Sunday, March 08, 2015

Save the males. The girls-boys gap in education is widening!

In what seems like eons ago, when my daughter was in high school, I began sensing ground-level data on my intuitive understanding that girls were beginning to outperform boys in school.  The data was this--my daughter was one of the girls who got elected to the student body.  That year, not a single boy in any elected position in their student government.  The girls then felt the need to bring on at least one male, and they made sure to recruit one into an appointed position.  "Affirmative action" I recalled joking with her.

Since then, I have closely watched what I refer to in this blog as "save the males."

The intuitive understanding, and the ground-level data, had pretty much only one solid intellectual support--from Christina Sommers, about whom I had a lengthy post a year ago.  A year into my daughter's undergrad program, when she was home, I asked her for feedback on this piece that Sommers had written.  She barely read the first page and then gave the magazine back to me with a comment along the lines of "tell me something that I don't know."

Teaching at regional public universities, first in California and then in Oregon, I have witnessed nothing but more of the same trend--female students outperforming males.  To begin with, the gender ratio is highly skewed.  Even more so when it comes to certain programs--in one class that I am teaching this term, the female/male students ratio is nearly six to one!  I am not the only one,of course, to note these trends. There are those who even write satirically about these--like my favorite "Valentine's Day note to amorous undergraduate females."

Of course, through all these, the observation that led drove Larry Summers out of the presidency at Harvard continues to persist.  Summers made a mistake of loudly thinking about an intellectual point in this gender issue: he wondered what the reasons might be for boys to outperform girls at the highest end, and to underperform girls at the lowest end, while girls occupy a vast middle.

I am reminded of all those and more thanks to this piece in the Economist, which notes: "Boys are being outclassed by girls at both school and university, and the gap is widening."
Until the 1960s boys spent longer and went further in school than girls, and were more likely to graduate from university. Now, across the rich world and in a growing number of poor countries, the balance has tilted the other way.
 As my daughter did, I too should merely shrug my shoulders.  But then, I can't!
The reversal is laid out in a report published on March 5th by the OECD, a Paris-based rich-country think-tank. Boys’ dominance just about endures in maths: at age 15 they are, on average, the equivalent of three months’ schooling ahead of girls. In science the results are fairly even. But in reading, where girls have been ahead for some time, a gulf has appeared. In all 64 countries and economies in the study, girls outperform boys. The average gap is equivalent to an extra year of schooling.
Sixty-four country data!

I often wonder whether the "gender studies" programs--including at my university--address such issues, or whether they continue to operate as if the world has not changed in the last fifty years.  What do you think is the case? Hint: their world has not changed ;)
The average 15-year-old girl devotes five-and-a-half hours a week to homework, an hour more than the average boy, who spends more time playing video games and trawling the internet. Three-quarters of girls read for pleasure, compared with little more than half of boys. Reading rates are falling everywhere as screens draw eyes from pages, but boys are giving up faster. The OECD found that, among boys who do as much homework as the average girl, the gender gap in reading fell by nearly a quarter.
Once in the classroom, boys long to be out of it. They are twice as likely as girls to report that school is a “waste of time”, and more often turn up late. Just as teachers used to struggle to persuade girls that science is not only for men, the OECD now urges parents and policymakers to steer boys away from a version of masculinity that ignores academic achievement.
Will you be ok if I wrote, "I told you so?"  I just did! ;)
Women who go to university are more likely than their male peers to graduate, and typically get better grades. But men and women tend to study different subjects, with many women choosing courses in education, health, arts and the humanities, whereas men take up computing, engineering and the exact sciences. In mathematics women are drawing level; in the life sciences, social sciences, business and law they have moved ahead.
Hey, what?  I have been correct all along?  Tell me something that I didn't know already! ;)
the return on investment in a college degree for women was lower than or at best the same as for men. Although women as a group are now better qualified, they earn about three-quarters as much as men. A big reason is the choice of subject: education, the humanities and social work pay less than engineering or computer science. But academic research shows that women attach less importance than men to the graduate pay premium, suggesting that a high financial return is not the main reason for their further education.
Come on, enough already.  Anything new at all for me?
At the highest levels of business and the professions, women remain notably scarce. In a reversal of the pattern at school, the anonymous and therefore gender-blind essays and exams at university protect female students from bias. But in the workplace, says Elisabeth Kelan of Britain’s Cranfield School of Management, “traditional patterns assert themselves in miraculous ways”. Men and women join the medical and legal professions in roughly equal numbers, but 10-15 years later many women have chosen unambitious career paths or dropped out to spend time with their children. Meanwhile men are rising through the ranks as qualifications gained long ago fade in importance and personality, ambition and experience come to matter more.
Seriously, anything new at all?

The glass-ceiling is the only thing left for the males to hold women back.  But, as Hillary Clinton (gasp, I am quoting her!) famously said:
Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it.  And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.
On this International Women's Day, here is to hoping for a better future, where gender will not be an issue at all.



6 comments:

Anne in Salem said...

As a parent of boys and girls, I understand the gaps in high school. Girls mature younger than boys so understand, or at least accept, the importance of studying hard. I cannot explain the gaps at the university level, when boys' maturity levels begin to equal those of girls. Perhaps the girls continue to work harder because it has been pounded into our brains for decades that we have to work twice as hard to appear half as good as men. I believe there is an instinctual need in most females to prove ourselves in an academic or professional setting so we are taken seriously, not as window dressing.

To muddle the issue a bit: my younger son is studying Calculus AB. There are approx. 30 students, 2/3 male. My older son is studying Calculus BC. There are 9 students, 2/3 female. Of the three males, one is a senior, two are juniors. All the girls are seniors.

At their high school, any student with a 4.0 at graduation is a valedictorian. When my daughter graduated, close to 2/3 of the valedictorians were girls.

Sriram Khé said...

If I correctly recall, all the valedictorians at my daughter's high school graduation were girls ;)

I still am waiting for "gender studies" programs to begin to talk about such changes! But, I know enough not to hold my breath ;)

Shachi said...

"At the highest levels of business and the professions, women remain notably scarce. In a reversal of the pattern at school, the anonymous and therefore gender-blind essays and exams at university protect female students from bias. But in the workplace, says Elisabeth Kelan of Britain’s Cranfield School of Management, “traditional patterns assert themselves in miraculous ways”. Men and women join the medical and legal professions in roughly equal numbers, but 10-15 years later many women have chosen unambitious career paths or dropped out to spend time with their children. Meanwhile men are rising through the ranks as qualifications gained long ago fade in importance and personality, ambition and experience come to matter more."

This one is a huge issue especially in the tech industry where I work. Even though I've been in this industry for close to 15 years, I am mostly uncomfortable being around men all the time. The conversations are boring (always work related), the fun is lacking, they are so competitive and driven all the time - I really wish for diversity and more females.
It keeps getting worse as we move up the ladder in the corporate chain and I am already dreading it, and considering alternative careers, which, as your post already alludes to, will pay me much less. I won't care if I am happier, but not everyone would be in my position to not care about the amount their bring home.

Ramesh said...

Well, I ain't too bothered. The law of averages might be fine for public policy - I know you are concerned with greater issues than an individual. But as far as one individual is concerned, I don't think it matters whether the person is male or female when it comes to doing well. So we are equal at a micro level. that's good enough for me :):)

Sriram Khé said...

Your comments don't surprise me at all, Shachi, especially given the recent spate of stories on females leaving the computer industry. Like this one in the LA Times a few days ago: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-women-tech-20150222-story.html
Some of the readers' comments are a lot more direct than how the original report sounded. Like this reader's comment: "this is an industry filled with sociopaths who cannot see another individual as a human being." The readers' comments are here:
http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-women-in-tech-responses-20150223-story.html
I wish you well. Yes, I know from experience--and, yes, I have blogged enough about it citing articles--that happiness and incomes are positively correlated up until a point, and then they invert.

Ramesh, you are missing the point. If women are not to be found at "higher levels" it is not to be dismissed as some kind of genetic determination. If boys are the overwhelming majority of the bottom-dwellers, that is also not some kind of genetic determination. There are plenty of variables here that influence the outcomes, even if " we are equal at a micro level." You should be bothered about these trends. You should be bothered about Shachi's comments.

Shachi said...

I read the LA times article - it was circulated in our female tech forums and companies (especially mine) are trying to do their bit to reduce the disparity.

But the reality is - there is no short term solution here. It takes years to develop skill and expertise, and through those years, women need the framework to support them, not just technically but with child-rearing and home management as well. More men (like my husband) need to lean in to support this cause.

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