Men Still Studying Less, Earning More: Part II

In my last post on this topic, I examined how the gender gap in education (which appears for favour women) relates to the gender gap in wages (which continues to favour men). However, as most believers in the “boy crisis” in education would argue, men’s underachievement in education begins much earlier. They have a point: at all educational levels, from elementary school to university, girls perform better than boys. Young men are considerably less likely to graduate high school (the graduation rate for boys in Canada was 73% in 2000, compared to 83% for girls)1 and university (23% for men, 39% for women in 2009)2. Girls also achieve higher average GPAs and perform better on national and international assessments, though the margins vary regionally and between disciplines. At face value, it would indeed seem like the education system is favouring girls in some way, but, as I argued earlier, the reality is more complex.

First things first: an almost universal constant in education, in the classroom and in standardized assessments, is that girls perform significantly better than boys in reading, at all levels. This carries through into adulthood, as well – according to NPR, women read nearly twice as many books as men, and account for 80% of the fiction market. Conversely, in most assessments, boys perform slightly better than girls, though by nowhere near the same margin, and boys and girls (particularly in Canada) tend to achieve the same results in science.3 In spite of this, by high school, fewer girls enroll in advanced math and science classes, and fewer still in math-based university programs such as engineering.4

Boys’ underachievement in reading is frequently attributed to an education system that pays little attention to boys’ specific educational needs. Boys’ success in math, on the other hand, is frequently cited as evidence that men are somehow innately more skilled in mathematics – even though the difference varies a lot, between regions and between levels of education. If anything, the fact that boys’ and girls’ math scores are almost identical at lower levels suggests that the difference is entirely socially constructed, since it takes hold during adolescence, when socialization and gender roles become hugely important. Welcome to patriarchy, ladies. If you do badly, it’s because women are stupid. If you do well, it’s because of those evil feminists spreading their misandry to the education system, because apparently it’s just too hard to believe that women might actually be good at something.

I should clarify, though, that I’m not suggesting that women are somehow innately more literate. Literacy isn’t something we’re born with, after all; it’s a skill whose acquisition is determined largely by the environment in which it is taught. The NPR article suggested that women’s higher levels of literacy are linked to our greater capacity for empathy, a trait which is important in order to enjoy reading, particularly reading fiction. Anti-essentialist that I am, I would argue that this probably has less to do with differences between male and female brains than with the fact that we do not raise boys to value empathy. On the contrary, traditional masculinity seems to equate empathy with weakness and effeminacy, and doesn’t place much emphasis (if any) on literacy and education.

The NPR article also notes that boys and men don’t generally like to sit still for as long as girls and women do – this is something that is frequently cited in support of the argument that the education system, with its requirement that students sit still and listen for hours at a time, is designed for girls and thus disadvantages boys – an argument that is obviously ridiculous when one takes into account that prior to the twentieth century, school was almost exclusively for boys, and it required a whole lot more sitting still and listening than it does now. This point also applies to higher education, which some have argued doesn’t appeal to young men, despite the fact that its structure has changed little since the mid-19th century, when universities were all-male institutions.

One researcher cites the fact that men at university spend more time partying and playing video games, whereas women spend more time studying and taking care of family and household responsibilities, as evidence that “the collegiate classroom environment is not boy-friendly”. Considering that this “collegiate classroom” was designed by men for men, and that, as the article suggests, women are more likely to have outside responsibilities caring for family members, I think this data suggests that men just aren’t taking their education seriously. It’s male entitlement, not female privilege, that is the problem here.

Essentially what has happened is that women and girls have entered education systems that were designed by and for men, and, because it has been necessary (and still is very necessary) for women to work twice as hard to get half the credit, have applied themselves and succeeded to the extent that our educational and academic achievements have surpassed men’s. Our success has then been turned against us, and turned against the feminist movement through which we were able to enter these institutions in the first place, telling us that our success is not due to our hard work but because the education system favours us and discriminates against boys and men.

As I argued in the previous post, boys’ educational achievements are not declining – women’s are simply increasing at a more rapid rate. This is taking place largely because women have little choice but to succeed educationally if they want to gain respect and financial security – we are therefore inclined to work harder, out of necessity more than anything else. Regardless of their educational achievement, men are still presented with far more options than women, even when those women have worked harder to get where they are.

I’m not saying that there’s nothing wrong with the education system, in Canada or elsewhere. It has its flaws, not least of which is its tendency to reinforce social norms, such as gender roles. I like to think that this is changing, though I’ll admit that may be a bit overly optimistic of me. But I know for certain that reactionaries who argue that the (largely positive) changes that have been made to education over the past few decades amount to discrimination against men are only preventing real progress from occurring, and are doing so largely because women’s success poses a threat to their privilege.

Maybe instead of panicking about women’s progress, believers in the “boy crisis” should do something about young men’s sense of entitlement and their belief that they shouldn’t have to listen to teachers or do their homework. Maybe we should do away with the “boys will be boys” attitude that we’ve carried for so long, and teach young men to be respectful, cooperative and considerate. Maybe we should place a little more value on literacy and a little less on competition. And maybe, just maybe, we should do something about the fact that women have to work twice as hard as men to get half the credit. That should get those kids motivated.

1. Council of Ministers of Education, Quality Education for all Young People: Challenges, Trends and Priorities, Tobin Associates, 2004: p.19.
(Full disclosure: I work for the Council of Ministers; I am not totally unbiased.)

2. Canadian Education Statistics Council, Education Indicators in Canada: An International Perspective, 2009: p.34.

3. For this data, I relied on a number of studies conducted by the Assessments unit at CMEC, and particularly the results from the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), which assesses the math, science and literacy skills of 13-year-old students.

4. Thanks to commenter M for this link.

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  • lefemmeferal  On February 3, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Fantastic article!


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