48 Girls, 3 Boys

The Globe and Mail is running a series of articles about gender roles in education. In particular, they’re wondering how and why “boys rank behind girls by nearly every measure of scholastic achievement”. From the first article:

Here, a hill of data suggests that boys, as a group, rank behind girls by nearly every measure of scholastic achievement. They earn lower grades overall in elementary school and high school. They trail in reading and writing, and 30 per cent of them land in the bottom quarter of standardized tests, compared with 19 per cent of girls. Boys are also more likely to be picked out for behavioural problems, more likely to repeat a grade and to drop out of school altogether.

I found these facts from the same article particularly compelling:

Compelling insight comes from Statistics Canada’s ambitious Youth In Transition Survey, which in 2000 began tracking 30,000 15-year-olds at 1,000 schools and 23,000 youths between the ages of 18 and 20. It finds that while overall marks, reading ability and study habits are the top three predictors of which teenager will go to university, parental expectations rank fourth.

Nearly 70 per cent of parents said they expected their 15-year-old daughters would complete a university degree. Yet only 60 per cent had the same expectation of their 15-year-old sons.

Here’s a companion piece with a bunch more interesting facts.

I mentioned the piece to an English professor I know. She said that of the 51 students in her classes this semester, 48 of them are female. I know it’s the English department, but that’s 94% women. All other considerations aside, those three dudes better not be sitting home alone on Friday nights.

Another little story: I know somebody who worked at UVic. She said the campus bookstore was having some fun with the gender imbalance by selling t-shirts featuring this graphic:

I don’t have any kids, but even if I did, I think I’d find it pretty hard to get particularly vexed about this issue. It’s not a question of doors being shut to young men, but rather one of the young women outclassing them. I also expect that we can chalk this up to the gender pendulum swinging a little too far in the other direction. That’s refreshing, if nothing else.

Are you concerned about the education of young men?


  1. I think one factor in the university attendance rates is probably the strong focus on trades over the past seven years. We started telling young men to be electricians, and now we’re surprised they’re not taking English courses?

  2. As a not especially proud holder of an English degree, I’d say it’s a good thing we emphasize the trades.

    Also, an arts degree has lost almost all of its power as an entry point to a decent white-collar job. If those English students don’t plan to pair that arts major up with post-baccalaureate studies or vocational training, they won’t be outcompeting anyone for anything.

    One more note about men as scholars: they underperform women on average, but with a much wider variance in ability, such that they tend to be both the worst students and the best students.

    1. Another variation I like is tl;dr, which stands for “too long, didn’t read”.

      It’s used thusly:

      tl;dr: It’s so refreshing when male domination gets replaced by female domination.

  3. This raises more questions:

    Have the pressures and obstacles that previously prevented girls and women from doing well in school simply been removed, revealing a school system that has always been biased against the way boys and men learn, or is there something else going on here that has changed a system biased against girls and for boys to one that’s now biased against boys and for girls?

    And I understand it, while the skew is large to women in English classes and in university in general, there are still skews to men in other professions, particularly computer science, math, and engineering. Why have things changed so much in medicine and the arts (for instance) but not in those fields?

    What parts of post-school adult society reflect the new female dominance in (most) academics, and which ones don’t? Why?

    What are the longer-term consequences of this trend? Is it, on balance, a bad thing because boys and men will perform more poorly over the rest of their lives now; or is it helping to redress the long-term imbalance between men and women in the workforce, politics, and the like?

    I know there is research about all these things, and the Globe article talks about some of them, but answers seem hard to come by.

    1. Those are all very good questions. The one that most interests me these days is this one “What parts of post-school adult society reflect the new female dominance in (most) academics, and which ones don’t?” And not just from an academic perspective. It’s interesting to see how dominate women are in consumer power, though they’ve obviously got a ways to go on lots of other fronts.

  4. As a woman growing up in the 70s, I was all for gender balance. I was going to be Mary Tyler Moore, dammit!

    But now as the mother of two boys, I really want to see the pendulum swing back to helping the boys out too. Elementary education has all kinds of emphasis on group work and cooperation that, frankly, my sons do not do naturally. They are way better at the sort of competition-based activities that I sucked so badly at as a young girl.

    And as much as I would NEVER admit it in my 20s, university was a great place to pick up that Mrs. degree. But what about now? There are 2 girls for every boy at uni now. Do these girls really want to marry at tradesman who doesn’t share their interest in the arts? There will be some interesting cultural fall out from this. I foresee a lot of frustrated, single overachieving women being released upon the world. Heaven help the plumbers who try to pick them up in bars…

    1. Indeed. A reality down the road will be that there will be many, many more women earning more money than their potential spouses. It’ll be interesting to see how that new gender dynamic shakes out.

  5. Despite the influx of women into universities, some subjects, such as computer science, have seen a decline. I read somewhere that decades ago compsci classes were 20-25% women, and now they’re <10%. To the point where lots of universities are actively encouraging girls to take compsci, though I’m not sure if that’s having much of an effect. Maybe women just aren’t that interested in it.

    Maybe women enjoy English more than guys do? I wouldn’t worry about any of this too much, unless there’s some indication that certain demographics are being hindered from pursuing the education and training they want.

    1. As it happens, I was recently chatting with a couple of women who were launching a mentorship program for women in technology. I gave them a little grief for not confronting the much harder problem of getting girls into math and computer science–I don’t think mentorship matters until you get out of university.

  6. Not having any kids I have no experience to draw from. But anecdotally, I’ve met some very intelligent men – now in their mid-20s through late 30s – who struggled through high school.

    They didn’t feel challenged and felt bored, which led to behavioral issues; they weren’t engaged with what they were learning, so they didn’t care about doing any studying or homework.

    A few of them went on to finish university, but most ended up in a technical program of one sort or another.

    To that end, I appreciate Derek’s comments and questions – what if our educational system is biased against boys? If one day I have a son, what will I do if the mainstream system doesn’t work for him? Really interesting questions to consider!

  7. In all of this I wonder whether the dominance in female university enrollment will actually translate to higher pay and better jobs.

    Many have pointed out that much of the lucrative growth in white collar jobs is in science and technology disciplines where female enrollment is stalled or going backwards. It was a cliche when I went to school in the 90s and still is one.

    Women ARE making gains in academia, but check out which fields they are choosing to dominate — the same old fields as the past: education, social sciences, arts and humanities, health sciences, public admin. Men still overwhelmingly choose physical sciences, engineering, technology and business.
    (This is the only chart I could find — love to see a Canadian one. Anyone?)

    Have we also considered that men may be abandoning certain career choices — like health care and teaching — in larger numbers and opting for the trades? In my town of Victoria, my underemployed/unemployed white collar friends outnumber the blue collars (on second thought, that probably says more about my friends than anything else).

    Education is awesome, but it seems to me that the age-old bugaboo of “career marketability” is becoming even more important as our economy tries to sputter back to life.

    For example, one of my female friends is a tiler (floor and wall tiles, that is) who does quite well competing in a profession that’s 98% men. People absolutely love that she brings a different perspective to the table.

    I do worry about the dominance and abandonment of genders in certain disciplines. I think that we benefit form balance in every discipline. So how the hell do we get there?

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