Remember the group project? That horrible amalgamation of weird middle school pressures combined with some random assignment meant to foster both learning and teamwork? Maybe you had to design and build a mini-terrarium for fish out of a plastic bottle. Or write a play exploring the history of Rome. Or simply work with your classmates to complete a worksheet about the chapter you just read.
Left to their own devices, kids usually divide the labor for group projects. The way they divide that labor matters, and is the root of a pet theory of mine, based on anecdotes and a little bit of research that goes like this: More often than not, a girl winds up in one particular role every time. The secretary. Maybe her teacher calls it the "recorder" or the "data collector" or the "stenographer." But whatever it is, she’s writing everything down. She’s the organized one, the one with the good handwriting, the one who cares about actually filling out the worksheet. The ones who get to be creative, who get to goof off and riff ideas and not worry about the form or the specific assignment tasks? They're mostly boys.
This isn’t to say that being the secretary is devoid of usefulness. Those girls will take those organizational skills with them as they grow up. They’ll become organized adults, women who keep calendars in order and complete tasks in on time and get their kids to soccer practice. The boys will take their skills with them, too: the ability to riff, the disregard for the rules, the ability to be creative without worrying about the specific parameters of the project. They’ll fit right in as the idea guy—the creative, if a bit wacky, tech CEO.
All this brings us to that theory I mentioned: the idea that girls who continuously take on the "secretary" role in school might be primed to take on organizational roles, as opposed to leadership ones, later in life. I’ve dubbed this phenomenon "The Secretary Effect." And recently, I decided to call some experts to see if I was on to anything.
It turns out there’s a lot of research about how boys and girls act in the classroom, but not much specifically on the roles they take on in group projects—or how those roles might impact them later. Still, the several teachers and researchers whom I spoke with all said that my theory wasn’t crazy, pointing me to studies and personal experiences that indicate the Secretary Effect might actually be a real thing.
Studies suggest, for example, that girls are more likely to want to please their teachers than boys are, a finding that many teachers report anecdotally. Kathy Jo Piechura-Couture, a professor of education at Stetson University in Florida, remembers a presentation that two teachers gave in 2012 at a gender-segregated school. The teacher for the girls class explained that whenever she would hold up an example of what something should look like, her 25 students would give her 25 carbon copies of that example. "They would come up and be staring at it and make sure they got the exact same colors," Piechrua-Couture said. "They wanted it to look exactly like the example." The boys teacher, meanwhile, said that if she got something that looked even remotely like the example, she was happy.
In one study from the late 90s, researchers interviewed students in London about the attitudes of both students and teachers in their classrooms and found that both genders felt girls put more effort into their work. "I think girls spend too long over their handwriting and presentation and things and the boys just scribble it down but have got all the answers right and just sit around mucking around for the second half of the lesson," one student said. A male head teacher at that same school noted the same thing, saying, "If the boys can do the minimum they will, whereas girls will devote much time to writing it up."
Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University and the author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, has found similar social dynamics between boys and girls. "When girls get together in groups, nobody likes to stand out, girls don’t like the girl who stands out," she said. "Boys in contrast are actually trying to stand out; they’re trying to get center stage to attract attention." She pointed me to another study from the 90s on groups within a science classroom. When there were three girls and one boy, the girls would make the boy the center of attention. If the ratio was flipped—three boys and a girl—the boys would either make fun of, or ignore, their female teammate.
This isn’t necessarily because boys are greedy attention seekers, or because they consciously want to keep women down. Often, Tannen said, it’s because they’re not sure what else to do. In her own class, she recalls a 1985 incident in which she had students work in small groups and then asked one member to come up in front of the class and present their work. Most of the presenters were boys. When she asked the students to reflect on their roles in their groups, Tannen was surprised to hear that in some cases it wasn’t that the boys necessarily wanted to present; rather, nobody else in the group stepped up, and they felt obligated to do so.
Tannen says that this kind of expectation—that women will fill in behind-the-scenes, secretary-like roles while men step into the limelight—is reflected in how women are typically treated later on in their careers. She recalls one evening in the late 80s when a male student continually came into her office asking to borrow things: whiteout, pen, paper, and so on. It eventually became clear that the student assumed Tannen was a secretary, not a professor at Georgetown. Tannen might have otherwise written this off as a one-time fluke, but when she told the story at a conference of college presidents, the women in the room nodded and shared stories of similar experiences.
And women in all sorts of fields are likely to nod at Tannen’s story. Technology is a prime example, an industry in which men continue to dominate and women continue to fight to break in. Sergey Brin and Elon Musk get to be innovative and off the wall, while Marissa Mayer is described in the Wall Street Journal as overly detail-oriented, according to "people who have worked under her."* These people say "she has an obsessive attention to detail, often micromanaging details down to the shade of colors in new product designs," the Journal reported. Women who don’t step back and let their peers take the spotlight are often docked in performance reviews. Men, on the other hand, are typically praised for taking initiative.
These are generalizations. There are girls who can’t keep track of their own shoes, and there are boys with great handwriting. There are girls who readily take on leadership roles in groups and boys who enjoy keeping track of the details. Again, this isn’t to say that secretaries aren’t important; without them most companies would fall apart entirely. And, of course, there’s a lot more keeping women from becoming CEOs than their middle school science projects. But it’s worth thinking about how teachers prime their students to accept certain roles later in life.
Stetson University's Piechrua-Couture says that teachers shouldn’t let kids divide the labor up themselves: "We really encourage you not to just give kids groupings, what you really want to do is give roles in the group and you make sure you rotate those roles." Tannen agrees, citing a study from the early 90s that compared two teachers who differed in their approach. One let the groups proceed as they pleased, while the other defined roles for each student. "The girls did better if it was described, because if the students were left to their own devices the girls would be ignored," she said.
Dale Baker, an education professor at the Arizona State University, wrote in an article for the National Association for Research in Science Teaching that it’s important for teachers to do more than just lump students into groups and let them divide up the labor on their own. "Group dynamics often reinforce stereotypes," she wrote. "Girls are often found in stereotypical roles, such as secretary, and they take a passive rather than active role in hands-on science activities."
In other words, avoiding the Secretary Effect is easy, really. But it first requires realizing that it exists.
* This post originally misspelled Marissa Mayer's name. We regret the error.
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