Education Opinion

Where the Girls Are

By David Sadker — September 04, 1996 9 min read

The educational rights of girls and women, so recently won, are already at risk. Only 20 years after women were allowed to attend Ivy League schools, only days before the Citadel finally opened its tax-supported doors to women, and despite a mountain of research documenting the gender gap in schools, the conservative backlash against women is in full swing.

“Where the Boys Are” (June 12, 1996), a Commentary by Christina Hoff Sommers, is a case in point. A colorful (and well-financed) writer for right-wing causes, Ms. Sommers paints sexism as a sort of media hype, promoted by tainted researchers and liberal organizations such as the American Association of University Women. As she sees it, girls are thriving in school, and all this talk about sexism distracts us from the more serious problems faced by boys. En route to her spirited defense of boys, Ms. Sommers leaves a trail of inaccuracies and misleading research findings which need to be corrected if anyone is to move forward.

There is no doubt about it--during the past two decades, we have certainly made progress in reducing the damaging impact of sexism. From decreasing gender bias in elementary textbooks to increasing female attendance in medical school, the effort of men and women working together to eliminate bias has borne fruit. These successes should encourage us to continue the effort to eliminate the very substantial barriers that still remain. It is far too early to declare victory, or to confuse political arguments with educational research.

Girls still confront an enormous gender gap in testing, a piece of reality that Ms. Sommers ignores. While she cites a few carefully selected test scores reflecting high female performance, she omits virtually every meaningful test that affects the educational futures of girls. On the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test, for example, a test used to distribute millions of scholarship dollars, gender differences have a costly bottom line. Although significantly more girls take the PSAT, many more boys qualify as National Merit semifinalists. On the SAT, most people know that boys score significantly higher than girls on the math section, but few realize that boys score ahead on the verbal part as well. Few educators track the striking gender gap on the SAT IIs, an all important test used to select students for the nation’s most prestigious colleges. Boys outperform girls on 11 of 14 SAT IIs, by an average of 25 to 30 points. Girls outperform boys on only three of these exams, by an average of two or three points.

Twenty-plus years after Title IX, boys’ sports continue to be funded at a far higher rate than girls’ sports.

Women who go on to graduate studies soon discover that the gender gap in testing does not disappear. In fact, results from the Graduate Record Examination make the SATs look good in comparison. Men average about 130 points higher than women on that exam (130 points!). They are also ahead on the MCATs for medical school, the LSATs for law school, and the GMATs for business school. In fact, girls represent the only student population to begin school at a testing advantage, only to leave school at a testing disadvantage. If females are soaring in school, as Christina Hoff Sommers writes, then these tests are blind to their flight.

Although women are now the majority of students on college campuses, barriers persist. Higher education remains incredibly sex-segregated. While many have talked about the corporate “glass ceiling,” few writers have explored collegiate “glass walls.” On one side of the glass wall are the male students attending the most costly and prestigious college programs. In computer science, physics, chemistry, engineering, and business courses, class attendance shows two, three, and even four times more male students. But in the lower-status (and lower-paying) college programs (education, library science, humanities, health care, and home economics) women are the vast majority of students, sometimes reaching levels of 10 and 12 women for each male enrolled. (In library science, for example, the ratio is 14 to 1.) At the graduate level, the National Center for Educational Statistics reports that more than 60 percent of doctorates are awarded to men. While race segregation has been an issue for decades, this persistent (and costly) gender discrimination is rarely mentioned. It does not take an economist to figure out where universities invest their resources, and which career paths will lead to more economically rewarding futures.

Gender-based economic differences permeate education. Although both boys and girls encounter academic difficulties, boys’ needs, in areas like reading and learning disabilities, attract billions of dollars of assistance. Girls, whose academic problems are seen in math and science, quickly discover that school budgets provide far fewer resources to assist them. Twenty-plus years after Title IX, boys’ sports continue to be funded at a far higher rate than girls’ sports. For those students not going on to college, vocational programs underscore the economic disparities looming just over the horizon. While technical career paths, like electronics and auto mechanics, are overwhelmingly male, girls continue to dominate programs such as cosmetology, clerical, and home economics, career paths with less promising futures. Given the latest round of congressional budget cuts in education, cuts which all but eliminated the few programs directed at reducing gender segregation (and cuts championed by Christina Hoff Sommers), these inequities are unlikely to be remedied in the years ahead. In fact, without federal support, girls attending school in less progressive states and districts may very well lose ground in the years ahead.

All this is not to say that boys are doing just fine. Sexism is a two-edged sword, and boys also pay a price. The male stereotype includes greater risk-taking behavior, a higher suicide rate, and a greater involvement in criminal activities. In school, boys are more likely to be in special education programs, and they have a slightly higher dropout rate. The need to overcome society’s sex-role stereotypes is as important to boys who dream of becoming an elementary teacher or a nurse as it is to girls who dream of a career in electrical engineering. While girls lag behind on most critical standardized tests, boys continue to receive lower report card grades. These are all important issues which have not been forgotten. In Failing at Fairness (Touchstone, 1995), we devoted a chapter to the “Miseducation of Boys.” In fact, back in the 1970s I wrote one of the first curricular units focusing on the male sex-role stereotype. One of the fascinating findings of the AAUW, recently confirmed by a study at the University of Michigan, is that a majority of boys are themselves targets of sexual harassment. Often the harassment is in the form of taunts challenging their sexuality. This destructive behavior directed at boys is no more acceptable than sexual harassment directed at girls. It is not at all unusual that research, like the AAUW’s study, which uncovers gender discrimination directed at girls also helps us understand how sexism hurts boys. This is a constructive way to approach this gender bias. Both girls and boys have much to learn about how to halt the negative impact of sexism, and how to work cooperatively to accomplish this goal.

While Ms. Sommers calls herself a feminist, her background reflects a very different story, and a long history of promoting ultraconservative causes.

A few years ago, we were invited to publish a comprehensive article on sexism for the Review of Research in Education. Although we reviewed much of the gender-related research, we never came across Christina Hoff Sommers’ name. That was our first clue. We soon discovered that she was neither an educator nor a researcher. She is a philosopher. Then we uncovered a second clue: While she calls herself a feminist, her background reflects a very different story, and a long history of promoting ultraconservative causes. In the 1980s, she attacked Brookline High School for curricular revisions she considered too liberal and an association with Harvard University that she considered too close. The headmaster complained in print not only about the stream of inaccuracies, but about the persistence of misinformation in Ms. Sommers’ writing.

A few years later, Ms. Sommers was involved in another war, this time against college English courses. She saw such courses as “political and social indoctrination.” Although she was popular in right-wing newspapers like Heterodoxy, none of these targets made much of an impact. Then she discovered feminism. Bingo! A book contract came her way. The conservative Olin, Bradley, and Carthage foundations funneled large grants to her. She was a hot guest for the media, presenting “the other side of the feminist debate.” Clearly, feminism was a target of opportunity, and Ms. Sommers had tied into the “angry white male” sentiment.

If a scientist hired by the Tobacco Institute declared that no connection existed between cigarette smoking and disease, most Americans would view the findings with more than a bit of skepticism. Yet Ms. Sommers’ connection to right-wing organizations, causes, and funding is rarely mentioned. Nor is the fact that she is neither an educator nor a researcher.

Twenty-five years ago, the challenge was convincing educators that sexism existed. Today, the challenge seems to be extricating an important educational issue from the political arena.

Numerous educators, philosophers, and others, after reading Ms. Sommers’ work, have felt compelled to set the record straight. Entire issues of journals have been devoted to correcting her misstatements. Two years ago, my late wife Myra and I experienced her “research methods” on a personal level. In her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism?, Ms. Sommers offers a negative summary of our research, quoting a series of derogatory statements from a teacher who had appeared with us on a segment of NBC’s “Dateline.” We were dumbfounded. We immediately called the teacher quoted to find out why she had said such negative things. The teacher explained that the statements did not reflect her views. Moreover, she went on to say that she had no recollection of ever talking with Christina Hoff Sommers. A graduate student, quoted by Ms. Sommers as saying some pretty terrible things about gender-equity research, also never remembered being interviewed by Ms. Sommers. And although University of Michigan researcher Valerie E. Lee does recall her interview with Ms. Sommers--the one quoted in Education Week--she found her words and meaning so misrepresented that she wrote a letter to the editor to clarify her position. (See “Gender Equity: Pitting Boys Against Girls,” Aug. 7, 1996.)

It was 30 years ago that Myra and I were graduate students at the University of Massachusetts, learning firsthand all about sexism. Sitting in the same classrooms, listening to the same professors, we experienced two very different educations. My hand would be recognized quicker and more frequently. Myra had to struggle to have her comments heard. Our co-authored publications were often referred to as “David’s articles,” as Myra became the invisible co-author.

Twenty-five years of painstaking research later, it is evident that our experiences in that doctoral program have been mirrored in schools across America. Back then, the challenge was convincing educators that sexism existed. Today, the challenge seems to be extricating an important educational issue from the political arena.

David Sadker, the co-author with Myra Sadker of Failing at Fairness, is a professor of education at American University in Washington.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1996 edition of Education Week as Where the Girls Are