses a gendered association with these traits and priorities. Furthermore, children grow up expecting that to represent their identified gender, they must follow these rules. Little girls may believe that they should prioritize their relationships with others more than work and winning; little boys may believe their pursuit of status in a classroom and grades should take priority over friends. Worse yet, they may be trained to believe that in order to “be a man”, they must be better than women, no matter what it takes.

It’s possible that the anecdote I was told is truly rooted in friendship: a girl wanted to help her struggling classmate who took advantage in a moment of weakness. However, even if this is true, it still suggests the primacy of traits expected across gender. Though the female student had a strong academic background, she risked her status in order to better care for her friendship. In contrast, the male student sought help through an interpersonal relationship, but then jeopardized it in order to gain academic status, win, and worst of all, demonstrate power by forcing her to take a zero while he obtained full credit. While instances such as these may be more innocuous in a middle school classroom, they have dangerous implications for adulthood. Imagine the same scenario in academia or an office. The implications may further explain gender discrepancies among CEO’s and STEM professionals.

The ultimate question becomes: What can we do? Gender norms are not inherently evil; generally speaking, they are all positive attributes. However, reinforcement of rigid gendered scripts in children may further promote issues such as these, let alone further confusion for those outside the gender binary. Rather, stories such as these promote the importance of avoiding gender-based compliments, instructions, and microaggressions. Greater praise for female students when they are helpful than when they earn a good grade further promotes this primacy of norms, as does ignoring male insubordination if it is not violent. What message does it send that at the end of the class, the female student was the one being questioned regarding insubordination, while the male’s motives were assumed? Ultimately, in order to prevent further gender inequality in the adult world, it’s going to need to be tackled in grade school.

Mahalik, J.R., Morray, E.B., Coonerty-Femiano, A., Ludlow, L.H., Slattery, S.M., & Smiler, A.   (2005). Development of the conformity to feminine norms inventory. Sex Roles, 52(7/8).

Mahalik, J.R., Locke, B.D., Ludlow, L.H., Diemer, M.A., Scott, R.P.J., Gottfried, M., & Freitas,             G. (2003). Development of the conformity to masculine norms inventory. Psychology of        Men and Masculinity, 4(1), 3-25. 

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