What’s Behind the Gender Gap in Education?

Girls have a built-in neurological advantage over boys when it comes to language skills, according to new research from Northwestern University and the University of Haifa. The researchers found that while girls can easily process language in the abstract, boys depend more on their senses. The upshot is that boys may need to be taught both visually and verbally, while girls can learn equally well through either means and presumably have an easier time with learning because of it.

The findings may shed some light on a question that has been puzzling Gary Becker and Richard Posner: why do boys, on average, perform worse academically than girls do, from primary school right on through college?

The underperformance of boys has contributed to a striking reversal of the gender gap in higher education over the last fifty years. Women now decisively outnumber men on the nation’s college campuses, and they graduate at a higher rate than men do. Becker thinks the reduced pressure on women to marry and have children young, matched with the increased pressure on them to compete in the labor force, partly explains why women have closed the gender gap. But why have they hurtled past men in college enrollment and graduation? What else accounts for the new gender gap, and what should be done to address it?


richard cohen

in a word its all about sex and the sexual urge.try to sit down and study when you can think of nothing else.testosterone is far more lethal then the female sex hormone.

Johnny E

There was a study a few years ago about Icelandic students. It completely blew away the stereotype about men being better than women in science. The difference is culteral, the way they treat either sex compared to us. (I don't like using the word "gender" when differentiating sexes. It has nothing to do with biology. According to William Safire gender is only a grammatical term for how some words are used in certain foreign languages, ie. the articles in front of nouns).

Cal

There are several reasons in my opinion:

1) As alluded to in several prior posts, boys and girls are taught the same way when some research shows that they learn differently. Boys are now taught to sit still, be quiet, etc. And when they don't, they are considered hyper or told they have ADD. Also, I understand that recess is eliminated in many school systems. That's a bad idea IMO. Girls can usually do better at staying quiet. The book SHAM by Steve Salerno has a whole chapter on this. Also, the recent NY Times Magazine on some school systems separating the boys and girls also was enlightening.

2) If boys are considered to mature later, maybe some of them need to work before they go to college. Then they will be able to handle a college curriculum better because they will see the value of a college degree in today's workforce.

3) It's interesting that more women than men attend college, but in the sciences (especially math and engineering) they only represent 10-15% of the students. I know from speaking to some that many women consider guys in these fields nerds or geeks. So some males may not take these majors in order to meet more females in other disciplines and not be considered a dweeb.

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Jane

Why my 20 year-old nephew is finally enrolling in college this Summer... the college girl he was dating and REALLY liked dropped him because he was not in school and had no prospects for a great future.
In the mean-time he's leaving for 2 months at Guantanamo with the Coast Guard Reserves.

jz

#25. Your comments presume that intellectual curiosity and happiness can only be nurtured in a classroom. Get over it.

Kathryn

Although Becker & Posner noted that men (currently) have more well-paying employment opportunities than women that are not significantly improved by academic education, many of those jobs are the very ones that are being slowly phased out of first-world economies, replaced by service sector jobs where the abstract cognitive skills developed by an academic education (even the vague liberal arts sort) carry a premium. So I have some trouble with the argument that men rationally choose to forego education because, having vocational jobs for which inferior education but superior physical abilities supposedly suit them, they don't get as much advantage from it.

Of course, that assumes that men (1) are the mythical, rational homo economicus and (2) accurately forsee the continued decline of those vocational jobs in the future - maybe they don't because they aren't well educated enough, or because they really are just dimmer than women? (That was a joke, before anyone gets offended.) It also assumes that it is not true that, due to pervasive (if now largely unconscious) discrimination, women still need to work harder and perform better than a man to achieve the same recognition and compensation, and so academic (or other) slacking doesn't disadvantage men as much when competing for the same jobs, which I prefer not to believe despite a fair amount of support for it.

Anyhow, I'd agree with many of the posters that there really isn't anything to be done about this gap, other than ensure equal opportunity and access. Maybe, if the "fat tail" of very high ability men drop out at higher rates due to boredom, that could or should be addressed, but politically I don't see it happening - the argument that diverting scarce educational resources to promote the intellectually advantaged (for instance, by increasing funding for gifted and talented programs paying enough to attract teachers for those programs who can actually challenge them) is of greater overall utility than catching up slow or even average performers seems like a non-starter.

Capitalism (well, a free market of rational actors, anyhow) may theoretically favor successful performance over a degree, but that's not necessarily going to help to the vast majority of people who will be employed by someone else given that, in a world with imperfect information, educational accomplishment and credentials are often the most useful proxy for actual ability available.

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Tom

Posted above (#11):

"After teaching for 8 years its very clear to me:
Boys are lazy
Girls are not"

To be more precise, boys are not motivated in our current system. One needs to understand the male psyche.

Teenage boys respond to a style of teaching that parents and teachers are not prepared to provide. Teaching boys effectively requires strict discipline, frequent testing, ranking, frequent rewards and punishments, public recognition of success and public shaming of failure. If high schools were run like Marine boot camps, you'd see the boys working hard. Unless success equals proving your manhood, boys aren't interested.

Up until sometime in the late 60s, the likelihood of a young man having sex with any frequency corellated strongly with his success in education and career. Women (and the society that set norms on their behavior) motivated men by witholding sex from those without good earning potential. Now sex is easy. Why should men make an effort? Get a good education and make a lot of money, and you'll just end up overpaying for a prostitute and resigning as governor some day. Better to take it easy, keep in shape, marry an older successful woman desperate for children, and use her money to sleep around on the side.

All humor aside, young men need a brightly lit path to guide them through the testosterone fog of young adulthood towards a successful and productive lifestyle. Young men have never wanted big houses or families, and are less materially driven than their shopaholic sisters with nesting instincts. They used to strive to make money and raise a family because society (and young women) told them that was what men needed to do to prove their manhood. Now they know any marriage will likely end in alimony and weekend visitation, and the threshold level of career success to own a big TV and find a willing mate for the night is really quite low, if they stay slim and have nice hair. The need to strive for something better won't be obvious until middle age, when it is too late. Female empowerment was and is a wonderful thing, but it took away most of a young man's motivation to strive for success.

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Malia Blom, Director, Boys and Schools

As the head of an organization that deals with this very question, I've found that the "why" is elusive--no surprise, as it's difficult to point to any single social trend and come up with a neatly packaged explanation for it. I do think that changes in schools and teaching accounts for some of it, but so do cultural attitudes and expectations, the changing nature of both childhood and parenting, and any number of other influences.

Much easier to answer is the issue of why something needs to be done--quite simply because we should not tolerate a large sub-set of students slipping behind academically, whether it's boys, girls, or minority students. It's not good for our economy, or our social welfare, and certainly isn't a good thing for the faltering students.

So what should be done? Well, I don't think it would be a bad thing to start by doing some serious research on why it is happening and what works to reverse the trend. I also think that granting more choice and flexibility to parents and educators to reach out to struggling boys and find new ways to teach them would be a good thing. (There certainly are strategies that have shown success in helping such boys do better.) Of course, this gets us into the issue of education reform--which demonstrates just how deep and messy this problem can get.

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Rick

So far as socialization goes, there are very strong social disincentives against being academically successful for boys. For boys, academic effort is decidedly not cool -- and in fact, anti-masculine. Perhaps this is in part due to the availability of athletic achievement as socially acceptable alternative academic achievement. And athletic achievement, (perhaps unlike being "hot") often requires a level of time and energy commitment that somewhat constrains such invest in academics.

Sam Spade

Is the IT boom related to the higher education part of the question? These are white-collar, great paying jobs that do not require college degrees which are available, essentially, to men only (there's a 1/10 ratio in any IT industry at best).

(Essentially I agree with jz - a 100K debt-load from schooling is not always your smartest move - but if you're going into liberal arts, it probably your only move)

I don't see anything in the blog post referenced above about subject matter, but is it possible men choosing engineering get lower grades and drop out more than women choosing biology or liberal arts because engineering is harder? I'm sure they've normalized all these variables, right?

PG

Re: comment #11,

Achilles3, you need to get up from your desk and leave your classroom. NOW. You have no business teaching anyone.

Dave

Get the government out of education, out of performing social experiments, and allow parents to be the primary educators of their children, which includes freedom to choose the school (or home school) they think is best for their children.

ANON

How is this statement/research any different from the conversation that caused Larry Summers to be kicked to the curb?

The heart of both this research and Summers' comments are not about women>men or men>women, but rather that there are inherent differences.

It seems rather odd that research can indicate gender differentiation is neurological and natural yet not cause the same furor as a comment that said essentially the same underlying message.

Matt

My first thought was also that there are more well-paying, non-degree-requiring vocations available to men than women.

My other thought is sociological. I don't have data to support, but it seems that boys have a number of non-academic ways that they can be successful through high school. Consider that a starter (not even a "star") on the basketball team may be academically unsuccessful but still highly regarded by his peers, the faculty, and community. Do girls have as many non-academic ways of being notable/successful?

~Jonathan

Don't show this study to Nancy Hopkins, she might either black out or throw up.

baker

So men used to outnumber women, now it's reversed. So the original problem was "fixed" and created a new problem - perhaps segregation needs ot be reintroduced so the "gender learning styles" can be separated. Maybe the issue is affirmative action. Maybe we need to stop worrying about a level playing field.

All people learn differently. Some guys could learn better in et's (above) example. Some girls could learn better in the opposite. It sounds like schools need to realize their is no "one size fits all" approach to education and that people need to find what approach works best for them, instead of shoving them into the same genderless mold.

In my opinon, of course...

PG

"If in fact men are simply choosing not to go to college, there is literally nothing to be done."

The comment by DJH (#4) seems a little naive. What would DJH have said when the American Association of University Women were reporting that girls were being underserved by our educational system 25 years ago - maybe they should just be satisfied being housewives? For the record, the AAUW is STILL advocating for girls in education. Who advocates for the boys?

Chase

If women continue to be over-represented in colleges and universities (that is, significantly greater than 50%), the fair option would be to begin giving males preference in the admissions process.

This has been the method colleges have used in the past to counter disproportionate representation - to the detriment of otherwise qualified males.

achilles3

After teaching for 8 years its very clear to me:
Boys are lazy
Girls are not

w

On personality tests, women tend to score higher on both agreeableness and conscientiousness. With the de-emphasis of competition and the long-term commitment and attention to detail required of today's students, it seems that they have personality traits which give them an advantage.

It's not everything, but, from personal experience, it seems to be a significant factor.