Boys and Girls
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 15 2001
Who'd be a boy?
BY RICHARD MORRISON
The veteran feminist Doris Lessing says she feels sorry for men. So should we all. With no male role models, boys are already at the margins of society by the time they reach primary school
There they are, every evening, when I walk through the local park. A dozen teenage boys mooching round the kids’ playground: hoods up; faces clenched in sullen scowls; eyes hostile; fists thrust moodily into trouser pockets; gangsta-rap misogyny pounding incessantly through their skulls.
What is their purpose in life? At present, it’s to terrorise younger kids into handing over £5, £10 — or perhaps their mobile phones. Someone in the gang will know someone else who will exchange such plunder for drugs: no questions asked. In our part of North London every ten-year-old knows what’s going on.
But in the future? What does life hold for these boys? Many are already excluded from school. Next week’s GCSE results will hold no joy or anguish for them. Inarticulate except in F-words and C-words, illiterate except in comic strips, unemployable except by dealers in need of street-corner pushers, unloved even in their own broken homes, they have no “stake in society”. And they know it.
Sooner or later they will get caught doing bad things, and be incarcerated in one of Britain’s hellish youth jails. There they will survive by learning to do worse things. Or they won’t survive. Statistics suggest that quite a lot of them will end up dead before they are 25, either by their own volition or somebody else’s. They are Britain’s lost boys. Every town has them. There must be hundreds of thousands scattered across the country.
The “problem with boys” is not a new topic. Indeed, it has become one of the great middle-class frets, especially in August when exam angst hits its melodramatic zenith among the chattering classes. At the Edinburgh Festival this week, even that veteran feminist Doris Lessing felt she had to denounce the New Inequality, in which boys are made to “apologise for their existence” at school, while girls are given every chance to blossom and flourish. And in the next few days we can expect a clutch of headlines proclaiming an ever-widening “gender gap” between the nation’s soaraway, superconfident girls and its loutish, lagging lads.
This imbalance in achievement, apparent for years at primary-school and GCSE level, now seems to have worked its way into higher education as well. The ratio of female students to males in British universities is fast approaching three to two. That isn’t surprising. If you believe the mountain of telling comments collected in Adrienne Katz’s recent study, What Sons Say (published by Young Voice), the notion of learning is now perceived by boys of all social classes to be wimpish and uncool.
But the real “problem boys” are not the scions of the middle classes. Even if the latter do “underperform” at school, the system will usually carry them inexorably onwards and upwards. Most will still end up earning more than their studious sisters.
No, the real problem lies lower down the male heap. Somehow we have created an underclass of untouchables: large numbers of disaffected boys with time and testosterone to burn and no incentive to conform to decent standards of behaviour.
That’s bad for them, and bad for us. We can see the results all around: in the thuggery of English football fans; in some of the most notorious murders of recent years; in the Bradford and Oldham riots; in the endemic bullying apparent even in primary-school playgrounds; in the horrifying spread of killer drugs on inner-city housing estates; and even in the casual aura of menace lurking in the parks and shopping malls of leafy suburbs like mine.
Preoccupied with the task of creating a “level playing-field” for girls, we have fatally ignored the problem boys. And “fatal” is not too dramatic a word in this context. In the 15-to-24 age group, males are five times more likely to attempt suicide than females, four times more likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, and nine times more likely to be sleeping rough on the streets.
If they also happen to be black, badly educated and from poor homes, the scales of life are weighed even more cruelly against them. In ostensibly egalitarian 21st-century Britain, a white middle-class girl can expect to live 15 years longer than a black working-class boy. Much of that discrepancy is explained by the number of young men who die violently before they have reached their mid-twenties.
What has caused this dangerous imbalance in the life prospects of different children? If you subscribe to the hypothesis of Anthony Clare’s recent doomladen tome On Men: Masculinity in Crisis, you will regard the boy problem as merely a by-product of a wider “meltdown” afflicting all males, young and old, as they discover that they have been washed up like debris by a tidal wave of social change. And in Edinburgh this week Doris Lessing expressed herself “shocked” at the “unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed”. Perhaps that is too sweeping a generalisation. Nevertheless, many technological, educational and industrial trends in the past two decades have clearly worked to the disadvantage of boys. Most obviously, the sweaty manual-labour factories have largely disappeared. In the old days they used to provide steady work for millions of boys who left school without paper qualifications — work which, by its very physical nature, only males could do. The certainty of such employment gave boys a reason for keeping out of trouble.
Now they have no such reason. If you know at the age of 12 that you are heading for the unemployment scrapheap (as, for instance, many Asian boys in Bradford suspect), you have little incentive to treat schoolteachers — or any other authority figures — with respect.
But this doesn’t explain why boys fall behind girls so early in their lives. Last March a government-funded survey suggested that, even before children step inside a school, girls are way ahead of boys in “communication skills”. It seems that the slippery slope leading boys into gangs, drugs and crime begins virtually in the cradle.
“This is shocking and reflects a bigger picture in society,” said Professor Eric Wilkinson of Glasgow University when the research was published. “Parents need to work harder with their sons to engage them in communication.”
Other educationalists concur. Boys, it seems, are too often shunted into non-cerebral activities that actually stunt the development of their communication skills. What’s more, they are also expected to “bottle up their feelings”, to conceal even their greatest fears beneath a mask of hard-faced indifference. No wonder, the argument goes, that when they are confronted by tasks driven by a high level of self acknowledged anxiety — such as revising for exams or preparing for a job interview — they are far surpassed by girls.
That hypothesis may be valid, but there is a far more obvious social trend hindering the development of well-balanced teenage boys. For a variety of reasons, positive male role models are largely absent from their lives. And without the guidance of good role models, boys gravitate towards bad ones: the bullies, dealers and gang leaders hanging round school entrances, park playgrounds and amusement arcades.
Too pessimistic? Look at the facts. When we talk about one-parent families, as we do increasingly in 21st-century Britain, what we mostly mean is fatherless families. Only one divorced father in 20 receives custody of his children, and half of all divorced fathers see their children just once a week. In many homes boys have no older male to guide them at all.
Then they go to primary school, and find much the same scenario. Fewer than one in five primary-school teachers is male. In the big primary school down the road from us, the only man on the premises (out of a teaching and support staff of 30) is the caretaker.
True, there are more male teachers in secondary schools. But as Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University has argued, if boys become disaffected at primary school they are much more likely to play truant or be excluded later. And the likelihood is that young boys easily become disaffected if, for example, they attend a primary school with no organised team sports through which they can channel their physicality — or one in which “rough games” are banned from the playground.
It’s as if the very qualities that differentiate boys from girls are being suppressed by official diktat.
So in many towns it is left to volunteers, working outside school hours, to provide the positive male leadership that boys desperately need. And one does encounter some admirably generous men who run children’s football teams, gyms, youth theatres, music projects, scout troops and sea cadets with boundless enthusiasm and understanding.
But rather than applauding such vital voluntary work, we have managed to generate a climate of distrust about men who give up their spare time to work with children. The very word “scoutmaster” now carries snide overtones. No wonder that fewer and fewer men are prepared to do this sort of work. Who needs the sniggers? And of course sophisticated modern opinion has turned against “quasi-military” youth organisations like scouts and cadets, or “quasi-religious” organisations such as church youth clubs. Well, fine, let’s indulge our scruples. But what have we supplied instead for the teenagers kicking around the estates? The shameful answer is: zero facilities, zero understanding, zero hope. If a fraction of the lottery money spent on fancy art galleries, ornamental gardens and opera houses for the middle classes had gone into invigorating the lives and imaginations of millions of alienated teenagers, the country would be a brighter and safer place.
It’s a depressing picture, even if it’s not unique to Britain. In the United States, the response has been to treat disaffected boys as a medical problem. American doctors write 11 million Ritalin prescriptions a year for boys said to have “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”. The trouble is that in some American schools more than a third of all boy pupils are now dependent on the drug, and no better focused than before.
Then there’s the Jane Fonda approach. She has donated £9 million to endow a “Centre for Gender and Education” at Harvard University. She argues that after decades in which the main thrust of educational philosophy has been to empower girls with self-belief, it is time to switch the emphasis on to boys. The problem, she says, is that young boys are too conditioned to be “manly and strong” from an early age. If only they could be made to behave more like girls . . .
Hmm. When I walk through my local park, I don’t see teenage boys suffering from an excess of manliness and inner strength. I see lonely and insecure children desperately in need of pride and purpose. I see a huge waste of latent talent. I see a blot on this country’s aspirations to be a civilised, unified nation, and a shirking of our obligation to educate and motivate our young. I see a catastrophe waiting to happen.
We are at a crossroads. We could ignore the “lost boys” and their troublesome behaviour. We could hope they “grow out of it”, whatever “it” is. But the evidence of our overflowing youth jails is that they don’t and won’t.
Or we could reassess the way we organise society. No, we can’t turn back the clock and restore the male-centred world that guaranteed badly educated boys a job for life (provided that women stayed at home, bore children and did the housework). Nor should we.
But leaving a large, dangerous minority of teenage boys out in the cold — jobless, bored and resentful — is a blueprint for social unrest, of which this summer’s riots were but a nasty foretaste. There are no easy answers. Turning a blind eye, however, is no answer at all.
While girls surge ahead in all subjects at school, boys are lagging behind. Is "girl power" to blame? Do boys need their own dose of "empowerment"?
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By Amy Benfer
Feb. 5, 2002 | The first panicky calls for the empowerment of girls in education came slightly more than a decade ago, inciting a national response of extraordinary scope and intensity. Bombarded by the impassioned claim that girls were shortchanged at school, Americans mobilized without delay, inviting the media to publicize the alarming plight of girls, while pushing public and private schools to institute permanent changes to end discrimination in the classroom. By 1994, a federal law -- the Gender Equity in Education Act -- specifically banned discrimination against girls in school.
From the beginning, critics of the empowerment movement claimed that creating special programs for girls was sexist. Later, other researchers -- most prominently Diane Ravitch, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former assistant secretary of education, and Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the 1992 book "Who Stole Feminism" and "The War Against Boys" -- began to question whether there had ever been a "girl crisis" in the first place. These critics painted the feminist leaders of the girl empowerment movement as adult women who were somewhat hysterically looking for evidence of patriarchal coercion where none existed, in order to correct inequities that had been solved by the previous generation.
Critics of empowerment efforts didn't dispute that girls at one point had been discriminated against in education, but claimed that by 1990, those inequities had largely been erased, and that girls had already begun to overtake boys in many academic and social areas. As Ravitch told a New York Times reporter, "It might have been the right story 20 years earlier, but coming out when it did, it was like calling a wedding a funeral."
Regardless of exactly when it began to happen, it appears now that American girls have made outstanding progress in academic achievement. Some researchers credit the empowerment movement; others say it was superfluous. But what is certain is that recent studies indicate that girls have significantly bridged historical gender gaps in math and science scores (and in some studies, have eliminated them entirely) and have held on to their historical advantage over boys in reading and writing skills.
At the same time, according to those studies, boys have not made the same progress in eliminating their side of the gender gap. Suddenly, the debate among researchers is focused on the boys: Are they behind because of the girl empowerment movement? Are they being shortchanged in the classroom simply because they are boys?
Just last month, the results of a study that tested 15-year-old students in 32 industrialized nations reflected that girls score much higher than boys in reading and [in most countries, including the United States] are on par with the boys in math and science. Authors of the report, issued by PISA (the Program for International Assessment, a French-based international consortium of educational researchers), called the reverse gender gap "striking."
Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington-based think tank, and a higher education policy analyst for Postsecondary Education Opportunity, based in Iowa, says that in his 30-year career devoted to eliminating gender imbalances in education, he has witnessed a troubling shift.
"Right around 1990, it hit me that girls had made extraordinary progress between 1970 and 1990," he says. "For me, it was one of those 180-degree reversals: Now I believe that boys are the ones with a gender disadvantage in education. They are where the girls were 25 years ago."
According to the U.S. Department of Education, American girls have been ahead of boys in reading in studies for every year on record, beginning in 1969. But as girls move ahead in math and science, the reverse gender gap, which has shown up on dozens of local and national studies, becomes all the more pronounced.
(The most pressing and intractable educational gaps in the United States are still undeniably those of race and socioeconomic status. American students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to educational discrimination and underachievement: On the PISA study, American students recorded the highest gap out of all participating countries between students in the top and bottom quarter of wealth.)
A study released in June by the U.S. Department of Education indicated that the average 16-year-old boy has the reading skills of an average 14-year-old girl. Equally dramatic gaps have show up in local studies in Boston, Chicago and New York. On the last Regents exam in New York City, 70 percent more girls than boys had exemplary scores in reading and writing; 45 percent more boys than girls scored well below grade level. There were no gender gaps reported on the math or science sections of the exam. (Of the dozen or so articles that appeared in the New York Post lamenting the dismal performance of New York City students, the question of gender was never raised, outside of reporting the raw data.)
Additional studies show that girls, on average, also have better grades in high school and college and are more likely to be enrolled in accelerated or advanced-placement classes. Boys are much more likely to be held back, diagnosed with a learning disability or put in a remedial or special education class. College admission and graduate rates for girls have soared since 1950. They now constitute the majority of college students and college graduates. And girls earned 57.2 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in 2000; boys earned 42.8 percent.
All in all, this adds up to a rather bleak picture for boys, unless one considers college entrance scores and studies that look at the success of adult men and women. Those who wish to address the issue of educational inequity for boys are caught between the empirical data, which shows very real gender gaps for young boys and college-age men, and the perception that boys can't be doing so terribly, if adult men are still doing relatively well, or at least outperforming women.
Boys continue to outperform girls on the SAT, which is a requirement for admission to the majority of American universities. In 2000, girls scored, on average, 38 fewer points than boys overall (35 points on the math portion; 3 on the verbal). Similar gaps also show up on the PSAT, the SAT II, the ACT and the Graduate Entrance Exam, and though girls are more likely to take advanced-placement classes, boys are more likely to achieve the higher scores needed to attain college credit for these classes. And once they are in the workplace, men still earn more than women (although that gap is closing) and represent the majority of CEOs, politicians and high-wage earners in all industrialized countries.
There have been any number of recent books on what is described by some as a looming educational crisis for boys and men, including many that focus on the special needs and challenges of boys, particularly in adolescence. But a full-blown campaign to reempower boys seems a long way off, possibly because those who concur that boys need help cannot agree on the source of their educational problems or the appropriate methods of relief. While the girl empowerment campaign united women from very different backgrounds and philosophies -- academics like Carol Gilligan, popular writers like Mary Pipher, journalists like Anna Quindlen and Peggy Orenstein, political organizations like the National Organization of Women and researchers in the American Association of University Women -- there is nowhere near this kind of unity in the movement to help boys. In fact, many of the leaders in the movement to empower boys are actively fighting each other.
Harvard professor Carol Gilligan, author of the 1982 book "In a Different Voice," is widely credited with (and, by her critics, denounced for) kick-starting the girl empowerment movement. She was among the first to argue that women experience relationships, morality and communication differently than men, and are therefore silenced in a culture in which the male experience stands in for the universal human experience.
Some of Gilligan's early critics took exception to her so-called difference feminism, fearing that any theory that relied on essential gender difference could be used to rationalize discrimination against women. But it's difficult to overstate just how big a star Gilligan is in the field of gender studies: Throughout the '80s and '90s she was routinely awarded major honors; in 1997 she received the Heinz award for "transforming the paradigm of what it means to be human" and in 2001, Jane Fonda donated $12.5 million to fund a chair at Harvard in Gilligan's name.
In 1990, Gilligan applied her theories of women's psychological development to explain the underachievement of girls. She claimed that girls experience a crisis of confidence in early adolescence, which leads them to become less assertive and outspoken and more uncertain about their futures. To many people, Gilligan's work became the core around which to build a national movement to reform education.
Gilligan's concern for adolescent girls was almost immediately picked up and shared by educators, journalists, parents, teachers and popular writers, including clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, whose bestselling "Reviving Ophelia" claimed that America's sexualized, lookist, media-saturated "girl poisoning" culture led post-feminist American girls to be "much more oppressed" than ever before. Pipher blamed this oppression for girls' alleged low self-esteem, suicides, self-mutilation and low math scores. ("Just as planes and ships disappear into the Bermuda Triangle," wrote Pipher, "so do the selves of girls go down in droves.") Critics, like Hoff Sommers, pointed out that some of these problems -- especially suicide and behavior disorders -- overwhelmingly affected more boys than girls.
But more important, Gilligan's claim led other researchers to try to prove with empirical data that girls were being harmed by sexism in the schools. In 1991, the American Association of University Women released a report, "Schools Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," which purported to confirm Gilligan's thesis that girls suffer a crisis of self-esteem during adolescence that leaves them much less confident in their abilities. This was followed in 1992 by another AAUW study, "How Schools Shortchange Girls," which placed the responsibility for girls' underachievement directly on the sexist attitudes of educators -- in public and private schools -- who failed to provide girls with adequate classroom attention.
The AAUW studies almost immediately became a battleground in the p.c. wars. They were heavily attacked by Hoff Sommers and others, who claimed that they were tendentious and riddled with methodological errors. But the studies were publicized by popular journalists and writers and their recommendations lobbied for by powerful national women's organizations.
In the end, the view that society was shortchanging girls prevailed. Advocates for girls succeeded in putting pressure on Congress to pass the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act, which provided millions of dollars in support for programs aimed at correcting sexism in the classroom, including special math and science programs for girls, sensitivity workshops for educators and new textbooks that corrected gender stereotypes (i.e., women as nurses, men as doctors).
Eventually, many of the leaders of the movement to empower girls joined their critics in calling for new research into how to remedy educational and social inequities for boys. In fact, Gilligan launched a three-year study called "The Harvard Project on Women's Psychology, Boy's Development and the Culture of Manhood" in 1995.
By the end of the '90s, a passel of boy-centered books were published. But unlike many of the girl-centered books published earlier in the decade, many of these authors actively disagreed with one another. On one side were old-school feminists and their sympathizers, who believed that boys, like girls before them, were victims of patriarchal definitions of masculinity. These thinkers -- including Gilligan (for whom the learning differences between the sexes are the result of patriarchy, not biology) and, to some extent William Pollack, the author of 1998's "Real Boys" -- see the salvation of boys in reconstructing outmoded notions of masculinity, in much the same way that feminists once agitated to reconstruct society's definitions and expectations of femininity.
Others, like Michael Gurian, author of "The Wonder of Boys" and the just-released "The Wonder of Girls," argue that boys and girls learn in fundamentally different ways, and that academic success and personal happiness for children of both genders can be achieved only by returning to traditional notions of sex and gender. Hoff Sommers adds, in "The War Against Boys," that boys have been the victims of feminists like Gilligan (and to some extent, boy advocates like Pollack), whose outmoded disdain for patriarchy and capitalism have "pathologized" what she considers to be normal masculinity.
Scholars like Gurian, Gilligan, Hoff Sommers and Pollack also disagree about who, if anyone, is to blame for boys' poor academic performance: Were boys actually villainized in the process of empowering girls? Are gender differences hard-wired? If so, how does one explain the extraordinary progress of girls in math, science and higher education -- areas where they are supposedly destined to show weakness?
Without agreement on the origins of the crisis, these scholars also cannot agree on how to deal with the crisis. Once again, the debate questions whether gender differences in learning are deeply ingrained or sheer mythology. Some suggest that reading curricula be more "masculine" in order to engage boys; others say that boys must be encouraged to embrace their "feminine" side. There are even advocates who call for a return to single-sex education, a debate that should sound familiar to anyone who followed the girls education debate.
It used to be accepted wisdom that boys and girls learned differently: Boys were thought to be better at spatial reasoning, abstract concepts and deductive reasoning, while girls had an easier time with concrete detail, intuition and evaluation, and inductive reasoning.
Researchers like Hoff Sommers tend to agree with the theory that gender differences that affect learning are hard-wired and should be considered in dealing with the learning delays of boys. She maintains, for instance, that reading preferences are gender specific, and that the current English curriculum favors the reading tastes of girls, an inequity that has led to the lower scores of boys in reading literacy.
"Our English classes are strongly feminized, even in boys schools," says Hoff Sommers. "We want literature to make boys more sensitive. But I'm not sure that we need to invest in literature as a form of therapy."
She points out that a majority of English teachers still assign fiction in the classroom, while she believes that boys prefer nonfiction. (In the PISA study, girls and boys were asked to self-report on the kind of reading materials they preferred. Boys reported reading more comic books, Web pages and newspapers, while girls read more novels.)
"Boys love adventure stories with male heroes," says Hoff Sommers. "Many would love books by Stephen Ambrose and Tom Clancy. Since they are so far behind in reading, why not give them texts they enjoy? Some teachers are promoting political correctness at the expense of the basic literacy of their male students.
"My own son had to struggle through Amy Tan's 'Joy Luck Club' when he was in the 10th grade," she adds. "It has some attractive features, but it is full of annoying psychobabble about women and their self-esteem struggles. He disliked it. If teachers are going to assign books in popular literature, they should consider the needs and interests of boys."
Another advocate of "guy lit" is Jon Scieszka, author of such children's books as "Stinky Cheese Man" and founder of Guys Read, a nonprofit literacy program for boys. On his Web site, Scieszka writes, "There are literacy programs for adults, for students of English as a second language, for women, and for prison inmates. There are no literacy programs for boys."
Scieszka goes on to recommend what he considers to be "guy books." His choices for elementary school boys include David Macaulay, the author of the "How Things Work" series, classic authors of the strange, like Roald Dahl and Daniel Pinkwater, and Lemony Snicket, author of the wildly popular new series "A Series of Unfortunate Events." Teenage boys are advised to read Alan Moore, the author of popular literary graphic novels like "From Hell" and "Watchman"; while adult men get, of course, Gurian and William Pollack. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Scieszka lamented the popularity with English teachers of books like "Little House on the Prairie," which he says boys find boring.
Some believers in genetic gender differences go even further, suggesting that classrooms, as well as lesson plans, need to be boy-friendly.
A significant concern, says Mortenson, is the fact that 85 percent of elementary school teachers are female. This imbalance, he says, is compounded by the fact that the percentage of children living in single-parent families headed by women is growing, leaving more and more boys without significant male figures in daily life. Mortenson now suggests that little boys may need an entirely different kind of teaching style altogether, one that emphasizes physical activity over traditional sedentary desk learning.
"We need targeted programs for little boys incorporated in the K through 12 system," he says. "We know that boys are, on average, at least a year behind girls in maturity levels. Maybe you have different start dates for kindergarten.
"If I were teaching," says Mortenson, "I would get boys out of the classroom. Take them to a swamp, dig through the muck, look for pollywogs. Then maybe take them back and have them look at pond water through slides and write up a lab report. They need hands-on activities. They get bored and distracted if you ask them to sit down and reading a chapter and writing up a paragraph -- the kind of work that girls excel at."
Michael Gurian takes the idea of single sex learning even further. In his 1998 book "A Fine Young Man," Gurian proposes that we do away with Title IX, the provision that prohibits discrimination in public education based on gender. To support his argument, he maintains that gender differences, unlike racial differences, are so great as to nearly constitute a different species altogether.
"There are no structural brain differences between the physiologies of the races except for the most cosmetic kind," he wrote. "Between males and females, there are at least seven structural brain differences."
Gurian proposes, among other things, that boys and girls be taught in single-sex classrooms for math, science and language arts, then spend afternoons in co-educational classes.
But the move to single-sex education in the United States, especially for boys, is likely to be next to impossible to accomplish politically. Though a handful of public charter schools for boys -- usually poor African-Americans -- have been attempted, most have been vetoed or shut down soon after opening. And witness the protest raised over the Young Women's Leadership Academy, a girls-only public school in East Harlem: Although the school is still in operation, both the ACLU and the National Organization for Women are suing the district on the basis that public funds should not be used to segregate students by gender. Meanwhile, the chancellor of New York City schools has rejected requests to fund a similar school for boys, on the basis that the girls school made up for past gender inequities in education.
Carol Gilligan is not convinced that the educational problems of boys are due to hard-wired biological differences. Instead, she suggests that the gender differences in education are caused by culture and psychology.
"We know there is nothing innately different in children's learning abilities," she says. "We used to say that difficulty in math and science was innate to womanhood. Well, it turns out that it is not. Over the past 10 years, we started paying attention to girls' development in math and sciences, formally and informally, and -- behold! -- the gender gap disappeared."
Gilligan acknowledges that no causal studies have been done to link the girl empowerment movement to the improved academic performance of girls, but points out that the closing of the gender gap in math and science coincided with the years of the feminist movement. And while critics still debate whether these gaps were already closing in 1990, when the girl empowerment movement took off, there is no question that girls' academic performance -- particularly in math, science, and college enrollment -- improved enormously in the years between 1970 and 2001.
While this fact alone may not prove the effectiveness of the gender equity in education movement, it certainly suggests strong support for the argument that historical gender gaps in achievement are not an inevitable product of biology, and therefore, with the proper attention, can be resolved.
In her own research on boys, Gilligan claims to have found that boys, like girls, experience a crisis of self-confidence, though this change comes earlier for boys -- around age 4 to 5, coincidentally the exact moment when children are first introduced to school and reading. Gilligan attributes much of this anxiety to the forced separation of boys from their mothers under patriarchy, which leaves them alienated from their emotions and anything in the culture that is associated with feminity.
In American culture, says Gilligan, children learn to associate math and science with masculinity; knowledge of the human world and emotional lives are associated with femininity. But, she says, "to be fully human, you need to understand both worlds." Gilligan does not believe that boys need their own reading lists; change, she says, does not come from segregation of curricula or teaching style. In fostering the empowerment of girls, she says, "we began by telling girls that math and science are interesting. Now we need to tell boys that reading -- that emotion -- is interesting."
Hoff Sommers derides Gilligan's theory for seeming to attribute pathology to normal children and suggests that the literal separation of children from their fathers, not the metaphorical separation from their mothers, can better explain the overall problems suffered by boys in relation to school performance, aggression and arrest.
All agree, however, that any significant impact on a gender gap in learning will require political action. Certainly that was true when it came to girls.
Gilligan believes that part of the difficulty in lobbying for change for boys can be attributed to men's squeamishness when asked to embrace traits that have traditionally been associated with women. "Within patriarchy," says Gilligan, "manhood is privileged over womanhood. So it's easier at first to talk about elevating girls to the level of men. When you start to challenge the patriarchal notion of manhood, you can ruffle men's feathers. It's easier to be relaxed about girls becoming scientists, but boys who show feminine traits are still called 'sissy,' or 'queer.'"
But others, like Mortenson and Hoff Sommers, believe that boys are not getting the support they need because American politicians and educators are still, as Hoff Sommers put it, "mired in p.c. concerns" that lead them to discriminate against boys -- for being boys.
"Politically, it's very difficult to get support for boys," says Mortenson. "I started writing about boys in 1995, and for the first four years, I was widely ignored. It takes an awful long time to changed the mentality that girls are the universal victims of gender discrimination."
Says Hoff Sommers, "I've spoken with members of Congress, and they have told me that they can't do anything about it until there is a concerned constituency. That is something that has to be created by the media.
"It's easier to create concern for girls' issues, because there are so many journalists lending support -- Anna Quindlen, Natalie Angier, Katie Couric," she claims. "The journalists were key players in the movement to empower girls. I think they got carried away and shortchanged boys in the process."
It is somewhat astonishing to hear that boys can't get the attention of politicians and journalists, even though the majority of politicians and journalists are men. Perhaps that is part of the problem: It is difficult to convince adults that boys are in a crisis that could affect their educational and economic future when those adults look around and find men in positions of power.
Mortenson acknowledges that "college-educated men get more bang for their buck." But, he says, not enough men are going to college, and in the current economy, "the only people who make it are the ones who have a college education."
He also points out that the vast majority of organizations that have the membership base and political clout to lobby on gender issues are women's organizations, which are a good 30 years ahead of men in organization.
Says Mortenson, "One problem facing boys is that adult men have nowhere near the interest or the organizational structure to support boys on the level that adult women have provided for girls. There are simply no equivalent male organizations."
It is most often the women at Mortenson's lectures who express concern about the problems facing boys. "If we ever do anything about the boy crisis," he says, "women will deal with it, because they will realize that it is in their self-interest to engage boys in education."
With so many competing theories, it's impossible to tell exactly what that engagement will look like. The debate about boys' education mirrors many of the larger debates about American education: Do we need "tougher standards," mandatory testing, character education and strict discipline? Or do we need smaller classrooms, individual attention and encouragement of creative and critical thinking?
Gender gaps in education -- unlike the more pressing and intractable gaps associated with parental involvement, race and class -- have proved to be surprisingly bridgeable, at least when it comes to girls. The remarkable progress of girls in academic achievement and higher education over the last 30 years demonstrates that their delays and difficulties were not inevitable. It is fair to assume that boys have the same potential for catching up. What remains to be seen, however, is whether their plight can motivate adults to agree on a plan of action and finally get it off the ground.
Death of the Male
I don’t want to whine. But in schools and in the workplace, the truth is that we’re losing ground, hombres
By Alan Zarembo
2002. - Sep 16 - 23 issue — This is not another voice in a whiny chorus of disgruntled males, who after millenniums of ruling the world find themselves having to compete with the other half of humanity. No, the whining won’t wash. Almost everywhere men dominate the elite levels of business and politics. There is still no country or industry—with the exception of high-fashion modeling—in which men earn less than women. But it is nonetheless true that men are in peril: a massive shift is already underway at the base of the job pyramid, where most people work.
GLOBAL COMPETITION IS killing off the
job-for-life—a position that in cultures from Britain to Bangladesh secured a
man’s place in society and the home. Everywhere, education is becoming the most
important qualification for jobs, and women are either doing much better than
men in school or catching up fast.
The downtrodden man is easiest to spot in the rich world. Two decades ago in the United States, a male with a high-school education or less could land a union job in a factory or dockyard and earn enough to support a family. But the blue-collar job is rapidly disappearing, shipped overseas, where labor costs less. The rise of the service economy is shifting the emphasis in hiring, almost everywhere, from brawn to brains and charm. Programs aimed at helping mill workers reinvent themselves as computer programmers have never lived up to their promise. And during the U.S. economic boom of the 1990s, men actually lost ground. Male participation in the work force fell from 80 percent in 1970 to 75 percent by 2000, while female participation rose from 43 to 60 percent. Record numbers of men are moving back in with their parents. It seems they would rather remain unemployed than pursue traditionally female jobs as, say, nurses or teachers, despite severe shortages in those professions. The trend is much the same in Europe. “There are unemployed men who sit and wait for the labor market of their fathers and grandfathers to return,” says Agneta Stark, an economist at Linkoping University in Sweden. “It won’t come back.”
It’s pretty clear what’s breaking up the male monopoly on jobs. In a competitive global market, all employers can afford to care about is profit and cost, not whether a job is men’s work or women’s work. Women are generally more willing not only to work for less, but also to uproot and move to where the jobs are. Why? They are very often more economically desperate than men are. Recent studies have shown that women account for most of the recent global boom in immigration—as much as 70 percent of new migration to some countries, particularly in southern Europe.
At the same time, a growing number of new jobs were created in the service economy, where schooling is critical. A college degree now boosts lifetime earnings by an average of $1.25 million, according to a recent U.S. study. Across Europe and the United States, women are receiving more college, graduate and professional degrees than men. In secondary school, girls are crushing boys on standardized tests in every subject, including math and science. Andrew Sum, an economist at Northeastern University in Boston, has warned that the economic decline of men will lead to prison crowding, labor shortages, harder times for families, even declining marriage prospects for successful women. He argues for programs aimed at helping 5 million more American males go to college, knowing this “will not resonate with the ‘politically correct’ crowd.”
The growing male discontent shows up
in many places: a growing number of New Age support groups for men, a spate of
books with titles like “The Myth of Male Power” and a rise in anti-immigrant
sentiment across once liberal Europe. “We are very aware of the glass ceiling,
but less aware of the glass basement, the basement many young males are caught
in,” says Aaron Kipnis, a psychologist and author of “Angry Young Males.” He
argues that programs such as Take Our Daughters to Work Day have no counterpart
for boys. “If women don’t succeed, in the classroom or the boardroom, we say the
system is rigged against them,” says Kipnis. “If boys don’t succeed, because of
the perceived advantage, we start to look for character reasons. They have too
much pride. They are not flexible. They need to be medicated.”
The challenge for men will be formidable in the United States, where competition for jobs will be more intense, than in nations such as Italy or Japan facing low birthrates and growing demand for workers. Factory jobs eliminated in rich nations are often shipped to poor societies with young populations and intense competition for work. There, too, men stand at a disadvantage, if only because women are more exploitable. They are willing to work for less, less likely to organize, and more willing to withstand the tediousness of assembly-line jobs. “In Bangladesh these women need jobs, any jobs,” says Constance Thomas, head of the anti-discrimination unit at the International Labor Organization. “They’ve migrated, and they’ll work for very little.”
Even in the poorest
developing nations, women are also increasingly well schooled. Males are now
outnumbered in secondary school in such places as Lesotho, Namibia, Uruguay,
Mongolia, Belize, even Libya and Bahrain. This can only mean stiffer competition
for men in the future. In places where women are behind in education, the
training they get at home as family managers often makes them more qualified for
new jobs than men who have driven forklifts or assembled engines for three
decades. “Each family has a hero in the mother,” says Rogelio Ramirez de la O, a
Mexican economist. “She is the one who has the creative solutions to family
problems, especially economic problems. When women educated this way confront a
formal job, they have much less problem adapting to the responsibility than
That means men will increasingly find themselves losing out to women for jobs. That’s the overwhelming opinion of professional women recently polled by the World Economic Forum. And the trend is already gaining speed in countries from China to Mexico. As early as the 1970s women filled most of the assembly-line jobs in the foreign-owned factories then just starting to flourish along Mexico’s U.S. border. They still do, but since then they have also moved up the employment ladder into competition with men for posts as managers and accountants. Along the border, where most export factories are clustered, it’s not uncommon to hear male bosses explain their hiring views as: “Men get drunk; women show up for work on time.” The classified ads are often divided into “him” and “her,” with “her” getting the longer recruiting pitch. Hombres, beware. That’s your future if you don’t shape up.
MAY 26, 2003
The New Gender Gap
From kindergarten to grad school, boys are becoming the second sex
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