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Minding the gender gap

Boys seem to underachieve educationally relative to girls. But many questions remain about what’s going on and what, if anything, should be done to address the issue.


When the number of women admitted to medical school at Université de Montréal surpassed 70 percent in 2001, a special admissions committee was set up to see what should be done about it. The committee reported the following year that it thought the admissions process was fair – and female enrolment hit 80 percent.

The percentage is now back down, closer to two-thirds, but nevertheless the feminization of medicine continues. It is a pattern in many professional programs across the country and in university at large – go to any campus today and you’re likely to see far more women than men. With the exception of a few course areas, this has been the reality since the 1980s.

Canada is not unique in this respect. The gender gap is a fact in most OECD countries. But is this just an interesting sociological phenomenon, or a symptom of some deeper problem for males? At this point, no one’s quite sure.

“There isn’t a lot of work that’s been done in Canada on this,” says Michael Hoy, a professor in the department of economics at the University of Guelph and one of the Canadian researchers studying the gender gap. “It’s an interesting phenomenon which I think one ought to look at and decide whether it’s a problem.”

In April of last year, Dr. Hoy and two fellow economists at the University of Guelph wrote a paper entitled “The Gender Imbalance in Participation in Canadian Universities” that tried to tease out the reasons for the imbalance. Their conclusion, based on data from 1977 to 2003, was that women could expect a higher “university premium” relative to that for males. In other words, a university degree has a greater payback for women relative to what they could have earned if they only had a high-school diploma because men traditionally have had more options for jobs that pay well even without postsecondary education. “The labour-market signals to get a degree are strong for both men and women, but they’re much stronger for women,” says Herb O’Heron, senior adviser, national affairs, at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

However, the issue isn’t just that women are more numerous in university. There is also the perception that they are doing better than their male peers – that young men are falling behind.

A body of research, most of it from the U.S., says it’s not that boys are doing poorly; it’s that girls are doing better. A study of American students published in June 2006 by Sara Mead, until recently a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says that “with a few exceptions, American boys are scoring higher and achieving more than they ever have before. But girls have just improved their performance on some measures even faster. As a result, girls have narrowed or even closed some academic gaps that previously favoured boys, while other longstanding gaps that favoured girls have widened, leading to the belief that boys are falling behind.”

That, she says, is cause for celebration, not concern. “To hear commentators tell it, college campuses are becoming all-female enclaves,” she writes. “In fact, overall academic achievement and attainment for boys is higher than it has ever been.”

Rob Crosnoe, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, says researchers are still trying to understand why women are doing better. For example, American statistics show girls have caught up to boys in science and math. “Basically, math and science is now looking like the rest of school, which is that girls are just doing a lot better than boys,” he says.

But there’s a conundrum: while girls are getting better grades overall in math and science classes, boys are doing better on standardized tests. “People are still trying to figure out what’s going on there,” continues Dr. Crosnoe. “It could mean that the grades that girls are getting in math and science reflect lots of different things, like behaviour and effort and things that aren’t reflected in a standardized test.”

Some researchers suggest that girls have been able to boost their performance in math and science by networking with other females in class and creating what are in effect support groups. Boys don’t get as much of a boost from support groups. They are more stimulated by competitiveness, which may explain why they are still ahead on the tests.

“It’s ‘I want to beat all my friends’ versus ‘I want to be with my friends in these classes,’” says Dr. Crosnoe. “Those are completely different things, and it tends to help girls more.”

Other research shows that even though women are more numerous in higher education, there remains a substantial gender gap in wages. A study by Michael Shannon of Lakehead University and Michael P. Kidd of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, published by Canadian Public Policy in 2001, projected that this pay gap is likely to remain until at least 2031.

A Statistics Canada study released in June suggests one reason the wage gap hasn’t disappeared is due to “real wage declines in female-dominated disciplines, such as health and education, and real wage increases in male-dominated disciplines, such as engineering, mathematics, computer sciences and physical sciences.”

In a similar vein, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby?”, a study published this year in Canadian Public Policy, found that the growing share of women in postsecondary education hasn’t translated into gender integration in most fields of study. Some areas – particularly those that lead to high-status, high-paying jobs such as engineering and computer sciences – are still male-dominated. Lesley Andres, co-author of the paper and a professor in the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia, calls the pattern “disturbing.” Only in health sciences has there been substantial progress toward gender integration, she says.

Male malaise

Others looking into the gender imbalance in education suggest it points to something much larger and more ominous: a malaise affecting males as a whole that reaches across the education system, from primary school on up.

A century ago, there were a lot of jobs in farming, manufacturing and primary resources, where education – high school or university – wasn’t needed. To a large extent, men filled those jobs, and to this day men are more likely to attend college or university during a recession than during boom times, when high-paying, low-skill resource sector jobs are plentiful.

But in the globalized knowledge economy, a lack of education is a serious handicap. Fully 82 percent of Canadian males aged 18 to 21 are not in university, and men are less prepared than women are for the new economy, say some analysts.

Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, D.C., is one of the analysts who argue that young men are indeed in trouble. “If men were operating rationally in an economic sense, they should be flooding into higher education,” he says, “because you need higher education for those jobs that are expanding in the economy.”

The education system from kindergarten up is geared to the needs of girls, he believes, and that is turning off boys. “What the data seem to be saying is that the collegiate classroom environment is not boy-friendly.”

Mr. Mortenson cites a 2005 study that shows American males in first- year university spent more time exercising, watching TV, partying or playing video games than their female peers (22.3 percent of males played video games more than six hours a week, for example, compared to 3.3 percent of females).

But when it comes to serious stuff, the figures were reversed: females spent more time in student clubs and groups, doing housework and childcare, and volunteering and studying. In other words, the women were applying themselves while the guys partied or goofed off.

That jives with what Clive Keen is hearing in Canada. “Males can work very hard at something that matters to them, but they have to see the point.” In his opinion, the way universities are structured doesn’t appeal to males.

Dr. Keen is director of the Centre for Life-Long Learning at the University of Prince Edward Island. Like Mr. Mortenson, he’s involved with the Boys Project, a group operating from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. It says young males are disengaging from school and failing to live up to their potential.

Dr. Keen cites an example from UPEI: males are 40 percent more likely than females to be put on academic probation, and 2.5 times more likely to be academically dismissed. “I come across parent after parent saying the girls are doing great at university, but the boys are bummed out,” he says, adding that universities are not focussing enough on the issue.

Boosting enrolment

Attracting more men to university may become a critical matter of survival in the coming decade as the number of students of university age begins to drop. “In Atlantic Canada, we’re going to see a 29-percent drop in the number of 19-to-24-year-olds from 2006 to 2026,” he says. “We know that’s coming, starting in 2010.”

To maintain present-day enrolment levels, universities will have to increase their participation rates. The easiest way to do that is to entice more males into higher education. Dr. Keen believes that to re-engage males in school, universities will have to radically change the types of courses they offer and make them more male-friendly.

There is another view that sees the gender imbalance in education as actually nothing new. In the fall of 2006, three Harvard researchers – Claudia Goldin, Lawrence Katz and Ilyana Kuziemko – looked at the gender gap in a study entitled “The Homecoming of American College Women,” published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. They conclude that in some ways, a gender gap has always existed.

“The current gender gap in college curiously mimics that found for high school, especially in the early part of the 20th century, when females in every region graduated high school at a higher rate than did males,” they write. In other words, 100 years ago, women were outperforming men.

One can go even further back. References to the rebelliousness and unconcern of male youth can be found from the times of Ancient Greece through to Renaissance Italy. John Locke, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in 1693, pondered boys’ underachievement in Latin relative to girls’ easy mastery of French.

Back at Guelph, Michael Hoy has begun looking into the history of the gender gap in Canada to see whether it is indeed something that has simply re-emerged after decades of male dominance.

“One of the referees on our paper said there’s an opinion out there that the way our children are taught in schools has undergone a certain amount of feminization and so it’s more friendly for girls than for boys. But if you read the Goldin paper from the U.S., they talk about how girls always outperformed boys in high school anyway.” He and his colleagues have tracked some Canadian data “but we haven’t got the explanations yet.”

Dr. Keen also bemoans the lack of Canadian data, particularly on university dropout rates. “Few people collect such stats,” he says. The only reliable numbers he has are for UPEI, where there’s a drop of four percentage points in the number of males over the course of a postsecondary program. “If 40 percent of the entering class is male, then around 36 percent of the graduating class will be male.”

Lesley Andres of UBC also says much more study is needed: “The whole area is under-investigated.” Her research shows that in high school, boys and girls have no differences in expectations: they expect to get a good education and develop a good career. Yet women are choosing to enter certain disciplines and stay away from others. “We really do need to examine what’s going on, and not assume women are making tremendous gains.”

The gap: by the numbers

Women started heading to university in much great numbers in the ’60s and ’70s and by the late ’80s they started to overtake men on campus. The 2007 Trends in Higher Education, published by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, says Canadian women reached parity in bachelor’s programs in 1987 and now account for 58 percent of bachelor’s degree program enrolment.

Parity for master’s students was reached in 1997 and the genders have remained in balance in that area since.

Men are still the majority among PhD students. Women account for 45 percent of PhD students, up from 25 percent in 1976.

Participation rates for males and females have both increased over the years, but the participation rate for females has increased faster. Trends estimates that in 2006, 28 percent of females in Canada aged 18 to 21 were in university, compared with 18 percent of males.

This is an international phenomenon: the 2006 edition of the OECD’s Education at a Glance says postsecondary graduation rates for girls exceed those for boys in 19 out of 22 OECD countries.

Daniel Drolet
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  1. Vic Charlton / July 31, 2009 at 12:38

    Why hasn’t anyone considered that the difference in accelerated learning for girls is attributable to greater facility with the fundamental tool: reading; and that the predominant instructional method for beginning reading–that is, balanced literacy, previously known as whole language and before that language experience–favours how girls learn?

  2. Deryk Norton / August 6, 2010 at 01:58

    There is wisdom in Vic Charleton’s question. Boys have been shown to respond better to experiential learning. The Sax book “Boys adrift” cites many examples of this.

  3. blaine / October 13, 2010 at 12:22

    could it be that we live in a gynocentric culture that diminishes our sons? I know that when I went to the university of western ontario in the 1990s and early 2000s, you had institutionalized male-bashing in the english department at that institution; and I also can recall, in the early 1990s whilst still a high school student, being inundated with negative imagery of men as sexual predators and as deviants and uncouth barbarians. In the popular culture, men are portrayed as vulgar, dishevelled, stupid and indolent; men are the net losers in the affirmative action sweepstakes (at least if they are white); and our legal system (in the realm of family law) roundly penalizes men. Furthermore, even though researchers such as martin fiebert have proved otherwise, there is still this ugly untruth that domestic violence and violence against children is only committed by men (this is complete nonsense, as a growing number of observers are pointing out). Even though the overwhelming majority of university students are female, you still see women featured prominently on the cover of macleans when it does its annual university rankings (so, apparently, affirmative action and “promoting marginalized groups” is only done in some instances and not in other instances). Our culture diminishes and demonizes men and we should hardly be surprised that men are now lagging behind as a result. A lot of women probably think they earn their positions on merit, but an awful lot of women have been getting a big boost from government (aka big sister) and from a misandrist popular media that engages in gender politicking.

  4. mitch / April 12, 2012 at 18:59


    Yeah, we can pick and choose where men and women perform on different metrics all day, allowing a total lack of acknowledgment of the opponent’s argument provide the illusion of consensus among our data.

    Dude, come on. Being white and male is so obviously better, it’s embarassing that you suggest that culture is misandrist. Some people within culture are, certainly, and definitely within certain departments on campuses. This is more readily attributable to backlash than a radical reversal of essentially all of human history, which was dominated by brute force, and therefore men. Suggesting that radical feminists are hijacking culture and overbalancing gendered norms towards women would be like pointing to Martin Luther King Jr., and saying that Black people in America had caught up and superseded white people.

    The fact of the matter is, girls outperform boys in all grades, because boys have worse attention spans. That’s as close to common knowledge as it gets. The decline of manufacturing plus this means women are kicking ass at getting jobs, because they are more qualified, and that is why 30% of women in joint households make more $$$ than their male counterparts, with no sign of stopping at 50/50. I for one look forward to getting me my MR degree when I get to Law school – my prof swears by his Bay Street Lawyer wife (who earns 4x his income).

    But hey, I don’t mind women on top.

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