Fancy a heated debate? Just ask what are the differences between boys and girls, and more importantly, where do they come from? Are women hard-wired from birth to be nurturing and dependent while men are inescapably dominant and aggressive? Or is that something that's constructed and reinforced by the environment in which we grow up. Guaranteed to generate passionate views!
There was an interesting article in the Observer series on How to Understand People about men and women by Linda Blair. She argues that babies are treated very differently from birth: 'In reality, we tend to reinforce aggressive, dominant behaviour in boys and helpful, nurturing behaviour in girls. A study in the 1960s by Kagan and Moss found that mothers behaved more coldly and were more rejecting of their sons if they showed traditionally feminine behaviour (nurturance, dependence), and behaved more warmly to those who showed traditionally masculine behaviour (rowdy play, dominance). We assume that boys will be tough, whereas girls will need assistance, and these assumptions carry on through life.' She continues, 'When it comes to women and language ability, we know that girls are encouraged to talk more often from a young age, and they're spoken to more often than boys. Studies have shown that if a mother believes a baby is a girl, she'll talk more to that baby than she will if she thinks the baby is a boy. As they mature, women are encouraged to discuss their feelings in a way that isn't expected of their male counterparts.'
Wherever the differences come from, the next debate is whether boys and girls should be treated differently in order for them to have equal opportunities. My son, for example, is at a mixed school but was taught English GCSE in a single-sex group to enable his teacher to use teaching strategies that are thought to be more appropriate to boys. But how far should that different treatment go?
Birmingham Youth Offending Service have recently introduced a special version of their intensive supervision and surveillance programme (ISSP) - a community sentence involving electronic tagging, work and training - for young women aged 15-17. According to this report, for 25 hours a week, they attend one-to-one sessions on issues ranging from healthy relationships to domestic violence, as well as participating in activities such as dance or drama. Of the 70 or so girls on the scheme every year, around 70% complete the six-month programme and, moreover, do not reoffend. This provision grew from an observation that girls offend for different reasons to boys and then respond better to more individual rehabilitation rather than work in groups.
It sounds good, but I think there can be a danger in lumping all girls or all boys together in one homogenous group. We need to recognise the diversity that is found within the sexes as well as the difference found between them. And surely, all young offenders could do with responses that take into consideration their backgrounds and needs, whether they are female or male. Is there a danger that if we expect worse behaviour from boys, we'll do less to help them reach their full potential or excuse it as something they just can't help?