College & Workforce Readiness

Experts Call for Expanding Boys’ Career Options

Traditionally female-dominated careers still draw few men
By Sarah D. Sparks — May 19, 2011 5 min read
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In the nearly four decades since the law known as Title IX barred sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal aid, educators and policymakers have encouraged more girls to study and enter traditionally “male” careers, from science and technology to architecture and law.

With male-dominated fields like construction now stagnant, however, experts argue that the situation may be reversed: American schools don’t do enough to encourage boys to explore careers in female-dominated fields, such as health care and education.

Experts at a forum hosted last week by the Washington-based Boys Initiative called for the creation of a White House Council on Boys to Men, similar to the existing White House Council on Women and Girls, to organize policies and support.

“The gift of the women’s movement is that we’ve evolved [into] the era of the multi-optioned daughter,” said Warren T. Farrell, the chairman of the Commission to Create a White House Council on Boys to Men and a member of a New York chapter board for the National Organization for Women in the 1970s. “The fact that we’ve had no parallel to the women’s movement means we’ve retained the era of the single-option son.”

According to reports released at the forum, by secondary school, 54.7 percent of girls receive “mostly A’s” on their report cards, compared to 40 percent of boys. Boys’ overall academic enrollment lags behind that of girls through high school and drops precipitously in college.

Share of Bachelor's Degrees Awarded to Males by Race/Ethnicity

1977 to 2006

Since the early 1980s, most major racial and ethnic groups have seen a general decline in the share of males receiving bachelor’s degrees.


SOURCE: Thomas Mortenson

Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar who studies male economic and academic achievement at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, in Washington, found that as of 2006, men earned a smaller share of the bachelor’s degrees awarded nationwide than women, both overall and in each racial group. Some racial groups saw a wider gap than others—Asian male students earned 44.7 percent of the degrees, white men 43.5 percent, and black men barely more than one in three, on average, compared to women. Overall, the trend has continued steadily down for male college students in all groups since 1977, Mr. Mortenson found.

Part of this is the result, post-Title IX, of girls’ being encouraged to attend college for more than a “Mrs. Degree,” yet Mr. Mortenson argued that boys have not achieved equilibrium in other degree areas like elementary education, where women are overrepresented.

“My perception over the last 40 years is we’ve provided a lot of support and encouragement for girls to try and take on new things,” he said, “but I’ve also seen no special effort to encourage boys to take on different subjects.”

“I’ve tried to say to boys, ‘If you want a good job, think about becoming a nurse’ ... but nobody ever introduces boys to entering these traditionally female occupations, and someone needs to do that,” Mr. Mortenson said.

The nonprofit Boy Scouts of America agrees. Willie Iles, the Boy Scouts’ national director for government and community relations, said that the group plans by 2014 to overhaul the merit badges scouts must earn, to cover a broader range of “life skills.”

As part of the process, this September the Boy Scouts will conduct a nationwide career survey of students in 8th through 11th grades to develop a list of the 30 most popular careers. “We think that will reposition some of these nontraditional careers for children, particularly in the health-care industry,” Mr Iles said.

Stereotypes Reinforced

Several speakers at the forum also argued that schools unintentionally can reinforce gender stereotypes for boys, particularly in the way they approach discipline.

“School is not a happy experience for boys,” Mr. Mortenson said. Throughout kindergarten through 12th grade, Mr. Mortenson found public school boys are twice as likely as girls to receive an out-of-school suspension, and three times more likely to be expelled.

Tanya Belz Rauzi, of Marin County, Calif., said discipline and teacher responses to behavior can cause boys to disengage from school. A mother of three school-age sons and a daughter, she helped to develop a parent coalition in Marin County that pressed the local school district for better engagement of boys, particularly those with special needs.

“I see teachers calling the boys in class disruptive and saying, ‘Why can’t you be more like the girls?’ But if there was a male teacher coming in and saying something like that to the girls, he’d be out of there,” she said.

Educators and parents alike often overemphasize the importance of gender-based differences, rather than looking at variation among individual children, particularly when it comes to gender stereotypes such as boys being aggressive or slower readers, according to Lise S. Eliot, an associate professor in neuroscience at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago, Ill., and author of the 2009 book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps, and What We Can Do About It.

“When you see a sex difference in the brain, you assume it’s biological and hard-wired,” Ms. Eliot said at a May research panel in Chicago on sex differences in cognition. “It’s not.”

Rather, Ms. Eliot argued, neurological brain differences are tiny at birth. In their infant and toddler years, boys are as likely to differ from other boys as from girls in, for example, language skills or physical assertiveness.

“Sex differences are real, but they account for less than 3 percent of language differences between girls or boys,” she explained. “Girls talk about one month earlier than boys, but that’s it,” she said, adding that, contrary to popular belief, boys aren’t automatically more closed-mouthed; college-age men and women both speak about 16,000 words per day.

According to Ms. Eliot’s work, parent and teacher communication and relationships with students can make more difference in students’ language and social development, academic achievement than biology.

Mr. Farrell called for educators to “help both sexes move from old rigid rules of the past to the new flexible rules of the future.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as Experts Say Boys Need Wider Career Choices


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