The differences between boys and girls—in school, in the careers they choose, and in the very structure of their brains—is one of the hottest research topics around.
But a group of Duke University researchers suggests that when it comes to boys and girls, there’s not much difference at all, at least when considering the youths’ overall well-being.
The Duke scholars, led by Kenneth C. Land, a professor of demographic studies and sociology at the Durham, N.C., university, have broken down well-being into 28 social indicators, then used statistical data to track those indicators over time. Their paper is titled “Assessing Gilligan vs. Sommers: Gender Specific Trends in Child and Youth Well-Being in the United States, 1985-2001.”
The report, “Assessing Gilligan vs. Sommers: Gender-Specific Trends in Child and Youth Well-Being in the United States, 1985-2001,” is available from the Duke University sociology department. () See also the “The Child Well-Being Index.”
The title refers to Carol Gilligan, a New York University professor and the author of a seminal 1982 sociological work, In a Different Voice, that contended that girls were at a disadvantage in American society because of patriarchal values.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, wrote a 2001 book, The War Against Boys, that sought to refute Ms. Gilligan’s claims and argued that boys were at an educational disadvantage to girls.
The index created by the Duke researchers shows that the well-being of girls and boys has tracked fairly closely. Among the indicators studied were poverty rates, the percentage of children in single-parent homes, suicide rates, reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the percentage of students who receive high school diplomas, and the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds enrolled in school and 3- to 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool.
1985 Is Starting Point
The researchers set 100 as a reference point to begin their index in 1985, so a value of more than 100 represents an increase in well-being compared with 1985, while under 100 represents a decrease in well-being since then. The index saw a dip in the early 1990s based on a juvenile crime wave, but both boys and girls have seen increases in well-being of 1 to 3 points every year since 1998, said study co-author Sarah O. Meadows, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Duke.
Mr. Land said that trends in educational policies and parenting may explain in part why the well-being of boys and girls are fairly close on the researchers’ scale.
“The schools have certainly, in the past two decades, made a big effort to reduce sexist stereotyping and so forth in instruction and exercise and sports activities,” Mr. Land said.
The trends “do not support current claims by many feminists that girls are at a disadvantage, particularly when it comes to educational attainment” the report concludes. “If anything, it is boys who are falling behind, particularly at the higher levels of education.”
However, the researchers said they could not measure such intangibles as self-esteem, “a central concept for many feminist scholars who study gender differences.”
Ms. Gilligan was out of the country and could not be reached for comment last week. Ms. Sommers said the report was an affirmation of her belief that girls are not shortchanged and that both genders are, overall, mentally healthy.
“We spent a decade hearing about Ophelias and Hamlets,” Ms. Sommers said, a reference to Reviving Ophelia, a 1995 book by the psychologist Mary Pipher that chronicled the self-esteem problems of adolescent girls. “It’s ridiculous to ascribe that kind of mental fragility to American youth.”
Elena Silva, the director of research at the Washington-based American Association of University Women, suggests that the report’s findings are not surprising. The association’s widely discussed 1992 report “How Schools Shortchange Girls” is mentioned in the Duke study.
“That report came out 13 years ago, based on data that’s at least 15 years old,” Ms. Silva said. “We’ve seen changes since then,” many of which can be credited to awareness raised by the AAUW report, she said.
But other social scientists contend that by averaging all boys and all girls together, the Duke researchers are smoothing over serious problems, like the differences among boys and girls.
Once elements such as race or socioeconomic background are broken out, the differences, especially in educational achievement, are particularly stark, they suggest.
“Do you really think white upper-class boys in Bethesda are having the same experience as black middle-class boys in Southeast?” said education professor David M. Sadker, contrasting a wealthy community in Washington’s Maryland suburbs with a poor neighborhood in the capital. “You can’t really group wealthy and poor.”
Mr. Sadker, who teaches at American University in Washington, has written extensively on gender bias and sexual harassment.
The report “plays to the American bias in favor of numbers, and seeing numbers as objective,” Mr. Sadker said. “It’s nice to try and be objective, but it’s not nice to have the illusion of objectivity.”
Judith S. Kleinfeld, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, also said that she questioned the Duke report’s suggestion that boys and girls are doing about equally well. Ms. Kleinfeld is the author of a 1998 article titled “The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls,” written for the Washington-based Women’s Freedom Network, an advocacy group that says it rejects “extremist ideological feminism.”
“In some ways, it is getting much worse for boys,” Ms. Kleinfeld said. “We’re in danger of having a generation of lost boys. Girls are just zooming ahead in college attendance and college enrollment, and they’re leaving boys in the dust.”
The issue is in the indicators that the Duke researchers chose to study, Ms. Kleinfeld said. “It used to be that girls did a little better in grades, and it used to be trivial,” she said. “Now, the gap is fundamentally different.”
Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician and the chairman of the Poolesville, Md.-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education, also believes that gender differences in education are real. His organization believes that educating children in single-sex classrooms breaks down gender stereotypes.
“Boys are reading less,” Dr. Sax said. “The boys may feel perfectly happy about that. But how much fun the boys are having is irrelevant and misleading.”
Mr. Land said the Duke report is not intended to draw conclusions about differences among children of different races or ethnicities, though research looking at those particular issues is forthcoming.
“This study is not targeted at discrepancies and disparities. We’re just trying to say overall if kids are doing better or worse,” Mr. Land said. “Clearly, you can point to specific areas of social life of boys and girls where we do need to pay continuing attention to policies, such as self-image, which we don’t really have data to measure.”
But taking a step back and looking at an overall picture can be useful, said William P. O’Hare, the coordinator of the Kids Count Data Book project sponsored by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropy that advocates for disadvantaged children. Kids Count is also an index of children’s well-being, but instead of tracking 28 social indicators as in the Duke research, it tracks 10 indicators and uses them to compare states.
Mr. O’Hare said that the Kids Count Data Book index tracks the Duke index fairly closely.
“People who have a point of view they want to defend tend to focus on a very small and narrow part of the picture,” said Mr. O’Hare. “There’s an impulse of advocates across the board to accentuate the negative, because that’s what gets funding.
“But we’re saying that things have been getting better, there are public policy reasons why, and we need to make sure we don’t lose those kinds of supports.”