The Education Gender Gap: How Boys Can Catch Up

Education Nation – Claudia Buchmann & Thomas A. DiPrete  

Not long ago, women lagged considerably behind men in how far they went in school. But today, in the U.S. and most other countries in the world, women have not only gained educational equality with men; on many fronts they’re ahead of men by a large and growing margin. Consider these statistics: in 1970, 58 percent of college students were men, but by 2010, 57 percent of all college students were women. Women are also more likely than men to earn college degrees and enroll in graduate school.


While celebrating women’s advances, we need to understand why men’s college completion rates have stagnated. Research contained in our new book, The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools, shows that grades in middle and high school are the most important predictor of a student’s chance of graduating college. Girls clearly have the advantage: They have outperformed boys in school grades since the turn of the century and earn higher average grades than boys at all levels of schooling today.


MORE: Five Ways to Engage Girls in STEM


So why do boys get lower grades than girls? It isn’t because girls are smarter; the scientific consensus is that girls and boys have very similar levels of academic aptitude. But girls consistently report higher levels of gratification from doing well in school, while boys tend to put in less effort and be less engaged. Their disengagement leads to weaker academic preparation, which in turn lowers their chances of getting through college.


So boys’ underperformance in school has more to do with society’s norms about masculinity than with anatomy, hormones or brain structure.


Boys involved in extracurricular cultural activities such as music, art, drama, and foreign languages report higher levels of school engagement than other boys. But extracurricular activities are often denigrated as un-masculine by pre-adolescent and adolescent boys – especially those from working- or lower-class backgrounds, our research has found. Working class fathers may subtly reinforce the idea that school is feminizing because it was never a source of masculine power for them. In their world, masculinity is not about educational success and the status it brings, but rather from physical prowess and adherence to more traditional masculine roles.




Some commentators say the way to get boys more academically engaged is to remake schools to be more “boy-friendly” by offering more recess, single-sex classrooms, and male teachers. This strategy may sound appealing, but it is misguided. “Boy-friendly” and “girl friendly” school policies only serve to reinforce outdated gender stereotypes by assuming all boys have the same needs and that those needs are different from girls’.


VIDEO: Education Nation: Single-Gender Schools


Success in academics, like success in sports, takes a big investment of time and effort. The more you practice, the better you become. Many boys, especially those who expect to get a college degree but who earn poor grades in middle and high school, do not understand that their poor academic performance will limit their chances of getting a college degree in the future.


So, what should we do about boys’ underachievement? Our research finds that boys compete for high grades and more often achieve them in schools where academic effort is expected and valued. Schools that promote strong academic climates can break down gender stereotypes and their inhibiting effects on academic pursuits. They reduce gender gaps in grades and promote healthy, multi-faceted gender identities for both boys and girls.


All students, and especially boys, perform better when teachers and parents help them understand how their future success in college and work is directly linked to their hard work in middle and high school today. Rather than remaking schools in ways that reinforce gender stereotypes, we need schools that set high expectations for student achievement and treat students as individuals.


Claudia Buchmann is professor of sociology at Ohio State University. Thomas A. DiPrete is professor of sociology at Columbia University. They are the authors of The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools, published by the Russell Sage Foundation.


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