Girls Have Outperformed Boys Academically for 100 Years. So What?

By Soraya Chemaly

A new comprehensive international study shows that girls have outperformed boys academically for 100 years. The question is: SO WHAT? 

Higher academic achievement has not made a substantive dent in the fact that fidgety boys grow up to be fidgety men who dominate every sector of the public sphere. Girls’ higher academic achievement in the United States has not resulted in the dismantling of institutional biases or cultural norms that favor men in the workplace and economy. Men continue to earn more, accrue more wealth within their peer groups, and be the vast majority of political leaders, religious leaders, and corporate executives in every industry. Now, these might not be the markers of success we should be measuring, but they still are the ones we count. Instead of asking hard questions about socialization and why girls’ academic performance has not resulted in a shift in power, we are still talking about a "boy crisis" in education. 

Two weeks ago, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman published their book The Confidence Code, about girls' and women's lower self-esteem. With mind-numbing predictability, the media took up cries of a "boy crisis" in education. Everyone from the New York Times downward published a piece, just to make sure everyone knows that there are Real, Important Issues ("Fidgety Boys and A Sputtering Economy"). All of this was fodder for Fox News coverage, which included a panel that, needless to say, concluded that feminism, single mothers, and, I kid you not, the lack of woodshop classes were to blame for the demise of America’s boys and our economic woes. Could this conversation be any more counterproductive?

Think about this: when we talk about women’s under-confidence, it’s a private, personal issue with self-esteem that women can learn to overcome. But a boy crisis? A serious public issue.

What if we stopped calling it a boy crisis, and started talking about male OVERconfidence? In a video interview with Kay and Shipman, Slate’s Hanna Rosin, author of "The End of Men," discussed the question the author posed with what appears to be genuine curiosity, "Why do men assume they’re so great?" This clear knocked me off my seat. Men, their ideas, their perspectives, their opinions, their images, their epistemologies overwhelmingly dominate our media and inform children’s ideas about identity, competence, and authority. Parents and teachers teach gendered behavior that systematically undermines equality. Boys and men assume they are so great because we tell them they are great. The boy crisis we should be talking about is not "fidgetiness," it’s cultural entitlement that, for a brief period in school, seems to disadvantage boys when, in reality, the opposite is true.

Photo via Library of Congress

Girls go to our schools with confidence, but they do not leave them that way. This is not called a "girl crisis," but it should be the one we are focused on, because its contributing factors touch on a whole range of issues that need to be addressed, ranging from what we [don’t] teach to how we socialize children. The opposite is true of boys—and their overconfidence is an academic disincentive. Starting out great means studying isn’t so important.

We socialize girls to doubt the importance of their words and actions, and then, oddly, turn around and ask why they lack confidence. From the moment they can talk, we expect girls to be quieter, more cooperative, and polite. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Oregon found that "girls in the United States had significantly higher individual behavioral regulation than boys." The study revealed that not only did girls appear to have more self-control, but teachers and parents expect them to and so attribute greater self-regulation to girls. What was notable was that this is not true in Asian societies (the study included children in South Korea, Taiwan, and China). In other words, we have a national, cultural problem with not expecting or teaching boys to control themselves in equal measure when they are quite clearly biologically capable of doing so.

Gendered politeness norms teach girls to be subservient and boys to be dominant. The same behaviors that contribute to what is portrayed as a boy crisis in education are related to success in the workplace. Research clearly shows that boys perceive disruptive behavior as physical and linguistic markers of masculinity. This includes joking, loud voices, and interrupting—all behaviors that lower their school assessments. These behaviors also happen to be ways of establishing verbal dominance in the public sphere when they are adults, where men effectively hog the floor, often aggressively and in defiance of politeness norms that girls are subjected to and practice. This happens in online interactions, college and university classroomsboardroomslegislative bodies, and media commentary.

Girls’ compliance and cooperation in school are being confused with comprehension. Are teachers are giving girls higher grades because they are quiet? This, coupled with how teachers feel about "boys being boys" and adult attitudes incorporating stereotypes, is a toxic educational stew and a drag on gender parity.  

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Observations of teachers show that they spend up to two thirds of their time talking to male students. Teachers think they are being balanced in their interactions, but when observed, are not. It is interesting that when female teachers are made aware of imbalances, they address them, but male teachers don’t. When they ask questions, they vastly disproportionately direct their gazes towards boys, especially when questions are open-ended. Not only are girls expected to behave better, an expectation that might get them better grades but in no way improves their actual education, they are also expected to serve as a standard for boys. Female students at a New Jersey school were asked to pledge not to use profanity so that they could set a better example for boys. Now, as adults and after years of politeness lessons, women are frequently told to throw away decades of lessons regarding politeness and emulate "men’s" speech patterns, in order, for example, to "negotiate better" for fair pay or promotions. It’s something they excel at doing when the recipient of the benefits of their negotiations are other people, but not themselves—which is the effect of being socialized to think of others first.  

The ROI on an education for a girl is significantly lower than it is for men because the same gender stereotypes that govern the dynamics above, including parental implicit biases, inform early education sex segregation in subject matter, which has lifelong consequences. Take, for example, math skills, which people continue to insist accrue by chromosome. Math skills are tied to societal status, gender equity, and competitive norms. They vary tremendously by country. Children perform equally well in math in societies with a commitment to girls’ broad societal equality. American girls and boys, who go to school with equal math abilities, do not retain them. By the time girls reach the age of 10, simply checking off a "female" box at the top of a test results in a lower score. Similarly, boys’ grades suffer because they see succeeding in "girl" subjects as degrading and incorporate the stereotype threats.

As a result of these same implicit biases, stereotypes, and their threats, we have enduring workforce sex segregation. The top job for women in the United States, despite good grades and graduate degrees, is what it was 60 years ago, when less than 10% of college degrees went to women: secretary, now called administrative assistant. This sex segregation in the workplace continues to pay higher salaries for same level "male" jobs (The Bureau of Labor Statistics catalogs 534 job types—men make more than women in 527 of them), and is reproduced by our lack of workplace policies attuned to the needs of a mixed gender workforce.

What Rachel Simmons long ago called the curse of the good girl is not considered a risk to the national economy, when clearly it should be. It goes far beyond economics. By the time boys and girls leave high school and enter college, boys are twice as likely to say they are prepared to run for office. Girls are ceding the public sphere before they’re grown up.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It’s important to remember that while boys have been educated for millennia, the equal education of masses of girls, in anything remotely resembling parity, is a very new development in human history. It continues to scare people, and is a threat to a patriarchal status quo. Women did not start to proportionally exceed men in getting college degrees until 2011. Colleges today routinely accept less able boys, to girls’ disadvantage.  Why? This is so beautifully rich: because if there are too many girls in a school, no one will want to go. For the most part, we don’t teach any of this history to American students. No readings of  "Vindication of the Rights of Women," nor "Declaration of Sentiments." No history of women’s liberation.

Every time I have talked to school administrators about deficits in teaching women’s history, about gender, gender bias, implicit bias, stereotypes, and stereotype threats in school cultures, I am told, "The real problem is with boys." When I point out the facts above, a lot of blank looks and some nods, then a discussion about spaces where boys can be allowed to "be boys." People want to hear what they want to hear.

As long as we frame these problems in the self-perpetuating backlash of a boy crisis narrative, one that assumes more difference than similarity between genders, we will not solve them. Taking the notion of a boy crisis, one in which there is a hierarchy of woes that boys suffer more greatly from, at face value only serves to trade in the same gender stereotypes that perpetuate male dominance. If you are the parent of boys and have these worries, consider instead the price that your sons might be paying over their lifetimes for adhering to rigid norms of masculinity. Or the effects that male overconfidence and entitlement in culture have on all of us.

Parents who are genuinely concerned about children, their educations, and their educational outcomes should hold schools accountable for understanding how harmful ideas about gender roles hurt all children and shape their identities and ambitions. In the meantime, restarting woodshop classes will fix that fact since we have the largest math and science gap between boys and girls in the developed world. This does not a boy crisis make, by the way.

Andrea Tantaros - Feminism Is to Blame When Boys Do Poorly in School - Fox News

Soraya Chemaly writes about feminism, gender, and culture. Her work appears in The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, BitchFlicks, Fem2.0, Alternet, and Feministe, as well as other publications. Follow her on Twitter @schemaly.

Photo via Library of Congress