The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Menby Christina Hoff Sommers
It's a bad time to be a boy in America. As the century drew to a close, the defining event for American girls was the triumph of the U.S. women's soccer team. For boys, the symbolic event was the mass killing at Columbine High School.
It would seem that boys in our society are greatly at risk. Yet the best-known studies and the academic experts say that it's
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It's a bad time to be a boy in America. As the century drew to a close, the defining event for American girls was the triumph of the U.S. women's soccer team. For boys, the symbolic event was the mass killing at Columbine High School.
It would seem that boys in our society are greatly at risk. Yet the best-known studies and the academic experts say that it's girls who are suffering from a decline in self-esteem. It's girls, they say, who need extra help in school and elsewhere in a society that favors boys. The problem with boys is that they are boys, say the experts. We need to change their nature. We have to make them more like...girls.
These arguments don't hold up to scrutiny, says Christina Hoff Sommers in this provocative, fascinating book. She analyzes the work of the leading academic experts, Carol Gilligan and William Pollack, and finds it lacking in scientific rigor. There is no girl crisis, says Sommers. Girls are outperforming boys academically, and girls' self-esteem is no different from boys'. Boys lag behind girls in reading and writing ability, and they are less likely to go to college.
The "girl crisis" has been seized upon by some feminists and has been suffused with sexual politics. Under the guise of helping girls, many schools have adopted policies that penalize boys, often for simply being masculine. Sommers says that boys do need help, but not the sort they've been getting. They need help catching up with girls academically. They need love, discipline, respect, and moral guidance. They desperately need understanding. They do not need to be rescued from masculinity.
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Chapter One: Where the Boys Are
The Myth of the Fragile Girl
In 1990, Carol Gilligan announced to the world that America's adolescent girls were in crisis. In her words, "As the river of a girl's life flows into the sea of Western culture, she is in danger of drowning or disappearing." Gilligan offered little in the way of conventional evidence to support this alarming finding. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what sort of empirical research could establish so large a claim. But Gilligan quickly attracted powerful allies. Within a very short time the allegedly fragile and demoralized state of American adolescent girls achieved the status of a national emergency.
I will be subjecting Gilligan's research on girls and boys to extensive analysis in later chapters. She is the matron saint of the girl crisis movement. Gilligan, more than anyone else, is cited as the academic and scientific authority conferring respectability on the claims that American girls are being psychologically depleted, socially "silenced," and academically "shortchanged."
Popular writers, electrified by Gilligan's discovery, began to see evidence of a girl crisis everywhere. Former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen recounted how Gilligan's research cast an ominous shadow on the celebration of her daughter's second birthday: "My daughter is ready to leap into the world, as though life were chicken soup and she a delighted noodle. The work of Professor Carol Gilligan of Harvard suggests that some time after the age of 11 this will change, that even this lively little girl will pull back [and] shrink."
Soon there materialized a spate of popular books with titles such as Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls; Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls; Schoolgirls: Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap. Time writer Elizabeth Gleick remarked on the new trend in literary victimology: "Dozens of troubled teenage girls troop across [the] pages: composite sketches of Charlottes, Whitneys and Danielles who were raped, who have bulimia, who have pierced bodies or shaved heads, who are coping with strict religious families or are felled by their parents' bitter divorce."
The country's adolescent girls were both exalted and pitied. Novelist Carolyn See wrote in The Washington Post, "The most heroic, fearless, graceful, tortured human beings in this land must be girls from the ages of 12 to 15." In the same vein, Myra and David Sadker, in Failing at Fairness, predicted the fate of a lively six-year-old girl on top of a playground slide: "There she stood on her sturdy legs, with her head thrown back, and her arms flung wide. As ruler of the playground she was at the very zenith of her world." But all would soon change: "If the camera had photographed the girl...at twelve instead of six...she would have been looking at the ground instead of the sky; her sense of self-worth would have been an accelerating downward spiral."
The picture of confused and forlorn girls struggling to survive would be drawn again and again with added details and increasing urgency. In Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia, by far the most successful of the girl-crisis books, girls undergo a fiery demise: "Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn."
The description of America's teenage girls as silenced, tortured, voiceless, and otherwise personally diminished is indeed dismaying. But there is surprisingly little evidence to support it. If the nation's girls are in the kind of crisis that Gilligan and her acolytes are describing, it has escaped the notice of conventional psychiatry. There is, for example, no mention of this epidemic in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the official desk reference of the American Psychiatric Association. The malaise that comes closest to matching the symptoms mentioned by the crisis writers is a mood disorder called dysthymia. Dysthymia is characterized by low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, depression, difficulty in making decisions, and social withdrawal. According to DSM-IV, it occurs equally in both sexes among children, and while it is more common in adult women than men, it is still relatively rare. No more than 3 or 4 percent of the population suffers from it.
Scholars who abide by the conventional protocols of social science research describe adolescent girls in far more optimistic terms. Dr. Anne Petersen, a former professor of adolescent development and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and now senior vice president for programs at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, reports the consensus of researchers working in adolescent psychology: "It is now known that the majority of adolescents of both genders successfully negotiate this developmental period without any major psychological or emotional disorder, develop a positive sense of personal identity, and manage to forge adaptive peer relationships at the same time they maintain close relationships with their families." Daniel Offer, professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University, concurs with Petersen. He refers to a "new generation of studies" that find a majority of adolescents (80 percent) normal and well adjusted.
At the same time Gilligan was declaring a girl crisis, a University of Michigan/U.S Department of Health and Human Services study asked a scientifically selected sample of three thousand high school seniors the question "Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days -- would you say you're very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy these days?" Nearly 86 percent of girls and 88 percent of boys responded that they were "pretty happy" or "very happy." If the girls who were polled were "caught in an accelerated downward spiral," they were unaware of it.
Clinical psychologist Mary Pipher calls American society a "girl-poisoning" and "girl-destroying culture." What is her evidence? In Reviving Ophelia, she informs readers that her clinic is filled with girls "who have tried to kill themselves." And she cites statistics suggesting that the condition of America's girls is worsening: "The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reports that the suicide rate among children age ten to fourteen rose 75 percent between 1979 and 1988. Something dramatic is happening to adolescent girls in America."
But Pipher's numbers are misleading. Insofar as anything "dramatic" is happening to America's children with respect to suicide, it is happening to boys. A look at the sex breakdown of the CDC's suicide statistics reveals that for males aged ten to fourteen, the suicide rate increased 71 percent between 1979 and 1988; for girls the increase was 27 percent. Furthermore, the actual number of children aged ten to fourteen who kill themselves is small. A grand total of 48 girls in that age group committed suicide in 1979, and 61 in 1988. Among boys, the number rose from 103 to 176. All of these deaths are tragic, but in a population of 9 million ten- to fourteen-year-old girls, an increase in female child suicide by 13 is hardly evidence of a girl-destroying culture.
Contrary to the story told by Gilligan and her followers, by the early 1990s American girls were flourishing in unprecedented ways. To be sure, some -- among them those who found themselves in the offices of clinical psychologists -- felt they were drowning in the sea of Western culture. But the vast majority of girls were occupied in more constructive ways, moving ahead of boys academically in the primary and secondary grades, applying to colleges in record numbers, filling the more challenging academic classes, joining sports teams, and generally enjoying more freedoms and opportunities than any young women in human history.
An American Tragedy
Gilligan's ideas had special resonance in women's groups already committed to the proposition that our society is unsympathetic to women. Such organizations were naturally receptive to bad news about girls. The interest of the venerable and politically influential American Association of University Women (AAUW), in particular, was piqued. Officers at the AAUW were reported to be "intrigued and alarmed" by Gilligan's findings. "Wanting to know more," they commissioned a polling firm to study whether American schoolgirls were being drained of their self-confidence.
In 1991, the AAUW announced the disturbing results: "Most [girls] emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image." Anne Bryant, then executive director of the AAUW and an expert in public relations, organized a media campaign to spread the word that "an unacknowledged American tragedy" had been uncovered. Newspapers and magazines around the country carried the bleak tidings that girls were being adversely affected by gender bias that eroded their self-esteem. Susan Schuster, at the time president of the AAUW, candidly explained to The New York Times why the AAUW had undertaken the research in the first place: "We wanted to put some factual data behind our belief that girls are getting shortchanged in the classroom."
At the time the AAUW's self-esteem results were making headlines, a little-known journal called Science News, which has been supplying information on scientific and technical developments to interested newspapers since 1922, quoted leading adolescent psychologists who questioned the validity of the self-esteem poll. But somehow the doubts of the experts were not reported in the hundreds of news stories the AAUW study generated.
The AAUW quickly commissioned a second study, How Schools Shortchange Girls. This new study, carried out by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and released in 1992, asserted a direct causal relationship between girls' (alleged) second-class status in the nation's schools and deficiencies in their level of self-esteem. Carol Gilligan's psychological girl crisis was thus transformed into a pressing civil rights issue: girls were victims of widespread sexist discrimination in our nation's schools. "The implications are clear," said the AAUW; "the system must change."
Education Week reported that the AAUW spent $100,000 for the second study and $150,000 promoting it. With great fanfare, How Schools Shortchange Girls was released to uncritical, even enthusiastic, media. The promotion proved to be spectacularly successful, generating more than 1,400 news reports and a flurry of TV discussions of the "tragedy" that had struck the nation's girls.
Susan Chira's 1992 article for The New York Times was typical of media coverage throughout the country. The headline read "Bias Against Girls Is Found Rife in Schools, with Lasting Damage." The piece could have been written by the AAUW's publicity department. Indeed, the entire Times article was later reproduced by the AAUW and sent out as part of its fund-raising package. Chira had not interviewed a single critic.
In March 1999, I called Ms. Chira and asked her about the way she had handled the AAUW report on diminished girls. There was a long silence. "I don't want to talk about this," she finally said. I tried delicately to broach the question of why she had not sought out critics. "I see where this is going....I wish you the best of luck. Goodbye," she said, taking the journalistic equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.
But she called back a few hours later, saying she was prepared to answer my questions. Would you write it the same way today? I asked. No, she said, pointing out that we have since learned so much more about boys' deficits. Why had she not canvassed dissenting opinions? She explained that when the AAUW study had come out, she had been traveling and was on a short deadline. Yes, perhaps she had relied too much on the AAUW's report. She had tried to reach Diane Ravitch, the former assistant secretary of education and a known critic of women's advocacy "findings," but had not been able to.
Had Chira been able to reach Ravitch, or any number of other experts on sex differences in education, she would quickly have learned that the report was at the very least unbalanced: it highlighted studies in support of the "shortchanged girl" thesis and downplayed studies that contradicted it.
Six years after the release of How Schools Shortchange Girls, the New York Times ran a story that, for the first time, questioned the validity of the report. By then, of course, most of the damage to the truth about boys and girls was irreparable. This time the reporter, Tamar Lewin, did reach Diane Ravitch, who told her, "The AAUW report was just completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might have been the right story 20 years earlier, but coming out when it did it was like calling a wedding a funeral....There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys."
One of the many things the report was wrong about was the "call-out" gap. According to the AAUW, "In a study conducted by Myra and David Sadker, boys in elementary and middle school called out answers eight times more often than girls. When boys called out, teachers listened. But when girls called out, they were told to 'raise your hand if you want to speak.'"
One reporter who belatedly decided to check on some of the AAUW's data was Amy Saltzman, then of U.S. News & World Report. She asked David Sadker for a copy of the research backing up the celebrated eight-to-one call-out claim. Sadker explained that he had presented the finding in an unpublished paper at a symposium sponsored by the American Educational Research Association (AERA); neither he nor the AERA had a copy. Sadker conceded that the eight-to-one ratio he had announced might have been inaccurate. Saltzman cited an independent study done by Gail Jones, an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina, who found that boys called out answers twice as often as girls. Whatever the accurate number may be, no one has even shown that permitting a student to call out answers in the classroom confers any kind of academic advantage. What does confer advantage is a student's attentiveness. Boys are less attentive23 -- which could explain why some teachers might call on them more or be more tolerant of call-outs.
Despite its anti-boy bias and factual errors, the campaign to persuade the public that girls are being diminished personally and academically was a spectacular success. As the AAUW's exultant director, Anne Bryant, told her friends, "I remember going to bed the night our report was issued, totally exhilarated. When I woke up the next morning, the first thought in my mind was 'Oh my God, what do we do next?'" Political action came next, and here, too, the girl advocates were successful.
In 1994, the allegedly low state of America's girls moved the U.S. Congress to pass the Gender Equity in Education Act, which categorized girls as an "under-served population" on a par with other discriminated-against minorities. Millions of dollars in grants were awarded to study the plight of girls and learn how to cope with the insidious bias against them. At the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, members of the American delegation presented the educational and psychological deficits of American girls as a pressing human rights issue.
Where Do Boys Fit In?
How do boys fit into the "tragedy" of America's "shortchanged" girls? Inevitably, boys are resented, being seen both as the unfairly privileged gender and as obstacles on the path to gender justice for girls. There is an understandable dialectic: the more girls are portrayed as diminished, the more boys are regarded as needing to be taken down a notch and reduced in importance. This perspective on boys and girls is promoted in schools of education, and many a teacher now feels that girls need and deserve special indemnifying consideration. "It is really clear that boys are no. 1 in this society and in most of the world," says Dr. Patricia O'Reilly, professor of education and director of the Gender Equity Center at the University of Cincinnati.
It may be "clear," but it isn't true. If we disregard the girl advocates and look objectively at the relative condition of boys and girls in this country, we find that it is boys, not girls, who are languishing academically. Data from the U.S. Department of Education and from several recent university studies show that far from being shy and demoralized, today's girls outshine boys. Girls get better grades. They have higher educational aspirations. They follow a more rigorous academic program and participate more in the prestigious Advanced Placement (AP) program. This demanding program gives top students the opportunity of taking college-level courses in high school. In 1984, an equal proportion of males and females participated. But according to the United States Department of Education, "Between 1984 and 1996, the number of females who took the examinations rose at a faster rate...In 1996, 144 females compared to 117 males per 1000 12th graders took AP examinations".
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, slightly more female than male students enroll in high-level math and science courses.
The representation of American girls as apprehensive and academically diminished is not true to the facts. Girls, allegedly so timorous and lacking in confidence, now outnumber boys in student government, in honor societies, on school newspapers, and even in debating clubs. Only in sports are the boys still ahead, and women's groups are targeting the sports gap with a vengeance.
At the very time the AAUW was advertising its discovery that girls were subordinates in the schools, the Department of Education published the results of a massive survey showing just the opposite.
Girls read more books. They outperform males on tests of artistic and musical ability. More girls than boys study abroad. More join the Peace Corps. Conversely, more boys than girls are suspended from school. More are held back and more drop out. Boys are three times as likely as girls to be enrolled in special education programs and four times as likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
More boys than girls are involved in crime, alcohol, and drugs. Girls attempt suicide more than boys, but it is boys who actually kill themselves more often. In a typical year (1997), there were 4,493 suicides of young people between the ages of five and twenty-four: 701 females, 3,792 males.
Boys Are Trailing
Quietly, some educators will tell you that it is boys, not girls, who are on the fragile side of the gender gap. In 1997, I met the president of the Board of Education of Atlanta, Georgia. Who is faring better in Atlanta's schools, boys or girls? I asked. "Girls," he replied without hesitating. In what areas? I asked. "Just about any area you can mention." A high school principal from Pennsylvania tells of the condition of boys in his school: "Students who dominate the drop-out list, the suspension list, the failure list and other negative indices of non-achievement in school are males at a wide ratio."
Three years ago, Scarsdale High School in New York State held a gender-equity workshop for its faculty. It was the standard girls-are-being-shortchanged fare, with one notable difference: a male student gave a presentation in which he pointed to evidence suggesting that girls at Scarsdale High were well ahead of boys. David Greene, a social studies teacher, thought the student must be mistaken. But when he and some colleagues analyzed department grading patterns, they saw that the student was right. They found that in Advanced Placement social studies classes, there was little or no difference in grades between boys and girls. But in standard classes, the girls were doing a lot better. Greene also learned from the school's athletic director that its girls' sports teams were far more successful in competition with other schools than the boys' teams were. Of the twelve athletes from Scarsdale High named as All-American in the past ten years, for example, three had been boys, nine girls. Greene came away with a picture flatly at odds with the administrators' preconception: one of ambitious girls and relatively disaffected boys who were willing to settle for mediocrity.
Like schools everywhere, Scarsdale High has been strongly influenced by the girl-crisis climate. The belief that girls are systematically deprived prevails on the school's Gender Equity Committee; it is the rationale for the school's offering a special senior elective class on gender equity. Greene has tried gingerly to broach the subject of male underperformance with his colleagues. Many of them concede that in the classes they teach, the girls seem to be doing better than the boys, but they do not see this as part of a larger pattern. After so many years of hearing about the silenced, diminished girls, the suggestion that boys are not doing as well as girls is not taken seriously even by teachers who see it with their own eyes in their own classrooms.
A 1999 Congressional Quarterly Researcher article about male and female academic achievement takes note of a common parental experience: "Daughters want to please their teachers by spending extra time on projects, doing extra credit, making homework as neat as possible. Sons rush through homework assignments and run outside to play, unconcerned about how the teacher will regard the sloppy work." In the technical language of education experts, girls are academically more "engaged." School engagement is a critical measure of student success. The U.S.
Department of Education gauges student commitment by the following criteria:
That boys are less committed to school than girls was already well documented by the Department of Education in the eighties and nineties. Higher percentages of boys than of girls reported they "usually" or "often" come to school without supplies or without having done their homework. Surveys of fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades show girls consistently reporting that they do more homework than boys. By twelfth grade, males are four times as likely as females not to do homework.
Here we have a genuinely worrisome gender gap, with boys well behind girls. It is this gap that should concern educators, parents, school boards, and legislators. Engagement with school is perhaps the single most important predictor of academic success. But boys' weaker commitment is not addressed at the equity seminars and workshops around the country. Instead, the fashionable but spurious self-esteem gap continues to be the prevailing concern -- the gap that the AAUW, in its zeal to "know more" about Carol Gilligan's findings, claims to have exposed.
There are some well-tested ways of reengaging boys, improving their study habits, and interesting them in learning and achievement. (I'll discuss what works with boys in later chapters.) But until boys' problems are acknowledged, they cannot be addressed. And until they are addressed, another educational disparity is likely to persist: far more girls than boys go on to college.
The College Gap
The U.S. Department of Education reports that in 1996 there were 8.4 million women but only 6.7 million men enrolled in college. It also shows women holding on to and improving this advantage well into the next decade. According to one Department prediction, by 2007 there will be 9.2 million women in college and 6.9 million men.
Girl partisans offer ingenious, self-serving arguments for why the higher enrollment of women in college should not count as an advantage for women. According to feminist essayist Barbara Ehrenreich, "One of the reasons why fewer men are going to college may be because they suspect that they can make a living just as well without a college education; in other words they still have such an advantage over women in the non-professional workforce that they don't require an education."
Ehrenreich is suggesting that a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old boy about to graduate from high school, with no plans for college, may still be better off than the college-bound girl sitting next to him. There may be a handful of enterprising high school students for whom this is true, but for the vast majority of boys a college education allows entrance into the middle class -- to say nothing of the personal benefits of a liberal arts education.
In recent years, the economic value of a college education has increased dramatically. An economist at the American Enterprise Institute, Marvin Kosters, has quantified the trend: "The average wage of a mature adult college graduate was about 25 percent higher in 1978 than the wage of a high school graduate. By 1995, the difference had more than doubled to an average wage of more than 50 percent higher for the college-educated worker."
Someone should have noticed that the boys were lagging behind. The college gap was a genuine and dangerous trend. But at just the time the girls were surpassing the boys in this critical way, the gender activists in the Department of Education, the AAUW, the Wellesley Center, and the Ms. Foundation chose to announce the "shortchanged-girl" crisis. For the next several years, the gender gap in college enrollment continued to widen, but the attention of the American public and government was focused on the nation's "underserved girls."
Why Do Boys Test Better?
The girl advocates cannot plausibly deny that girls get better grades, that they are more engaged academically, or that they are now the majority sex in higher education. So they point to psychological and sociological differences: self-esteem gaps, "call-out" gaps, confidence gaps. But these, we have seen, do not withstand scrutiny. There is a better argument advanced by the girl-crisis crowd that is based on correct data: boys do score better on almost every significant standardized test, especially high-stakes tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Assessment Test (SAT) and law school, medical school, and graduate school admission tests.
In 1996, I wrote an article for Education Week reporting on the many ways in which female students were moving ahead of males. Seizing on the test data that suggest that boys were doing better than girls, David Sadker, in a critical response, wrote, "If females are soaring in school, as Christina Hoff Sommers writes, then these tests are blind to their flight." Boys do, indeed, tend to test better than girls. On the 1998 Scholastic Assessment Test, boys were 35 points (out of 800) ahead of girls in math, 7 points ahead in English. Is Sadker right in suggesting that the boys' superior scores are a manifestation of their privileged status?
The answer is no. A careful look at the pool of students who take the SAT and other such tests shows that the girls' lower scores have little or nothing to do with bias or unfairness. Indeed, the scores do not even signify lower achievement by girls. First of all, a greater percentage of girls than boys take the SAT (54 percent to 46 percent). Furthermore, according to the College Board's Profile of SAT and Achievement Test Takers, many more girls from "at-risk" categories take the test than do "at-risk" boys. Specifically, more girls from lower-income homes or with parents who never graduated from high school or never attended college attempt the SAT than boys from the same background. "These characteristics," says the College Board Profile, "are associated with lower than average SAT scores."
In other words, because boys at risk tend not to take the test while girls at risk tend to do so, the girls' average score is lower. Instead of wrongly using SAT scores as evidence of bias against girls, scholars should be concerned about the boys who never show up for the tests they need if they are to move on to higher education.
Yet another extraneous factor skews test results so they appear to favor boys. Nancy Cole, president of the Educational Testing Service, terms it the "spread" phenomenon. : On almost any intelligence or achievement test, male scores are more spread out than female scores at the extremes of ability and disability: there are more male prodigies at the high end and more males of marginal ability at the low end. Or, as the political scientist James Q. Wilson once put it, "There are more male geniuses and more male idiots."
We should also take into account that males dominate the dropout lists, the failure lists, and the learning disability lists. Such students rarely take high-stakes tests. On the other hand, the exceptional boys who take school seriously show up in disproportionately high numbers for the standardized tests. Gender-equity activists such as Sadker ought to apply their logic consistently: if the shortage of girls at the high end of the ability distribution is evidence of "unfairness" to girls, the excess of boys at the low end must be deemed evidence of "unfairness" to boys.
Suppose we were to turn our attention away from the highly motivated self-selected two fifths of high school students who take the SAT and instead consider a truly representative sample of American schoolchildren. How would girls and boys then compare? The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), started in 1969 and mandated by the U.S. Congress, offers the best and most comprehensive measure of achievement for students of all levels of ability. Under the NAEP program, a large scientific sample of 70,000 to 100,000 students drawn from forty-four states is tested in reading, writing, math, and science at ages nine, thirteen, and seventeen. (The NAEP scale scores range from 0 to 500.) In 1996, seventeen-year-old boys outperformed girls by 5 points in math and 8 points in science, while the girls outperformed boys by 14 points in reading and 17 points in writing. Throughout the past two decades, girls have been catching up in math and science, while boys continue to lag far behind in reading and writing, a gap that is not narrowing.
New Research Findings
In the July 7, 1995 issue of Science, Larry Hedges and Amy Nowell, researchers at the University of Chicago, observed that girls' deficits in math were small but not insignificant. These deficits, they noted, could adversely affect the number of women who "excel in scientific and technical occupations." Of boys' writing skills, they wrote, "The large sex differences in writing...are alarming. The data imply that males are, on average, at a rather profound disadvantage in the performance of this basic skill." Hedges and Nowell go on to warn, "The generally larger numbers of males who perform near the bottom of the distribution in reading comprehension and writing also have policy implications. It seems likely that individuals with such poor literacy skills will have difficulty finding employment in an increasingly information-driven economy. Thus, some intervention may be required to enable them to participate constructively."
Hedges and Nowell are describing a serious problem of national scope, but because the focus has been exclusively on girls' deficits, it is not a problem Americans know much about or even suspect exists. It is very hard to look at the school data on adolescents or the most recent data on college students without coming to the conclusion that girls and young women are thriving, while boys and young men are languishing.
In 1995, perhaps in reaction to criticism -- from an increasing number of unpersuaded scholars -- the AAUW commissioned a more serious scientific study of gender and academic achievement. That study, The Influence of School Climate on Gender Differences in the Achievement and Engagement of Young Adolescents, by University of Michigan professor Valerie E. Lee and her associates, was released without the fanfare the AAUW usually lavishes on such publications. This is not surprising. Lee's study strongly suggests that earlier reports of a tragic demoralization and shortchanging of America's schoolgirls have been greatly exaggerated.
Lee and her associates analyzed data on the educational achievement and engagement of more than nine thousand eighth-grade boys and girls and found that the differences between boys and girls were "small to moderate." Moreover, the pattern of gender differences is "inconsistent in direction." In some areas, females are favored; in others, males are favored. The study showed that the girls were more engaged academically than the boys: they were better prepared for class, had better attendance records, and evinced more positive academic behavior overall.
Lee's temperate conclusions, in research sponsored by the AAUW, were based on U.S. Department of Education data and were fully consistent with the findings of Hedges and Nowell. But they are at odds with the disturbing picture that the AAUW earlier so successfully sold to the American public and Congress. Lee concluded, "The public discourse around issues of gender in school needs some change...Inequity can (and does) work in both directions." As far as I have been able to ascertain, Valerie Lee's responsible and objective study was not mentioned in a single newspaper.
The AAUW did not spend $150,000 promoting Lee's study, nor did it tone down its own partisan rhetoric. On the contrary, dissenting views provoked the organization to anger and abuse. In the spring of 1997, the AAUW newsletter AAUW Outlook attacked the "gender bias revisionists" who "like John Leo, Christina Hoff Sommers, or your local columnist" had questioned the myth of the fragile girl: "We have all heard of revisionist history. There will always be some individuals who will insist that the Holocaust did not happen....The revisionists often distort the facts so thoroughly that their take on history loses all semblance of reality."
In the summer of 1997, the AAUW followed this attack on its critics with a four-day "leadership conference" at which the AAUW's "media staff" trained thirty teachers and other equity leaders in strategies for coping with "revisionists" in the media and elsewhere. I attended one of the sessions at the AAUW's Washington, D.C., headquarters. (I was not a welcome guest and was eventually politely asked to leave.) Outside the conference room, there were tables filled with shortchanged-girl souvenirs. The teachers could buy "equity teddy bears," coffee mugs, and
T-shirts bearing the slogan "When We Shortchange Girls, We Shortchange America." There were "I am a star" buttons intended for hapless girls with lagging self-esteem.
The AAUW staff coached the teachers in coping with questions about boys. In a special training workshop entitled "Why Focus on Girls?," teachers rehearsed their answers to queries about boys and AAUW personnel critiqued their performance. One AAUW equity trainer advised the teachers to use "key AAUW words and phrases" as often as possible in their answers -- especially the AAUW all-time favorite, "shortchanged girls." Trainers advised the teachers to practice using "confident language," such as "research shows that."
Although the AAUW headquarters where this conference took place was the epicenter of the girl-crisis movement, some of the teacher-fellows had the temerity to speak up for boys. A young teacher from Baltimore volunteered that in her school the boys were just as vulnerable as the girls -- "if not more." And in a discussion of how to defend the "girls-only" character of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, four teachers protested that boys should be included. In both instances, the AAUW equity experts gently guided the discussion back to girls.
More Dissonant Notes
The girl partisans love to gather in groups to tell stories abut how girls are being victimized. In November 1997, the Public Education Network (PEN), a council of organizations that support the public schools, sponsored a conference entitled "Gender, Race and Student Achievement." The conference's honored celebrities were Carol Gilligan and Cornel West, a professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy of religion at Harvard University. Gilligan talked about how girls and women "lose their voice," how they "go underground" in adolescence, and how women teachers are "absent," having been "silenced" within the "patriarchal structure" that governs our schools. Cornel West spoke of having had to overcome his own feelings of "male supremacy."
Even at this most politically correct of gatherings, the serious deficits of boys kept surfacing. On the first day of the conference, during a special three-hour session, the PEN staff announced the results of a new teacher/student survey entitled The American Teacher 1997: Examining Gender Issues in Public Schools. The survey was funded by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company as part of its American Teacher series and conducted by Louis Harris and Associates.
During a three-month period in 1997, 1,306 students and 1,035 teachers in grades seven through twelve were asked a variety of questions about gender equity. The MetLife study was not produced by a feminist advocacy organization; it had no doctrinal ax to grind. What it found contradicted most of the pet "findings" of the AAUW, the Sadkers, and the Wellesley Center for Research on Women. It politely said as much: "Contrary to the commonly held view that boys are at an advantage over girls in school, girls appear to have an advantage over boys in terms of their future plans, teachers' expectations, everyday experiences at school and interactions in the classroom."
Here are some other conclusions from the MetLife study:
The MetLife report informed a conference busily lionizing Carol Gilligan that the nation's boys needed attention more than its girls. The participants were hearing -- many for the first time -- that the conventional talk about studies that show "girls losing self-confidence...and as a result perform[ing] less well" in school was simply untrue. This should have been big news for media long inundated with findings on the tragic fate of our nation's girls. But where girls are concerned, good news is no news.
There were other dissonant notes at the conference. During a panel discussion on race and gender issues in schools, one high school panelist said that at her school, a selective Washington, D.C., public high school, it is so rare for a boy to do well that "it's a big occasion when a guy gets into an honor society or wins an award." No one commented.
At another session, "How Do the Academic Experiences of Boys and Girls Differ?," Nancy Leffert, a child psychologist at the Search Institute in Minneapolis, reported the results of a massive survey she and her colleagues had recently completed of more than 99,000 sixth- through twelfth-graders. The children were asked about their "developmental assets." The Search Institute has identified forty critical assets ("building blocks for healthy development"). Half of these are external -- for example, a supportive family, adult role models -- and half internal -- motivation to achieve, sense of purpose in life, interpersonal confidence. Leffert explained to the PEN audience, somewhat apologetically, that girls were ahead of boys in thirty-four of the forty assets! On almost every significant measure of well-being, girls had the better of boys: they felt closer to their families, they had higher aspirations and a stronger connection to school -- even superior assertiveness skills. Leffert concluded her talk by saying that in the past, she had referred to girls as fragile or vulnerable, "but if you look at [our survey], it tells me that girls have very powerful assets."
The original AAUW study, so successfully promoted by the AAUW, had been based on a survey of three thousand children. The Search Institute research that Leffert summarized was incomparably more reliable -- it was based on a survey of nearly a hundred thousand students. This massive study definitively showed that the shortchanged-girls premise -- on which the PEN conference was based -- was false.
Yet no one called this to the attention of the conferees. The allegedly tragic fate of girls in "our sexist society" remained the dominant motif. Leslie Wolfe, president of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., duly denounced the "hidden curriculum of sexism" in the schools. "We must teach boys that male supremacy is unacceptable," said Wolfe. Workshop speakers held forth on subjects like "girl empowerment" and "proven classroom strategies to boost achievement and engagement of females." David Sadker led a session in which he described "the ocean of gender bias [against girls] that exists all around us."
The "official" view, uncompromisingly articulated by the then AAUW president Jackie DeFazio in 1994, has yet to be challenged by the education establishment: "Girls still receive an unequal education in the nation's schools. Whatever the measure -- test scores, textbooks, or teaching methods -- study after study showed that girls are not living up to their potential as boys are" (emphasis is added).
British Concern, American Neglect
Britain has no Carol Gilligan, no Mary Pipher, no AAUW. It is therefore unsurprising that in Britain the plain truth about male underperformance has been reaching an informed and concerned public. For almost a decade, British newspapers and journals have been reporting on the distressing scholastic deficits of British schoolboys. The Times of London warned the prospect of "an underclass of permanently unemployed, unskilled men." "What's Wrong with Boys?" asked the Glasgow Herald. The Economist referred to boys as "tomorrow's second sex." In Britain, the public, the government, and the education establishment are well aware of the increasing numbers of underachieving young males and they are looking for ways to help them. They have a name for them -- the "sink group" -- and they call what ails them "laddism."
The difference between Britain and the United States is perhaps most striking in government policy. At a time when the British government is confronting and constructively dealing with boys' underachievement as a serious national problem, American government agencies are behaving like resource-rich chapters of the AAUW, dutifully pursuing policies of girl advocacy, including initiatives to raise girls' self-esteem and help them find their "voices." The U.S. Department of Education disseminates more than 300 pamphlets, books, and working papers on gender equity, none of these aimed at helping boys achieve parity with girls in the nation's schools. As the plight of boys grows, with no relief in sight, programs for girls multiply. One recent initiative is Girl Power! In 1997, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala launched Girl Power! to raise public awareness about the needs of America's demoralized girls. The National Science Foundation spends millions each year to offer remedial programs to help girls with their science and math skills. The idea of special reading and writing classes for boys rarely surfaces. In schools, boys are the gender at risk. But no one is asking for money to cope with their academic shortfalls.
In this climate, so inhospitable to boys, American educators who wish to help boys face formidable obstacles. Prince George's County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., includes several poor, mostly black public schools. According to one school board member, many of the boys "are at the bottom in every respect, in every academic indicator, every social development indicator." To help such boys, the county organized a "Black Male Achievement Initiative." Beginning in the early nineties, approximately forty young men met two weekends a month with a group of professional men for tutoring and mentoring. The program was popular and effective. But in 1996, it was radically restructured by order of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, which found that it discriminated against girls. The woman who chaired the Prince George's County School Board was pleased: "The point here is that we were shortchanging female students, and we're not going to do that anymore."
In the United States, a proposal to do something special for boys usually gets plowed under before it has a chance to take root. In 1996, New York City public schools established the Young Women's Leadership School, an all-girls public school in East Harlem. The school is a great success and many, including The New York Times, urged then Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew to establish a "similar island of excellence for boys." Crew rejected the idea of a comparable all-boys school. He regarded the girls' school as reparatory for past educational practices that neglected girls. That made it permissible. As he told the Times, "This is a case where the existence of the all-girls school makes an important statement about the viable education of girls. I want to continue to make that statement." Presumably the statement would lose its force and point if an all-boys school were allowed to exist alongside.
What do such statements say to the boys in East Harlem? For the record, African-American women vastly outnumber African-American men in higher education. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, "Black women in the United States account for nearly all of the gains in black enrollment in higher education over the past 15 years." In 1994, for example, African-American women earned 63 percent of bachelor's degrees and 66 percent of master's degrees awarded to African Americans. At historically black colleges women comprise 60 percent of enrollments, and make up 80 percent of the honor roll. The disparities are worsening.
One wonders what happened to black males between the early eighties and the late nineties. It would be an apt question for another PEN conference to explore. It would have been an apt question for Chancellor Crew to consider. But in gender-equity circles, that question is of little interest, if not altogether taboo.
The Truth About Boys
Despite the anti-boy climate generated by the girl partisans, concern over boys was growing, and in the late 1990s the myth of the fragile girl was showing some signs of unraveling. Articles about boys' educational deficits began to appear in American newspapers with headlines much like those in the British press: "U.S. Colleges Begin to Ask, Where Have the Men Gone?," "How Boys Lost Out to Girl Power," "Survey Shows Girls Setting the Pace in School," and "Girls Overtake Boys in School Performance." Studies showing the existence of a serious educational gender gap adverse to boys began to surface. This time, the media took notice.
The Horatio Alger Association, a fifty-year-old organization devoted to promoting and affirming individual initiative and "the American dream," released its annual back-to-school survey in 1998. It contrasted two groups of students: the highly "successful" (approximately 18 percent of American students) and the "disillusioned" (approximately 15 percent of students). The students in the successful group work hard, choose challenging classes, make schoolwork a top priority, get good grades, participate in extracurricular activities, and feel that their teachers and administrators care about them and listen to them. According to the report, the successful group is 63 percent female and 37 percent male. At the other extreme, the disillusioned students are pessimistic about their own futures, get low grades, have minimal contact with their teachers, and believe that "there is no one...they can turn to for help." The disillusioned group could accurately be characterized as demoralized. According to the report, "Nearly seven out of ten are male."
In the spring of 1998, Judith Kleinfeld, a psychologist at the University of Alaska, published a thorough critique of the schoolgirl research entitled The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls: Social Science in the Service of Deception. Kleinfeld exposed a number of errors and concluded that the AAUW/Wellesley Center research on girls was "politics dressed up as science." Kleinfeld's report prompted several newspapers, including The New York Times and Education Week, to take a second look at the earlier claims that girls were in a tragic state.
The AAUW did not adequately respond to any of Kleinfeld's substantive objections; instead, its president, Maggie Ford, complained in The New York Times letters column that Kleinfeld was "reducing the problems of our children to this petty 'who is worse off, boys or girls?' [which] gets us nowhere." From the leader of an organization that spent nearly a decade promoting the proposition that America's girls are being "shortchanged," this comment is rather remarkable.
The association's executive director, Janice Weinman, added a more candid explanation for the persistent neglect of boys' problems: "We're the American Association of University Women," she said, "and our mission is to look at education for girls and women." That would be fair enough had the girl partisans not relentlessly promoted the idea that boys were unfairly advantaged while girls were neglected. The AAUW had not merely ignored boys' problems, it had dismissed them, coaching teachers at its 1997 Leadership Conference on how to deflect questions about boys' deficits and comparing those who questioned bias against girls to "Holocaust revisionists" in its newsletter.
In this connection, it should be pointed out that while Gilligan and the AAUW had devised and successfully promoted the myth of the silenced girl, that myth had never taken hold among the students themselves. The AAUW was aware that the way students think of themselves and their teachers is at odds with the official picture it was presenting to the public. Surveying the perceptions of schoolboys and schoolgirls, the AAUW had learned that it is boys who feel neglected and girls who feel favored by their teachers. But evidently the AAUW leaders did not consider it part of the association's mission to publish these findings in the brochures that announced the tragedy of the shortchanged girl.
Did anything of value come out of the manufactured crisis of diminished girls? There were some positive developments. Parents, teachers, and administrators now pay more attention to girls' deficits in math and science, and they offer more support for girls' participation in sports. But these benefits could and should have been achieved without promulgating the myth of the incredible shrinking girl or presenting boys as the unfairly favored sex.
A boy today, through no fault of his own, finds himself implicated in the social crime of "shortchanging" girls. Yet the allegedly silenced and neglected girl sitting next to him is likely to be a better student. She is not only more articulate, she is probably a more mature, engaged, and well-balanced human being. He may be uneasily aware that girls are more likely to go on to college. He may believe that teachers prefer to be around girls and pay more attention to them. At the same time, he is uncomfortably aware that he is considered to be a member of the unfairly favored "dominant gender."
American schoolboys are lagging behind girls academically. The first step in helping them is to repudiate the partisanship that has distorted the issues surrounding sex differences in the schools. The next step is to make every effort to bring balance, fairness, and objective information into an urgently needed analysis of the nature and causes of those differences. But neither step can be taken while the divisive pro-girl campaign is allowed to go on unchecked and unchallenged.
The media and the education establishment can help by publicizing the studies by the U.S. Department of Education, MetLife, the Search Institute, and the Horatio Alger Association, as well as the academic research of Larry Hedges and Amy Nowell, Judith Kleinfeld, and Valerie Lee and her associates. All such studies expose the falsehoods disseminated by the girl partisans, and all show that the very term "shortchanged girls" is a travesty of the truth.
It is time the American public learned about the findings that supersede and contradict the accepted view that girls are academically weaker than boys. Because the British public is well informed about its boys, British schools have a significant head start in programs designed to lift boys out of the "disillusioned" category and to deal with their chronic underachievement. We have much to learn from their initiatives and even more from their healthy, commonsense approach to what they rightly see as a serious national emergency. For the time being, however, the academic problems of American boys are invisible.
The gender theorists and activists who in the past had little to say about boys have recently begun to tell us that boys too need attention -- not because schools are neglecting their academic needs but because "under patriarchy," males are socialized to destructive masculine ideals. Gender experts at Harvard, Wellesley, and Tufts, and in the major women's organizations, believe that boys and men in our society will remain sexist (and potentially dangerous) unless socialized away from conventional maleness. It may be too late to change adult men: boys, on the other hand, are still salvageable -- provided one gets to them at an early age. Such thinking presents a challenge that many an egalitarian educator is eager to embrace. As one keynote speaker at a convention of gender-equity experts pointed out to her audience, "We have an incredible opportunity. Kids are so malleable."
The belief that boys are being wrongly "masculinized" is inspiring a movement to "construct boyhood" in ways that will render boys less competitive, more emotionally expressive, more nurturing -- more, in short, like girls. Gloria Steinem summarizes the views of many in the boys-should-be-changed camp when she says, "We need to raise boys like we raise girls."
This novel agenda is no utopian fantasy. Indeed, as I will show, the movement to overhaul boys is already well under way. And like many other well-intentioned but ill-conceived reforms, this one has enormous potential to make a lot of people -- in this case, millions of schoolboys -- very miserable indeed.
Copyright © 2000 by Christina Hoff Sommers
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Meet the Author
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise institute in Washington, D.C. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Brandeis University and was formerly a professor of philosophy at Clark University. Sommers has written for numerous publications and is the author of Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women. She is married with two sons and lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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A book for anybody who is remotely interested in a fair and open debate on the issues of gender bias. There are two sides to every story and this book provides the other side.