Boys Trample Girls’ Turf : Behavior: Studies support the Mills College women: Even in preschool, guess who’s the boss.

<i> Carol Tavris is a social psychologist in Los Angeles who studied at UCLA, Brandeis and the University of Michigan. </i>

After Mills College in Oakland decided to admit males, the public reaction was unsympathetic to the women students’ fierce protest: Quit sniveling and join the 20th Century. Young women will have to learn to work with men sometime, and college is the best time. You women can’t have it both ways; you can’t demand access to all-male schools, then turn around and demand to keep all-female schools. I am sympathetic to these reactions and once would have shared them. They were the reasons I chose a co-ed university. But now my sympathies lie entirely with the women of Mills, and the reasons are both personal and professional. For the fact is, as research has demonstrated consistently over the years, that young women do better in their intellectual development when they have at least a few years to learn and study with each other than when they are in co-ed environments.

The reason for this is not necessarily that men are sexist brutes who consciously run roughshod over women or regard them solely as sex objects, although certainly many do. The reason is more subtle and interesting.

In a review of many research studies, Eleanor Maccoby, a developmental psychologist at Stanford, finds that, starting in childhood, boys and girls develop different styles of conversation and influence. Boys and girls do not differ in “passivity” or “activity” in some consistent, trait-like way; their behavior depends on the gender of the child they are playing with. Among children as young as 3, Maccoby observes, girls are seldom passive with each other. “However, when paired with boys, girls frequently stand on the sidelines and let the boys monopolize the toys.” And in spite of the well-meaning efforts of non-sexist parents and teachers to get boys and girls to play together, “children choose same-sex playmates spontaneously when they are not under pressure from adults.”

Now, why is this? Between the ages of 3 1/2 and 5 1/2, Maccoby finds, children begin to try to influence their play partners. What happens is familiar to every parent: Boys basically ignore girls and do not respond to their efforts to influence them. Boys will respond if another boy shouts at them, for example, but not if a girls does. Same-sex choice of playmates persists, not only because boys reject girls as “sissy,” but also because girls simply stop trying to play with boys who are unresponsive.


The different influence strategies are already apparent in preschool. When a boy and a girl compete for a shared toy, such as a one-person movie viewer, the boy dominates--unless there is an adult in the room. That’s why girls in mixed classrooms stay closer to the teacher: It’s not that girls are more “dependent,” but that they want a chance at the toys. Girls play just as independently as boys when they are in all-girl groups, when they will actually sit farther from the teacher than boys in all-male groups do.

In elementary school, the interaction and influence styles have diverged significantly. Girls tend to form intimate “chumships” with one or two other girls; boys form group friendships organized around games and other activities. Boys in all-boy groups are more likely than girls to interrupt one another; use commands, threats or boasts; refuse to comply with another child’s wishes; heckle a speaker; call another child names; top someone else’s story; tell jokes. Girls in all-girl groups are more likely to agree with another speaker; pause to give another girl a chance to speak; acknowledge what a previous speaker said. “Among boys,” Maccoby concludes, “speech serves largely egoistic functions, and is used to establish and protect an individual’s turf. Among girls, conversation is a more socially binding process.”

When I read Maccoby’s review of the many studies that portray these two cultures of gender, I felt a shock of recognition about my own college and graduate school experience. I loved my university, worked hard and learned much, thanks to professors who supported me. But I never said a word in class. (Well, one word. I was the only student in a sociology course who knew that mos was the singular form of mores , and said so. The professor, who had been lamenting the illiteracy of American students, looked at me as if a frog had spoken.) I told a boyfriend that the reason I liked him so much was that I could talk freely with him about ideas. He said, “Well, we guys get to do that with each other. We don’t need you for talking.” I decided I no longer needed him for friendship.

I was cured of my shyness in speaking up in groups of men by one simple event: getting a job. So will Mills’ students, if their college does go coeducational. But I hope, with them, that the board reconsiders. Not because I think that all universities should be sex-segregated or that all women should go to segregated schools, but because young women should at least have the opportunity to develop their own voices without being interrupted, however sweetly, however arrogantly, by men.