Do Colleges have a Guy ProblemHistorians in the News
tags: gender, higher education, colleges and universities
American colleges and universities now enroll roughly six women for every four men. This is the largest female-male gender gap in the history of higher education, and it’s getting wider. Last year, U.S. colleges enrolled 1.5 million fewer students than five years ago, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. Men accounted for more than 70 percent of the decline.
The statistics are stunning. But education experts and historians aren’t remotely surprised. Women in the United States have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men every year since the mid-1980s—every year, in other words, that I’ve been alive. This particular gender gap hasn’t been breaking news for about 40 years. But the imbalance reveals a genuine shift in how men participate in education, the economy, and society. The world has changed dramatically, but the ideology of masculinity isn’t changing fast enough to keep up.
For decades, American women have been told that the path to independence and empowerment flows through school. Although they are still playing catch-up in the labor force, and leadership positions such as chief executive and senator are still dominated by men, women have barnstormed into colleges. That is the very definition of progress. In poorer countries, where women are broadly subjugated or otherwise lack access to regular schooling, girls enjoy no educational advantage whatsoever.
Sociologists and cultural critics have taken many dubious stabs at why the gender gap in education is growing. Some have blamed the feminist dogma of the education system and the inherently distracting presence of girls in classrooms. I don’t put much stock in those explanations.
The story I prefer begins with the economy. For much of the 20th century, men without any college education could expect to earn a middle-class salary in fields such as manufacturing and mining. In the 1970s, the share of the labor force working in these brawny industries declined. But men—especially in poor areas where college attainment is low and may even be falling—have struggled to adapt to a 21st century economy, where a high school diploma alone is often insufficient to earn a middle-class wage.
The college gender gap is happening not just in the U.S. but in a range of upper- and middle-income countries, including France, Slovenia, Mexico, and Brazil. “In almost every rich country, women earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees,” Claudia Goldin, a historian and economics professor at Harvard University, told me. As a general rule, almost every country that gives men and women equal access to education discovers, within a few decades, that women are doing better.
The international nature of the gender gap invites biological explanations, which should be neither overstated nor categorically dismissed. Prominent psychologists, including Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit, have found that, while girls and boys have similar IQ scores, girls get better grades thanks to their superior self-control and ability to delay gratification. But that just begs the question of where girls’ superior self-control really comes from. Perhaps the fact that girls’ brains mature faster than boys’ gives them an early advantage in elementary school, which shapes the culture of success throughout their education. Perhaps subtle hormonal differences, particularly in testosterone levels, affect how boys perceive the risk of ending their education.
“Historically, men have been more likely to drop out of school to work in hot economies, whether it’s in the factories of World War II or the fracking mines of the Dakotas,” Goldin said. “I don’t know for sure if testosterone’s effect on impulsiveness and risk is the key player here, but men’s higher likelihood to drop out of college for perceived short-term gains in the labor force might tell us men are more likely to do risky things.” Neither Goldin nor anybody else I spoke with suggested that biological drivers of the gender gap ruled out the importance of culture or public policy. It is safer, I think, to say that some blend of variables—including economic, cultural, and biological factors—has created a scenario in which girls and women are more firmly attached to the education pipeline than men, in the U.S. and across the developed world.
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