Equity & Diversity Opinion

A Campus Gender Gap

By Thomas Newkirk — January 24, 2001 5 min read
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Why are women so much better prepared for postsecondary education?

In one of those old Beach Boys songs, there is a refrain about a California beach with “two girls for every boy.” A male utopia. Many colleges and universities today are approaching that ratio. This year, the University of Georgia admitted a class that was more than 60 percent female, as did Boston University. In 1997, 56 percent of the college degrees nationwide were awarded to women, an almost complete reversal from 1970, when men were awarded 57 percent. These figures will approach a 60-to-40 split by the end of the decade— three girls for every two boys.

This change in proportion does not mean that fewer males are going to college. In fact, men were awarded about 15 percent more degrees in 1997 than in 1970. But women took disproportionate advantage of the expansion of postsecondary education, doubling their number of degrees earned. Not coincidentally, this increase occurred when barriers in traditionally male professions were being lifted, and when two-income families became the norm for a middle-class lifestyle.

There has been a quiet revolution, a steady but rapid transformation in the student population. And it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions from this shift.

This change does not mean that males are discriminated against in admissions. The current predictors of college success are the same used in the early 1970s—grades, rigor of course work, and SAT/ACT scores. Women also may be able to use their well-documented superiority in writing skills to submit better application essays. And over the past decade, the gender gap in mathematics has almost closed, so that the one clear advantage males possessed is virtually gone.

And the change does not mean that all educational discrimination against women is past, that we should begin to see males as the new victims. In particular, the unequal “conversation rights” in classrooms, the dominance of male students in class discussions, has been well-documented and needs continued attention.

For many males, school is the ultimate “desk job.”

This transformation should force the discussion of at least one question: Why are women so much better prepared for postsecondary education? Or, to put it another way, given the undeniable economic advantage of a college degree, why are males less able (or willing) to act in their long-term interests? The answer is complex and rooted in the ambivalence many males feel about the “reality” of schoolwork. It’s like in those old war movies when a combat officer has to take a “desk job.” School is the ultimate (and to many males, unending) “desk job.”

To begin with the obvious, success in schooling depends on the ability to read and write, and on the discipline involved in these activities. In the primary grades, many boys have difficulty in reading; remedial programs are filled with boys, many of whom become “lifers” in these programs. Even the competent male readers are less likely to engage in voluntary reading because they see it as too isolating and inactive (or too feminine). Girls, by contrast, are more likely to make reading an occasion for sharing and conversation; a tradition carried over into adult book clubs, which are almost all female.

It was inevitable that once professional barries came down, women would be better prepared for college because of their stronger literacy base.

By the 4th grade, a sizable gap in reading and writing achievement has opened up. When males are asked about this difference, they claim that girls are “naturally” better. In retrospect, it was inevitable that once the professional barriers began to come down, women would be better prepared for admission because of their stronger literacy base—it was their trump card that could finally be played.

Studies of media use show another reason for the superior preparation of women. The Kaiser Family Foundation study “Kids and the Media: The New Millennium” shows that girls as a whole are less attracted to visual media than boys are. Looking at all forms of media exposure (TV, radio, printed material, video games, and others), the study found that boys were involved for 29 minutes a day more than girls—a significant margin when multiplied by every day of the year. Boys spent more time watching TV (by 22 minutes), playing video games (by 29 minutes), and working on a computer (by nine minutes). Girls spent more time with printed material (by seven minutes), listening to the radio (by 11 minutes), and playing CDs and tapes (by 21 minutes).

From these figures, we can almost construct the picture. The daughter in her room, earphones on, doing her homework. The son at the computer, being nagged by a parent to start his homework, and replying, “In a minute, as soon as I’m done with this game.

“Finally, this resistance to schooling may come from a powerful, residual sense of male entitlement—an unarticulated belief that the traits of masculinity (aggressiveness, competitiveness, strength, gregariousness, an outgoing personality) will more than compensate for any educational deficiency. These are, after all, real traits valued in the real world. Males are more likely to view school as artificial, even unmanly, and work, particularly physical work, as authentic and valuable.

Males are more likely to view school as artificial, even unmanly.

The traits developed on the athletic fields and in male friendships are the ones that make the difference. Males could, in effect, make an end-run around the educational system.

This script worked well in an industrial time, when good-paying union jobs were readily available after high school. And no one can say that male privilege is a thing of the past. But I keep coming back to the opening of the film “The Full Monty,” where those unemployed steelworkers are walking through the deserted factory, their physical labor no longer needed. The rules of the economic game, without their noticing it, had changed.

Thomas Newkirk is a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as A Campus Gender Gap


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