Monday, February 15, 2010

Boys and Girls

All the evidence we have before us indicates that girls are doing really well at post-secondary education. Boys ... not so well. Indeed, girls now outnumber boys at university and have pulled equal or outnumber boys -- we're now talking about men and women, really -- in non-traditional women's occupations like medicine and law. Some engineer schools also now have 50/50 enrollments. At Mount A, women outnumber men among the student body 60/40 and have for some time. All of this has a lot of people wondering if something is going on. Are boys being disadvantaged, particularly in secondary school? Is there are prejudice -- inadvertent to be sure -- against boys? Some of my colleagues seem to think the answer is yes. 

I will confess that I am not so sure. Before addressing this issue, however, we need to get rid of some unhelpful arguments. The key one being a sort of: who cares? I've also heard people say "well, gee, even if this is true, so what? We don't have a lot of evidence right now and so why are people rushing to find prejudice against boys? These same people who -- rising to the defense of boys -- were silent about prejudice against girls, including on-going evidence of prejudices, like the gender gap in pay. How can we take their concerns seriously? Is this not really sexism by different means?" 

This argument might be true or it might not be, but I don't think we should question anyone's motives. There can be all kinds of things wrong with what the self-appointed defenders of boys say, but I don't think anything is gained by calling them sexists by stealth. Are some of them sexist. Sure. But, some of of them are not. Some of them are honest people, parents, wondering about the future and their children. Let's grant them the legitimacy of their concerns. I'll be so bold as to say that as a parent, I share their concerns. 

With this in mind, what we have is an issue that needs to be examined. We should not make assumptions about what the data say. We should be good social scientists and investigate it. And, if indeed, it does highlight a problem we should address it. I say this because we don't know yet whether or not there is a problem. The simple fact that there are more women in undergraduate degrees them men, does not mean that the secondary school system is sexist. Two other possibilities strike me as worth considering.

First, we need to look at why boys don't go to university. Are boys electing not to go to university for reasons we have not  considered. The big one that I can think of off the top of my head is the labour market. In this sense, what might be happening is, in fact, the opposite of prejudice against boys. Academics like to assume that everyone wants to go to university but that just ain't true. Indeed, it just ain't true for the vast majority of Canadians. So, rather than imposing our conception of what people *must* want to do on them, we should look at why they actually make the decisions they make. Why might boys not want to go to university? Because they have a job that they can get that they want (say, that they find meaningful and economically viable for them) without a university degree. In other words, boys choose to go to university in lower numbers then girls because they can access the labour market more easily. Let's face facts: a lot of people go to university to improve their marketability. If one is already marketable (in a way that one wants), then why go to university? So, the first reason boys might chose not to go to university is because they can access the jobs they want in a higher ratio then girls. 

Second, the flip side: girls go to university because they understand -- or, the parents that push them understand -- that they (girls) need this higher level of education in order to compete in the labour market. After all, we still live in a world that is dominated by men. Now, this domination is not what it was 20 years ago. Let us be clear on that. The feminist movement has made remarkable strides for women and good! The old boys network includes a lot of women now. The wage gap has not close the way a lot of us would like but it has closed and women are in a raft of non-traditional occupations. Indeed, there are so many women in some occupations that younger Canadians don't think of them as non-traditional any more. Still, there are gender inequalities that we can demonstrate empirically. It makes sense, then, that if these inequalities are there, people, on some level (either the students or their parents) realize this and push either themselves or their kids to attain a level of education that evens out an inequality. Again, if this were true, the problem is not prejudice against boys but lingering sexism. 

I've provided no evidence to sustain these interpretations. They are hypotheses and, to be honest, I lack the math skills to test them. Heck, I'd be so bold as to say that my math skills are so bad that you don't want me testing these hypotheses. You want someone who can actually do it. 

With this in mind, however, they strike me as reason and there is a bit of evidence to indicate that they might -- note: might -- have some validity to them. That evidence is that while academics and some journalists talk about prejudice against boys, parents and boys don't. Indeed, the concerns of academics seem to be almost irrelevant to the parents and boys I talk to. If there really were prejudice against boys, then we might expect more boys -- and their parents -- to be raising concerns about it. This is not hard and fast proof to be sure. It is just something that a non-math person can add to the checklist of evidence.

What we need now, then, is not more statements about prejudice. What we need is two things: (1) someone to test these hypotheses (bearing in mind that decisions can be overtly made and made on the basis of feelings and suppositions as well), and (2) an assessment of the entire system. Academics need to stop assuming that what they think is right is right and need to start looking at how students in the system make decisions. For example, not everyone will work to get an A in a course. We might like everyone to do that but they don't. Instead, a student who does not intend to go to university but instead intends to go right into the labour market might be happy with a lower grade. They might even enjoy school. Their priorities would just be different from a student who is intending to go to university. 

I think, when we understand these things, we will be in a much better position to know if there is a prejudice against boys. 

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