Gender stereotypes and the gender gap in higher education

There’s an interesting op-ed on the role of gender stereotypes in gender differences in college participation and performance in the New York Times today by Andrew Reiner who teaches a course on masculinity at Towson University, and I thought our readers might be interested. Here’s a snippet of it:

In many ways, the young men who take my seminar — typically, 20 percent of the class — mirror national trends. Based on their grades and writing assignments, it’s clear that they spend less time on homework than female students; and while every bit as intelligent, they earn lower grades with studied indifference. When I asked one of my male students why he didn’t openly fret about grades the way so many women do, he said: ‘Nothing’s worse for a guy than looking like a Try Hard.’

In a report based on the 2013 book “The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools,” the sociologists Thomas A. DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann observe: “Boys’ underperformance in school has more to do with society’s norms about masculinity than with anatomy, hormones or brain structure. In fact, boys involved in extracurricular cultural activities such as music, art, drama and foreign languages report higher levels of school engagement and get better grades than other boys. But these cultural activities are often denigrated as un-masculine by preadolescent and adolescent boys.

. . . By the time many young men do reach college, a deep-seeded gender stereotype has taken root that feeds into the stories they have heard about themselves as learners. Better to earn your Man Card than to succeed like a girl, all in the name of constantly having to prove an identity to yourself and others.

9 thoughts on “Gender stereotypes and the gender gap in higher education

  1. A compatible explanation, from a different perspective, is that boys are getting the message early on that school is a female-dominated domain, where their emerging sense of masculinity is subject to the judgment and control of unsympathetic authorities.

    “In 2011–12, some 76 percent of public school teachers were female, 44 percent were under age 40, and 56 percent had a master’s or higher degree.”

    Here is an excerpt from The Problem with Boys’ Education: Beyond the Backlash (2009), a book trying to counter resistance to “progressive and feminist gains in education”:
    “[Male teacher] identifies elementary schools as ‘female institutions’ in the way that they are ‘shaped and and the way that they are run,’ but does not see this as problematic or in terms of a deficit requiring the re-masculinization of schooling. In fact, it is this very aspect of elementary schooling that attracts or is attractive to men who are either gay or don’t feel the need to assert traditional masculinity.”

    Since most boys are not gay and evidently are disinclined to abandon norms of “traditional masculinity” in favor of their teachers’ sensibilities about how boys should be, boys’ growing disaffection from school is hardly surprising. One response would be to double down on the “de-masculinization” and reconstruction of boys; another would be to accept a certain reality to “boys will be boys” and try to do better by them in school for the practical sake of their futures.

    If I had a fairly typical boy, I’d probably opt for what by now seems more likely to work. I know I’d object to dismissive, hyperbolic characterizations such as “Better to earn your Man Card than to succeed like a girl, all in the name of constantly having to prove an identity to yourself and others.” Having been a typical enough boy, I’m confident that an emerging sense of masculinity doesn’t generally fit that profile.

  2. hbaber, I think it’s true that men on average as compared to women may need to do less to succeed, but still, generally doesn’t mean universally, and of course, the universal version of that comparison isn’t true, and there’s some questions of intersectionality too.

  3. Mine is a simple, rational-choice style explanation that makes perfect sense of boys’ ‘underperformance’ and also their underrepresentation in mid-range colleges.

    This actually raises a philosophically interesting question about the explanation of behavior. Arguably, this style of explanation is the default—it’s only when behavior can’t be explained in terms of rational choice that we should look for ‘psychological’ explanations in terms of gender norms etc. Economics trumps psychology.

  4. If attitudes like hbaber’s are common enough among teachers, little wonder many boys have a problem with school. Such attitudes also depend on disappearing from view black boys, who obviously don’t “got it made” and can hardly afford “to be mediocre” in the U.S.

    Whatever might be true of “men on average as compared to women” about the value of schooling, teachers and parents concerned about intersectionality regarding black boys might find this helpful: .

  5. I ignored reports of this when they first started appearing in places like The Atlantic simply because, in my experience, “these kids today” type trend pieces are usually garbage. However, I’ve been hearing similar things from colleagues who teach undergraduates in recent years (I teach mainly graduate and professional students).

    I was an undergrad in the late 80s/early 90s, and when I think about the various “types” I saw – the partiers, the stoners, the super academic nerds, the earnest strivers, the artists & etc. – the gender distribution among them was pretty even. So whatever has happened must have happened during the last 20 years or so. Although this is just my own anecdata, it does seem to argue against hbaber’s theory. Surely male students had it even easier compared with female students back then than they do now, so why was there less deliberately conspicuous slacking from male students in 1990?

  6. I’ve been teaching undergraduates for over 20 years and haven’t noticed the trend, so dunno. What everyone has been noticing is the over-representation of women in college. Which makes sense when to make roughly the same as a male high school graduate a woman has to be a college graduate.

    So here’s a modified hypothesis: maybe is isn’t so much boys slacking as girls cranking. Once girls didn’t have to push academically because most expected to get married and get all or most of their financial support from men. I remember college bookstores selling novelty ‘PHT’ diplomas for women who were ‘putting hubby through’. Within the past 30 years or so that just stopped being feasible, so women had to go into overdrive.

    It’s really a special case of the ‘gentlemen’s C’ phenomena. Once both men and women could afford gentlepersons’ C’s: men could get decent middle class jobs without working too hard and women could get middle class lives by marrying men who got those jobs. Now women are on their own, and have to work harder.

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