Boys And Girls…

Richard Reeves is a widely respected researcher at the Brookings Institution. He has most recently been exploring the status of American males, and written a book about his troubling conclusions.

Reeves isn’t the only person calling attention to the perceived problems faced by contemporary boys and men–over the past few weeks, I’ve seen several op-eds and essays addressing issues confronting American males. (It is difficult to escape the irony of that sudden concern, given the wholesale assault on women’s equality that was unleashed with the Dobbs decision–after all, there is substantial evidence that control of her own reproduction was the single most important element liberating women from centuries of subordinate status.)

Irony or no, some of the data about American men is concerning. As Reeves notes in a Brookings essay

In every U.S. state, young women are more likely than their male counterparts to have a bachelor’s degree. The education gender gap emerges well before college, however: girls are more likely to graduate high school on time and perform substantially better on standardized reading tests than boys (and about as well in math).

The numbers are revealing.

In 1970, just 12 percent of young women (ages 25 to 34) had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 20 percent of men — a gap of eight  percentage points. By 2020, that number had risen to 41 percent for women but only to 32 percent for men — a nine percentage–point gap, now going the other way. That means there are currently 1.6 million more young women with a bachelor’s degree than men. To put it into perspective, that’s just less than the population of West Virginia.

Reeves provides a state-by-state breakdown, and I noted that, in Indiana, women between the ages of 25 and 34 are 24% more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree than men. (If Indana’s draconian anti-abortion bill is ultimately upheld, that will undoubtedly change–women with college degrees and career options will avoid the Hoosier state like the plague…)

It isn’t simply college. Reeves provides charts and numbers documenting the fact that girls are more likely to graduate high school and to do so on time, and even to do better in grade school.

Girls outperform boys in reading by more than 40 percent of a grade level in every state. In ten states (the ones in dark blue on the map), girls are more than a full grade level ahead of boys. In math, by contrast, boys have a slight advantage in some states, though the gender gap in either direction is less than a quarter of a grade level in most states.

In response to this data, Brookings has announced a new Boys and Men Project, that will    explore the differences, the possible reasons for them and the effects of various state policies intended to address them.

I have absolutely no data bearing on the education gender gap–but like many Americans (too many of us, actually), I have my own (admittedly unsubstantiated) suspicions. In my case, those speculations are grounded in my personal long-ago educational experiences– in grade school, high school and to a somewhat lesser extent, college.

With the exception of math classes, girls have always done better in school.

We did better because we were expected to do better–just as boys were expected to outshine us in math. Academic performance was very much a consequence of social expectations, and many of those expectations were grounded in gender stereotypes.

Females of my generation were expected to be more submissive, quieter and more docile than our male peers. (A problem for yours truly…) We were expected to be obedient–which included doing our homework and applying ourselves, especially in the “appropriate” classes. Boys were given much more latitude (“boys will be boys”) in education as well as in other behaviors.

I can’t help wondering if this sudden concern–which I hasten to say is entirely appropriate–isn’t a consequence of changing gender expectations, rather than changing educational “facts on the ground.” Until very recently, men were able to be socially and professionally dominant whether or not they’d made good grades or graduated from college. Gradually, however, large numbers of “uppity” women have entered a workforce that has also changed–a workforce rewarding intellectual skills rather than physical strength.

Suddenly, that longstanding educational gap has consequences.

The growing equality of women has generated substantial pushback from insecure men–everything from legislative efforts to return women to the status of forced breeders to the incels (an online community of young men unable to attract women sexually, who show considerable hostility toward women.) Among less insecure, more reasonable people, male and female, women’s emancipation has prompted belated attention to the education gap.

That’s my theory, and I’m sticking with it until there’s credible data to the contrary…