Discrimination against Boys in Education (and Elsewhere)

Discrimination against Boys in Education (and Elsewhere) February 5, 2013

Discrimination against Boys in Education (and Elsewhere)

Occasionally I take a break from “theological musings” to muse about one of my pet interests: the increasing social bias against young males especially (but not solely) in education. I argue that this is not just a pet peeve of mine; it has ethical and social implications. First, it’s wrong to justify discrimination against boys because women suffer inequalities in pay and are subjected to sexism. Boys are not guilty of society’s continuing patriarchal patterns of injustice against women. Second, neglecting to address real discrimination against boys will result in harm to society. Boys will drop out of social productivity and participation, something that is already happening among young men in their twenties, develop strong resentments, and become a drag on society’s progress in overall health and well being.

People have challenged my claim that boys suffer discrimination in society, but researchers are now confirming it beyond doubt or dispute. Still, educators in particular are not developing programs aimed specifically at boys to help them succeed in an environment geared for girls. One journalist, commenting on a British study about “Gender Expectations and Stereotype Threat” suggests that so much attention has been devoted to girls over the past twenty to thirty years that it’s difficult to make the shift to boys now that girls are surpassing boys at every level of education.

Most recently, Christina Hoff Sommers, a vocal advocate for boys, wrote an opinion column in the New York Times (February 2, 2013) entitled “The Boys at the Back.” (It’s easily found by googling the title and author’s name.) According to her, a study published this week in the Journal of Human Resources proves that teachers grade girls more leniently and boys more harshly when they achieve exactly the same results on tests. “The study’s authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted.” “If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.”

In other words, in that squishy realm of subjective judgment involved in all grading, teachers punish boys for being boys and reward girls for being girls.

Now I’ve been in higher education (undergraduate and graduate levels) for thirty-one years not including my Ph.D. program when I co-taught undergraduates with a faculty member in several courses. For years we (faculty) were told that teachers, both men and women, tended to favor boys and we needed to work harder to develop pedagogical styles that balanced the genders and make conscious efforts to be fair to girls (e.g., calling on them more often in class discussions). The situation has changed. But are teachers now being told by their principles and counselors to be fair to boys? I haven’t heard of it. The study referenced above indicates that is needed.

The 2010 British study mentioned above (“Gender Expectations and Stereotype Threats”) demonstrated that teachers tend to expect girls to perform better than boys and that it is a self-fulfilling expectation. The very expectation of better performance from girls results in more favorable grading of girls. (The study was released at the 2010 British Educational Research Association annual meeting and you can read all about it by googling the study’s title and “University of Kent” which is the institution that conducted the study.)

As I have mentioned here before, a few years ago Newsweek published a cover story on “The Boy Crisis” in education. Numerous scholarly advocates for boys have published books arguing that boys are “adrift” and “in crisis” in American (and probably Western) society. But who is listening? If they are listening, who is doing anything to help boys?

I continue to see articles about schools and education featuring girls. It even bleeds into advertising. My wife and I watch Public Television a lot and have seen numerous service announcements promoting Public Television on our local Public Television station. They all feature girls talking about how much they have benefited from watching Public Television programming. Why can’t they find even one boy to promote Public Television? I don’t believe there aren’t any boys who watch Public Television and benefit from it. I think the people who make the spots think of girls when they think of intellectual pursuits, culture and creativity, and neglect boys. “Oh, boys. They watch sports channels.” Not necessarily. What if a boy never, ever sees a boy in a Public Television spot aimed at children (and their parents)? He will naturally conclude Public Television is for girls.

As I travel around the country I keep my eyes and ears open for public service announcements and advertisements for gender-specific programs for children. Nearly all are for girls only or appear that way. I saw a promotional spot for a non-profit program to enhance girls’ lives, so I contacted the people who created and placed it. They said they knew of no similar programs for boys. So I started looking for one. Eventually I found one, but it was quite a hunt. Everywhere I look, on the other hand, I see girls featured in advertising aimed at promoting childrens’ health, education, recreation and general well-being.

I do believe that feminism has had this unintended consequence. I’m not blaming feminists so much as the movers and shakers of education and non-profit programming for children who have misinterpreted feminism as requiring sole attention to girls and neglect of boys.

As I have said here before, I have worked in higher education for thirty-one years and have never seen a poster or service announcement on any campus aimed at promoting positive lifestyles, health, educational opportunities, etc., for boys and young men. I have seen numerous ones for girls and young women.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a mostly hidden and ignored bias in society—against boys and young men. It may be “a man’s world,” but it is most certainly not a “boy’s” or “young man’s world.” Think of all the twenty-something young men you know and notice how many of them are truly adrift in the world— without purpose, goal, direction or momentum—to make something of themselves. Shall we continue to blame them or look at society itself and how it has raised them? Did they get the message from their teachers that they are, as Newsweek said many teachers treat boys, “defective girls?” I suspect that is at least part of the problem.

I have gone out of my way to make contact, sometimes by e-mail but sometimes also by direct meeting, with school counselors who create, promote and operate programs for young people on campuses. They are very busy reaching out to girls and young women to help them understand and protect themselves from society’s dangers to them (date rape, eating disorders, body image dysfunction, etc.) and to cope with past abuses of all kinds. But I have had no success in convincing them to create, promote and operate programs for male students even though I know many male students are caught in addictions and behaviors that are harmful to them and are subject to abuses unique to them (e.g., fraternity hazing often including sexual humiliation). Boys are more likely than girls to commit suicide. Drug and porn addictions are rampant among them. They are more likely than girls to abuse alcohol, die in car accidents, be murdered. Boys and young men are much more likely than girls or young women to drop out of school. Where are the programs aimed specifically at helping young males? The facts are in and irrefutable: boys and young men suffer discrimination in schools. It may not be conscious, but that doesn’t lessen its impact. Many education experts are calling for schools of all kinds and at all levels to help boys and young men succeed. Where are the programs to do that? Is it all just talk? So far, it seems so.

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  • James Petticrew

    I have had personal experience of this. In my second year of high school we did a year of Latin. The teacher was a rather strict but unfair ministers wife. I remember that I got 75% for a test and got C and being troubled to find out that some girls had got around 50% and got a C and those with 75% had got Bs. Some other boys found the same thing. We went to speak to the teacher and were told it was because the girls were more pleasant than we were and had a better attitude!

    Needless to say my attitude was considerably demotivated by this and I could see no point of trying in the class as whatever I did I felt would not be recognised, so why try? Looking back this fills me with anger. I struggled with Biblical languages in my theological education and a good grounding in Latin would have prepared me better for that challenge as well allowed me to have been better informed in biblical studies by being able to read Latin sources for myself. I feel she robbed me of my pontential and handicapped me in my calling

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for that confirming testimony. I suspect something like that is common in schools. The studies prove it. Increasingly, pedagogy is geared toward girls. And today there are very few men teaching in the earlier grades. (Studies also show that boys learn better from men as girls learn better from women.)

  • Tim Reisdorf

    To top it off, good (non-Church) programs that actually help boys become good men are being sexualized undermined. Boy Scouts.

    But it is more than a programmatic thing, it is a cultural thing. The boys are dominoes, set up for a fall (as are the girls).

    • rogereolson

      But I would hate to see the Boy Scouts program overall suffer from the terrible acts of a few men. We need to avoid “collective guilt” when many people in an organization knew nothing about what was going on. The perpetrators need to be held responsible, not the good men. (And I include among the perpetrators those who knew and hid evidence.)

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I wasn’t clear. There are outside pressure groups that are trying to force the Boy Scouts to have as part of their agenda the acceptance of homosexuality. I’ve heard the leader of the Boy Scouts talk about how he didn’t want the Boy Scouts to be about the issue at all as it would distract from their goal of raising men from boys. Yet, there is no let up on the pressure for this fine program to have openly homosexual leaders (as that is presently prohibited by their internal regulations). There are signs that the pressure is working – and many good people and families leave.

        • rogereolson

          The news today is that the Boy Scouts leadership has again tabled the issue and decided not to decide. I suspect they are caught between a rock and a hard place on this one–as we all are in some respects. When I lived and worked in Minnesota (as you probably remember) the state passed a non-discrimination law making it a civil offense to deny a job to a gay person. Churches were not given exception except for positions that “deal with doctrines.” Many churches do not draw such lines–between employees that “deal with doctrines” and those that do not. I served on the board of a Baptist church with a day care center. We were advised that we could not inquire into or pay any attention to known sexual orientations of candidates for positions including director.

  • ostrachan

    I agree categorically, totally, and passionately. A major problem. Same-sex education is a great idea. Boys benefit hugely from their own environment (and having men teach them is good).

    Plus, same-sex schooling releases so many of the pressures of high-school: guys looking cool to impress girls, girls focusing a great deal on appearance and feeling stressed over it. You can actually, you know, focus on education.

    • rogereolson

      And yet same-sex education is almost exclusively for girls in America today. Recently an all-girls (girls only) public school opened in Fort Worth, Texas. So far I have not heard of any similar one for boys there or anywhere.

    • Ebeneezer Schopenhauer

      >>>>>>>>>>>> Plus, same-sex schooling releases so many of the pressures of high-school: guys looking cool to impress girls, girls focusing a great deal on appearance and feeling stressed over it. You can actually, you know, focus on education.<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

      bingo. Also School performance can lead to related stress. You could be struggling with school and be labeled "loser", or could be an excellent student and labeled "nerd"

      Even if there was not much direct experience of being negatively judged by the girls, the male will pick up on societies attitudes and project them onto his own situation, causing stress and distraction, instead of like you pointed out, Education.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Challenging thoughts, sir. Hard to know where to begin. I’m trying to keep my son engaged. One reason these things may tend to come out this way (especially in education) is that boys are simply more aggressive and can be harder to control than girls by nature. On top of that, with all of this so-called feminism, these people don’t know how to deal with boys who act like boys. So, they end up working with the girls and only the boys who are easier to control. Fatherlessness has played a huge role. Also, our current young adult culture, especially males, tends to shirk owning responsibility. The guys today tend to wait longer to marry. A lot of this can be traced back to fathers being the man we ought to be and our sons seeing that learn how to be men. It is more than just leading by example but not less. It is also speaking into them what they need to know, how to think about women, who Jesus is and why He’s important. Lack of this has led us here.

    • rogereolson

      I recently read a statistic that said seventy percent of all young African-American males are growing up or grew up without a father in their lives. That has to have a huge impact. Of course, many young Caucasian and Hispanic males suffer the same fate, but the rate is simply higher among African-Americans for whatever reasons. Movers and shakers of society have loudly complained about this situation but failed really to do anything about it.

  • Jack Harper

    Roger, I concur with your observation, in ” Contours of Christian Philosophy” series by Stephan Evans, they make a point of trying to eliminate the gender roles. Instead of saying ‘HE’ they would mix it up and say her or she. Their attempt ,it seems is to have the reader think of all people as the same regardless of gender. To me this is ridiculous. As you pointed out women can surpass a man by her mere desire to succeed in a particular area of interest. I personally think that the biases that are portrayed are less a problem then the media or activist say.

    • rogereolson

      Which biases are less of a problem? As for language, I support gender fair use of pronouns as much as possible. “He or she” is a good alternative to using “he” all the time (for humanity in general or a hypothetical human being). Many scholars now alternative, using “he” in one paragraph and “she” in another–about equally. Using “he” all the time in references to the generic human being does give the impression that males are the norm.

      • Jack Harper

        The bias is that one gender is being unduly ignored, while the other gender maintains preeminence. In the Contour series they used her or she in a way that would be construed(by me) that women and men are the same in every way, that there aren’t any differences and to that I would disagree. Besides the obvious anatomical differences, I don’t see that there is much discrimination(in this country) of the sexes that the media and activist insist are prevalent.

  • I’m not convinced this is a wide-spread phenomenon. It seems incongruent to statistics that point to the overwhelming privilege White males still receive in the job market and elsewhere.

    • rogereolson

      I think that is changing. I hear of employers who favor women in hiring. The statistics show it is a widespread practice and my thirty-one years in higher education convinces me it is as well. Over sixty percent of all college and university students are females. The drop out rate for boys is much higher than for girls. Sure, older males may still have an edge over females in many workplaces, but I predict that will change except in the really heavy-lifting and dangerous jobs.

  • K Gray

    My tall high school son sometimes tells of being bossed and physically pushed around by girls in our large public high school. He said there is no good way to deal with it. I subbed there, and have seen some of these girls shrieking, jumping and careening through the halls! One day my son — after being blocked from entering class by a girl who was talking with her friend in the doorway, then rebuked and shoved back into hallway traffic — dared to hail a nearby principal. The girl was astonished to be taken to the principal’s office! My son was astonished too! Often aggressive girls are accustomed to freedom and even praise, rather than accountability (unless another girl complains). The boys are expected to deal with this perfectly. Usually that means avoidance, silence, acquiescence and/or apology; any error in judgment could lead to big trouble for the guy. Sometimes the sheer effort of ‘taking it’ yet not offending any girl in any way becomes overwhelming.

    I am glad that girls’ complaints are taken seriously and also glad when boys are held to a high standard. It is also good for teens to learn that life is not perfectly fair and no place is perfectly just; we need a Savior, we need grace and humility. But today’s atmosphere can be tough for boys sometimes. Maybe they need someone to hear them.

  • Tim Dahl

    I’ve had similar experiences in all of my educational experiences. I was very surprised to find it in seminary as well. That particular teacher is gone now. But, the bias is still there.


  • Terri Moore

    Dr. Olson,
    My son has some legitimate developmental delays that qualify him for accommodations in the classroom. While I am thankful that these programs are available to him, some of the modifications seem like common sense for an elementary classroom, and especially helpful for any active child (frequent breaks to move around, allowing him to stand up while doing work, allowing verbal response when written work is taxing). All this to say that I think you may be on to something here. In a more “boy friendly” classroom (or “active learner” friendly) I wonder if he would need many accommodations at all.

    • rogereolson

      Exactly. And many boys are being put on meds for Attention Deficit Hyper-Active Disorder who are probably just being boys (need more time during the day for physical movement).

  • Craig Wright

    Here’s another angle to consider in this situation. I am retired from teaching 37 years in the public schools; the last few years as a high school math teacher, but 32 years as a male teaching 5th grade. Back in the 80’s, our bilingual coordinator told us that girls were being discriminated against, and an article in Newsweek came out saying the same thing. I taught in a large inner city school, with 16 5th grade classes, of which about half were taught by men. We thought the accusation that girls were being discriminated against was false, because most of us agreed that the girls were easier to teach and that they tried to please the teacher. Then it struck me, most elementary teachers are women, who I think tend to favor boys. So, this generalization is that girls are being treated poorly is from female teachers favoring little boys.

    In the high school, the one program that cost a lot of money, and was aimed at girls, was the pregnant minor program. Almost no boys participated in that program. Although I will have to say that there was a lot of money spent on sports programs for boys, to the detriment of girls’ programs, but that has been rectified now.

    • rogereolson

      When my daughters were in middle school and high school there were programs aimed specifically at girls to help them do better in certain subjects. I never heard of a program to help boys in subjects where they struggled. I was fully supportive of special programs to help girls do better in, for example, math and science. But I wished there were similar programs aimed at boys for improvement in reading and writing. I still have never heard of any such program. We in academia hear all the time (e.g., in the Chronicle of Higher Education) that girls and young women must be discriminated against in subjects related to engineering, math and physics, etc., because so few women choose to major in those subjects or go into those professions. So there has been a great push over the past twenty years to change curricula, teaching methods, etc., to be more encouraging and accommodating to women in those disciplines and professions. I read an article in the Chronicle a couple years ago where a group of women academics stated that those professions (e.g., engineering) would be “better” if there were more women in them. They never explained how they would be better. Would bridges be built to last longer? But what disturbs me about this is that I have never seen a similar push to make disciples and professions such as elementary school teaching, social work and nursing more attractive to boys and young men. Would those professions be “better” if more men chose them as their life vocations? I haven’t heard anyone say so.

  • I homeschooled my two boys (now 13 and 17) for many years in good part because schools are very intent on forcing boys to conform to their desires rather than accomodate their boyishness. Now my two girls (ages 6 and 8) are in school and seem to be doing well. Just recently I asked my 8 year old if there were kids in her classroom who got in trouble a lot. She rattled of the names of 5 boys who she says were in trouble “all the time”. I asked her if any of the girls get in trouble a lot and she said no.

    My husband works for a company dominated by women and has experienced serious discrimination and is regularly subjected to what would be considered sexual harrassment if the genders were reversed. He’s been shocked to discover that women in charge seem to create the same sort of environment men did when they were unchallenged. I told him that men are probably going to have to follow the path laid out by women and fight back.

    • rogereolson

      Just goes to show that power corrupts–both men and women.

  • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

    This just showed up in my Facebook feed, and I think it’s relevant: http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content%2F2013-02-07-male-female-complementarity-arise-e-newsletter

  • Dr. Olson,

    Here is a link to the new all boys school in Fort Worth, TX. It is just starting. It is the “Paul Laurence Dunbar Young Men’s Leadership Academy (YMLA)”

    Here is the “about” page: http://schools.fwisd.org/ymla/Pages/AboutUs.aspx

    It seems to be a part of the Fort Worth ISD.


    • rogereolson

      Good news! Thank you for letting me know. I remember when the Fort Worth ISD founded an all girls school like this one for boys. The local newspaper had a big article about it. I have not seen any similar article about this one for boys. No surprise (to me) there.