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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