Author Richard Reeves on the Boys’ Education Problem We Don’t Like to Talk About
In a new book, the policy analyst chronicles the surprising ways boys are falling behind in the classroom — and what can be done to set them right
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See previous 74 Interviews: Researcher Seth Gershenson on diversifying the teacher workforce, education advocate Aaliyah Samuel on social-emotional learning, and Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee on the need for more career and technical offerings in K-12 settings. The full archive is here.
When author and policy analyst Richard Reeves’s son started applying to colleges, he was dismayed at the difficulty of raising his high school GPA. He was doing well in his courses, but the number wouldn’t seem to budge. Reeves had to remind him of the lower marks he’d earned freshman year — and, he jokes, “explain what the ‘A’ in GPA stands for.”
It was a personal occurrence of a social phenomenon Reeves, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has spent years studying: the comparative difficulty that boys encounter as they move through their K-12 years, even as girls pull further ahead in many indicators of academic preparation and achievement. Given biological differences in the pace of intellectual development and emotional maturity, as well as a teaching workforce that is three-quarters female, he says, boys face significant obstacles to becoming outstanding students and high-functioning adults.
That argument forms the basis of Reeves’s new book, Of Boys and Men, released today by Brookings Institution Press. In it, he touches on the increasingly divergent outcomes for boys and girls in America. K-12 schools make up a part of these disparities, but they continue into higher education and the working world, where labor force participation for men has softened persistently in recent decades.
These developments are, in some ways, the flipside of a success story that is well-known: With fewer barriers confronting girls and women who seek to excel in school and professional life, more of them are earning college degrees and entering traditionally male-dominated professions. It’s taken over a half-century, but the fundamentally sexist dispensation of the mid-20th century — at least as it concerns much of the education system — has been turned on its head.
That doesn’t mean that boys have kept pace, however. Male students now earn worse grades in school than their female classmates and enroll in fewer advanced courses. They attend and graduate university at lower rates (the growing male-female gap in bachelor’s degrees has been expanding for nearly 40 years). And the traditional advantages they have held in STEM performance and some standardized testing has ebbed.
It would be one thing if this development was occurring only in the U.S., Reeves notes. But it’s increasingly the case in wealthy and highly educated countries all over the world. That means that similar economic and organizational forces are at work everywhere, he argues — and that they can be countered.
How? Reeves offers three main solutions in the K-12 arena: more male teachers, who make up a small and shrinking portion of the teaching force; more funding for career and technical education, which disproportionately benefits boys in terms of educational attainment and later-life earnings; and more “red-shirting” (i.e., the practice of keeping boys at home for an extra year before kindergarten). Combined with a heavy dose of high-quality early childhood education and some male-focused mentoring, he says, these proposals could offer boys more pathways to success and bring them back into parity with their sisters.
These are the kinds of policy interventions that Reeves has spent his career espousing. The former president of the London-based think tank Demos, he helped craft strategy during two years of service to the United Kingdom’s deputy prime minister. His ideas often target what he calls a “dream-hoarding” upper-middle class, including a call to ax programs like tax-preferred “education savings accounts.”
But to even address the issues afflicting boys in school, America’s political and educational classes have to first acknowledge that there is a serious problem — and overcome an understandable aversion to making policy that explicitly targets males. Gender gaps in education, no matter which way they cut, are a stumbling block on the way to a fairer economy and a more just society, Reeves argues.
“There’s no reason to be relaxed about the fact that one sex is doing much better than the other,” he said. “We certainly weren’t relaxed about that 50 years ago, quite rightly, and if we think that education matters, we shouldn’t be relaxed about it now.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The 74: Why isn’t this a happy story? We’re essentially looking at a half-century of girls largely overtaking boys in school after barriers to their achievement were lifted. I’m sure a lot of people are cheering that development.
Richard Reeves: Look, there’s a very happy story here in terms of the catching-up women have done in education. In 1982, when men were still ahead of women in college completion, everyone was saying, “We have to get to gender equality!” What no one expected was that the lines on the graph would keep going and that we’d see women overtaking men. Literally nobody predicted that.
So it’s a great success story, but at a certain point, it brings a potentially troubling story with it. At what point do you start to worry about gender inequality when it’s running so far the other way, and especially when it seems to predict all kinds of things in the modern labor market? As a matter of course, if we see big gender gaps in either direction, that should be something that troubles us. There’s noreason to be relaxed about the fact that one sex is doing much better than the other. We certainly weren’t relaxed about that 50 years ago, quite rightly, and if we think that education matters, we shouldn’t be relaxed about it now.
What’s the clearest manifestation of these gender gaps in academics? There has been some analysis of the skewed ratio on college campuses a few years ago, but the K-12 situation seems less understood.
I was surprised by the extent of the gaps in K-12 and by the direction of the trend. A lot of people have this sense that, yes, girls do a little better at school and especially in English, but boys are better at math and science and tests, so it all comes out in the wash. That’s not the picture I see now, which is a very large and growing gap on the elementary side.
In 10 states in the U.S., girls are at least one grade level ahead of boys, on average. In every state in the U.S., they’re at least half of one grade level ahead of boys. Meanwhile, to the extent that there’s a math gap in favor of boys, it’s tiny and shrinking. If you look at what’s happening in eighth-grade math, for example, girls have overtaken boys in pretty much every state. So it doesn’t come out in the wash. Actually, girls have significantly caught up with boys in math and science — to the extent that we can measure that with things like PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment, an international standardized test] and NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the Nation’s Report Card”] — and they’re way, way ahead in English, and getting further ahead in some cases.
The other thing is that everything I’ve read suggests that a lot of these literacy skills turn out to be predictive of college-going and college completion. The biggest gender gaps are really only going one-way, and they tend to be in the subjects likely to matter most for what happens after K-12. To the extent that there are areas where boys are holding their own, it’s in things like standardized tests. Girls are slightly ahead on the ACT now, and boys are slightly ahead on the SAT, although the gaps have really narrowed. Now, a lot of colleges are moving away from using those for college admissions and moving toward Grade Point Average — and if you look at that, girls account for two-thirds of the top 10 percent of GPA scores, and boys account for two-thirds of the bottom 10 percent. The average girl is getting an A, the average boy is getting a B.
That means we’re seeing girls outperforming boys in all the areas that seem to matter most, and mostly catching up in the areas where boys were traditionally ahead.
There have been stories, both domestic and international, of boys’ and girls’ math performance converging. Is that reflected in NAEP?
I was just pulling up the NAEP numbers myself to write about this for my Substack. In science and math, the gaps have essentially disappeared up until twelfth grade. Whereas in English, the gaps are massive all the way through. This sense of symmetry people have about achievement in different subjects — really, it surprised me to discover that it’s just not true.
It’s true that there’s still a small advantage for boys in grade-12 math, but it’s small, and I don’t think it’ll last much longer. And it kind of doesn’t matter what comes after high school because colleges don’t admit people on the basis of their NAEP scores, and employers don’t ask what your NAEP scores are. As a measure of cognitive ability, it’s probably still useful, but I don’t find it to be that instructive in what it signals about your future opportunities. Whereas things like GPA seem to predict future opportunities pretty well. So if you’re thinking about what happens next and how your life is going to go, to the extent that there are even tiny male advantages — honestly, it’s just a few pockets now where there is any male advantage at all, and they’re soon to be mopped up — they are less consequential.
How does the magnitude of these disparities compare with the racial- and class-based achievement gaps that we’re more familiar with in education policy?
They’re smaller, for sure. It depends on exactly what measure you’re using for SES [socioeconomic status], but it’s absolutely true that Black-white gaps on most of these measures will be bigger than male-female gaps. Nothing I say in this book should detract from continued concern about those gaps.
I did a blog post on gaps in high school graduation rates. And as an aside, it was a nightmare because states are not required to report the gender or sex of students in the high school graduation rate. I was literally Googling, “What’s the gender gap in on-time high school graduation?” I checked NCES, I asked people on Twitter, and they said, “We don’t know because they’re not required to report sex.” Because no one thinks that’s an issue. So if I achieve nothing else, I want that to change.
At any rate, our research suggests that the male-female gap in high school graduation rates is about six points, 82-88. That’s not too far off from some of the other gaps! There’s a 10-point gap in graduation rates between white and Black students and an eight-point gap between white and Hispanic students. The gender gaps are of a similar order of magnitude as the racial gaps. And once you inspect these differences, it becomes very clear that gender gaps are much wider within certain demographic groups. The gaps between Black boys and Black girls, or between Black men and Black women, are just huge.
This is where the proper application of an intersectional approach could be really useful. In many accounts of education, Black women are doing pretty well — it doesn’t mean they end up doing well in the world; that’s another question that draws in all sorts of other factors — but Black men are not. Considering there’s a two-to-one gap in terms of college completion between Black women and men, I really think these racial categories need to be looked at from a gender lens sometimes. But without better state-level data, we can’t see that interaction. I mean, we don’t know the high school graduation rate for Black boys in the U.S., and I think we should.
The exact same thing is true of class. You get huge gender gaps as you move down the socioeconomic distribution. That’s one reason why I’m worried. Those are the men who would arguably get the most benefit from more education, but they’re the least likely to get it. Meanwhile, their sisters are much more likely to go to college than them.
Data collection isn’t the main thing here, but it’s obviously a reflection of national priorities that we measure and act on disparities in some areas instead of others. Racial gaps are at the heart of the education reform movement, and they’ve typically been the main story in the education press. Gender gaps have received very little attention by comparison.
There’s two ways to think about this. One is, “There’s a conspiracy against boys and men!” That’s not my view. My view is that we’re trying to catch up to certain social realities. Not that long ago, it just didn’t make sense to worry about gender gaps in high schools. We were worried about college because there weren’t enough women enrolled, and so we passed Title IX and took some other steps. It never seemed like there was a problem in high school. But there is now.
The question is, how do you update your mindset when the change has been this rapid? An 82 percent graduation rate for boys is only two points higher than it is for kids who are eligible for free school meals. Once you know that, you really want to know how much of what’s happening to boys is really explained by poorer boys or boys of color. Because a good chunk of it is. There’s still a top-line gender gap — Black girls graduate high school at higher rates than white boys — but these demographic characteristics overlap and interact.
One of the theses in this book is that there’s a structural disadvantage facing boys in the education system. One of my sound bites is that the education system is structured in favor of girls, the labor market is structured to favor men, and we should fix both. But because the education system is structured to favor girls, upper-middle-class families are investing disproportionately in their boys to help them to keep up. Parents with the will and the means and the time are hiring tutors for their sons and making sure their sons turn in their homework. I have a colleague who says that she’s a stand-in prefrontal cortex for her teenage son, and that’s what a lot of relatively well-off parents are doing. But that’s not true of boys whose parents aren’t in the same position, which is why I think we see much bigger gender gaps in less-resourced households.
In the book, you mention that colleges and universities are also trying to cope with this difference in academic preparation between men and women. What do you think is the scale of gender-based affirmative action in college admissions? Can that even be known?
It can’t be known because we don’t have the data, and of course, it’s only legal in private colleges. It’s one of those weird things historically. When Title IX was being passed, there was a carve-out for private, undergraduate colleges to allow them to discriminate on the basis of sex in admissions. The reason was to protect single-sex colleges, especially women’s colleges, and the effect is that private, undergraduate schools can discriminate by sex. And they are, in fact, discriminating in favor of male applicants.
Publics can’t do it, which is one reason why the gender gap is much, much lower in private colleges. It’s also because, for the reasons we just discussed, the gap between men and women isn’t so wide at the top end of the socioeconomic distribution. But is there a thumb on the scale for boys? Absolutely. It seems to me that it’s a bit of an open secret that you’ve got a better chance of getting admitted if you’re male because they’re desperately trying to stay somewhat close to parity. Virtually every single college has now flipped from majority-male to majority-female, but the gaps at those elite colleges are much smaller.
One of the proposals from the book that you’ve been pretty vocal about has been the notion of keeping more boys at home for an extra year before starting kindergarten, commonly called “red-shirting.” Research does suggest that doing this could reduce achievement gaps down the line. But aren’t there limits to the potential here, especially given the fact that girls are already exceeding boys by the time they start kindergarten?
I think there are quite serious limits, not least because how well you do is partly dependent on the peers you’re with and when you start learning. But I also think boys would get some benefit from an absolute age effect [i.e., the fact of starting school at a more advanced age, regardless of the relative age of their peers], and I’m reasonably convinced from the evidence that the benefits tend to disproportionately go to the kids from lower-income backgrounds and those who are disadvantaged.
A Tennessee study included a lot of Black kids and a lot of low-income kids, and it really was those kids who benefited the most from being a year older in the classroom. And that’s a kind of perverse reality because they’re the ones who don’t get red-shirted right now. It’s upper-middle-class white boys, mostly, who are red-shirted, and they’re the ones who get the least out of it. Meanwhile, New York City doesn’t let you do it, because it was all rich white parents who were doing it. They banned it, and now some of the same parents are going private.
In a piece I wrote for Brookings, I got enrollment data from a very well-known private school on the East Coast. When I looked at how old their graduating seniors were, it turned out that 30 percent of the boys were old for their year — in other words, their birthday was after the cutoff date for their grade year — and only 6 or 7 percent of the girls were. In private schools, there are basically different cutoff dates for boys and girls. Boys, and particularly boys who’d be younger for their year, are much more likely to be red-shirted because they can afford childcare and all that.
Again, there are limits. But if you can get past the idea of chronological age, and instead look at developmental age, it makes a lot of sense to recognize these biological differences. As I say in the book, I’m worried about seeing these gaps all the way through kids’ school careers, and I’m also worried about boys feeling like they’re behind all the way through. Because the gaps become more consequential as time goes on.
I was in remedial reading from ages five to seven, when teachers really worried about whether I was ever going to read. Now, the fact that I was essentially held back in English when I was six didn’t hold me back from going to Oxford, but the fact that I was goofing off and couldn’t focus when I was 16 or 17 very nearly did. That’s just one example, but I think it’s a familiar story for a lot of parents.
My view is, why not red-shirt? There are arguments against having boys start a year later, and I deal with some of them in the book, but overall, it seems like it would level the playing field. On most of the distributions I’ve seen regarding development and neuroscience, putting the boys into a classroom with girls who were a year younger would make those distributions much closer than they are now. So again, why not?
But that’s just one step. There’s a whole bunch of other things we could be doing as well.
What would those other steps be? Is there a sound method for preventing these learning differences from manifesting by the time kids are five or six years old, whether through nurse home visits or high-quality pre-K or something else?
[University of California, Santa Barbara economist] Shelly Lundberg had a good Twitter thread disagreeing with me on the red-shirt thing, and she pointed me to a study of an intervention that worked on social skills and self-control in kindergarten. This was from back in the ’80s, but it showed pretty good long-run effects from this intervention that was specifically targeted at the ways that boys struggle. And that’s the kind of thing that might make you say, “Instead of waiting for boys’ brains to mature, let’s accelerate their skills development.”
If that’s the kind of conversation we’re having, I’m pretty happy. Because that means we’re accepting that there is a problem, that the problem is partially about differences in development, and that we’re arguing about potential solutions. That’s exactly the kind of dialogue I want us to have.
One of the other proposals you make is to recruit a wave of men to join the K-12 workforce, which is obviously very female. Is there good evidence that that would make an impact? It’s striking to me that we’ve got a huge body of literature about the effects of matching students with teachers of the same race, but not much on matching by sex.
Yeah, to the extent that research exists, it tends to focus on the female side and on higher education. But for all the same reasons why we think it’s good for girls to have same-gender teachers, it’s probably good for boys as well. I’m also pretty convinced by [Stanford economist] Thomas Dee’s work on English teachers, especially.
It all feels right to me, we just don’t have much research being done on it. Back to where we started this conversation, you have to accept there’s a problem before you start investigating it. There aren’t enough people yet who acknowledge there’s a problem here, or who’ve gotten past the zero-sum mindset — “If we’re doing this, it means we’re paying less attention to women and girls” — which is the false choice that poisons the whole debate.
To me, there’s a difficulty in knowing why gender matching works. This is also true of my understanding of the literature on matching female pupils with female teachers. It’s just a bit of a black box. You can reasonably expect that they act as role models or that they understand same-gender students’ learning styles a bit more, and there’s stereotyping going in both directions as well. But to some extent, this could be one of those occasions where we don’t need to know — it just seems true, so let’s have more men, especially in elementary school and in those crucial subjects like English.
The other thing I’d say about the teaching profession is that it’s just getting more female. We’re at 24 percent of male K-12 teachers as a share of the whole now, down from 33 percent in the 1980s. Only one in 10 elementary teachers are male, and the number of men going into education training courses is dropping faster than the number of women, so moving forward, it looks like it’s only going to get more gender-skewed. And at what point do reasonable people start to say, “Okay, 10 percent is a bit too low”? I’m worried that, at that point, it’ll be game over, because it’s really hard to persuade men to go into professions that are 90 percent female. There’s a great line from the women’s movement: You have to see it to be it.
A K-12 workforce that is 76 percent female is pretty close to some kind of tipping point.
Particularly when it comes to the elementary grades, it feels like the tipping point has come and gone.
In the book, I point to this startling fact — and my son actually works in early education, so I have some indirect experience through him — that as a percentage of the population, there are at least twice as many women flying U.S. military jets as there are men teaching kindergarten classes. Now, maybe 6 or 7 percent is too low a participation rate for women in the military. I can imagine a lot of people saying that it’s not good enough, and they’re actually redesigning cockpits so that they’re more accessible to women. I’m all for that because I just want the person in the plane who’s best at shooting down enemy planes. But as a matter of culture and social welfare, it’s probably more important to have men in kindergarten classrooms than to have women in cockpits.
These gender gaps that run the other way don’t get discussed as much, and it creates a vicious circle. If entering the classroom as a man is a really weird thing to do, then people are going to think you’re really weird for doing it; if people think you’re really weird for doing something, you’re less likely to do it; and if you’re less likely to do it, then even fewer people like you will do it. That’s how the cycle turns, and that was exactly true for women in all kinds of male professions. Forty years ago, a woman engineer was assumed to be weird — like, what’s wrong with you? I’m incredibly proud of the strides we’ve made in bashing down those stereotypes, but we’ve made almost no inroads in the other direction for almost every female-dominated profession that we should care about: nursing, social work, psychology, teaching.
Even among school counselors, it’s like a six-to-one ratio of women to men. If a kid’s struggling in school and sent to a school counselor or psychologist, wouldn’t it be better to have some men in those roles? As the father of three sons, and just as a person in society, my answer is surely yes. Interestingly, when you say this to people, no matter how left-wing or feminist they are, they all agree.
But what are we actually doing about it? Where’s the policy effort, the campaigns, the targets? In the book, I set this very modest target of 30 percent male representation in the K-12 workforce, up from 24 percent now. Women didn’t break into STEM and lots of other male-dominated spheres without a lot of intentional effort, and the same is going to be true the other way around.
There are also obvious pipeline issues with bringing more males into the profession, in that the growing BA gap between men and women means that fewer men meet the requirements to teach. Your third big idea is to dramatically increase resources to career and technical education, which has pretty clear benefits for boys — much less so, from the research I’ve seen, for girls — but it could also conceivably take more males out of that teacher pipeline, right?
We can do two things at once. For a start, investing in more of these technical high schools and apprenticeships is good for boys in and of itself. I just wrote about this in National Affairs, but most educational interventions seem to help girls somewhat more than boys. Free college, for example, really helps women but doesn’t seem to help men. But technical education is a distinctively pro-male policy. Everything in the literature suggests that this isn’t going to harm girls, but it’s not really going to help them either.
That means that you have to deliberately invest in a policy that you know will help boys and men more than women and girls. And I doubt it’s a coincidence that the apprenticeship bill, which would create a million new apprenticeships for $3.5 billion, has spent the last year stuck in a Senate committee, given the fact that 93 percent of apprenticeships are men. At the same time, the administration is willing to spend $500 billion forgiving student loans, two-thirds of which are held by women. I honestly believe, if it were the other way around, we would be having a different conversation. Because we just haven’t caught up to the new reality yet.
In other words, one of the reasons we don’t invest in vocational programs enough is because their pro-male skew is seen by people as problematic. But I now see that as a feature and not a bug. Don’t get me wrong, I would like the male share of apprenticeships to be lower than 93 percent. But the gender gaps we see in mainstream education — the absolute numbers just dwarf the disparity in apprenticeships.
The other thing is that we could really build up vocational training in some of these areas like health administration, education, child care. Those pathways skew quite female, but if we emphasized them more in technical high schools, there’s a chance that we could persuade more boys to do them. There are a lot of men out there, and even if we’re helping a lot of them go down a more traditionally vocational route, it doesn’t mean we couldn’t help others become K-12 teachers. There can be a recognition that we need to offer boys a variety of paths, in the same way that we don’t want to shove girls down one particular path.
For understandable reasons, this book is weighted pretty heavily toward academic disparities and the ways they can be corrected. But what about the social-emotional deficits facing males, which extend past their academic or even professional lives? I’m thinking of a study I covered that found that anti-bullying laws lead to better psychological outcomes — including reduced suicide rates — but only for female students.
[NYU social psychologist] Jonathan Haidt has done a lot on female mental health, and I’m influenced by his work here. It’s pretty clear that a lot of the problems girls are having, especially when they’re modulated by social media, are relational. That fits with the problem of bullying, and social media has been more damaging for girls’ mental health because it basically amplifies relational bullying. Girls do more of that, but with boys, it’s more about isolation.
So, very crudely, girls can become depressed and potentially suicidal when their friends are mean to them. The bad scenario for boys is just not having friends, which can lead to depression and suicidality. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if anti-bullying laws had a gendered effect, because by and large, boys aren’t being bullied into suicide. They’re withdrawing into suicide.
On the larger question of non-cognitive or social-emotional skills, I think those gaps actually underpin all the other, more quantifiable gaps. I mean, why is there a gap in GPA? It’s not because girls are cognitively that much better than boys of their same age. It’s because boys are so far behind non-cognitively. That need for a “stand-in prefrontal cortex” explains a lot about future orientation and motivation and deferral of gratification.
When you write a book like this, you’ve got the headline numbers like labor force participation or college degrees that become clear over big populations. But the things that stick are quite often the really weird data points. Like, why are women twice as likely to study abroad or volunteer for Americorps or Peace Corps?
Voting would be another one of those.
Yeah! And women are less likely to live with their mom and dad. There’s something about their sense of propulsion. [NYU sociologist] Paula England has explored this great concept of “planfulness” in the context of family formation, and I love that word. It’s a true skill, planfulness, and it captures all these non-cognitive skills that girls seem to have much more than boys.
So what’s the answer? One, give boys’ brains a chance to catch up through red-shirting. Two, early childhood education: It looks like good-quality pre-K actually seems to help boys more than girls. I think that some of that is because you’re getting to them earlier and working on this non-cognitive stuff like social skills and social restraint. You know, one day in preschool, I wasn’t allowed to go swimming because I whacked a girl with a paintbrush. I remember that so vividly because I learned something right away. There’s some of that non-cognitive instruction going on in these pre-K classrooms, and it might just make sense to keep boys there a little longer.
And then there are these things like the Boys to Men mentoring program, which specifically uses behavioral interventions with adolescent boys. Some summer schools can handle that too, but they’re all specifically aimed at boys who are dealing with social or developmental needs. This stuff would help to close a lot of these gaps, including race gaps. Think about how many Black boys repeat a grade by the end of high school; when people roll their eyes at red-shirting, I think, “Well, lots of boys are just held back a year later on in their education.” That’s a huge thing to do with older kids, holding them back a grade.
It shows you by counterfactual that the current system is really failing boys, especially boys of color. A lot of the recovery will come from developing these non-cognitive skills that seem to just develop earlier in girls. [Harvard economist] Claudia Goldin’s work on that phenomenon is pretty instructive, and it’s one of the reasons why GPA is such a good predictor of what happens in college — it’s also a good marker of non-cognitive competence.
My own son couldn’t get his high school GPA high enough to get into the sort of college he wanted to, even though he did well on his SAT. The reason was that his GPA in freshman year was 1.8. I kept trying to explain to him what the “A” in GPA stood for, but I could almost see his prefrontal cortex growing as he asked, “Wait, why is my GPA only at 3.0? I’ve been doing really well!” I said, “It’s because you got a 1.8 in freshman year.” He was like, “When was that again?”
What’s the international picture for gender gaps in schooling? Are there identifiable traits in countries where these differences appear?
This is all second-hand, but the headline finding is that girls are ahead everywhere. Young women are more likely than men to have a college degree in every OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] country now, with the slightly less economically advanced ones catching up more recently. That seems like an important fact when we think about what might be behind this. Seeing this happen internationally does point toward a structural explanation: It’s not just something wrong with the U.S. K-12 system or higher education, because it’s true everywhere.
And if it’s true everywhere, that means there are broader economic forces at work affecting all economically advanced countries in a similar way. To the extent that there’s a relationship between gender gaps and levels of economic development, it seems that the more economically advanced a country is, and the more gender-egalitarian it is, the bigger the gender gap in favor of girls and women. Essentially, those countries that have done really well in terms of taking down the barriers in front of women are the ones where the overtaking of men has been most dramatic.
But there’s no reason to think that it won’t continue in that direction in other countries. I don’t think this made it into the book, but there’s a paper looking at two forces affecting higher education attainment by gender. One was achievement in secondary education, and the other was attitudes toward the roles of men and women. The better that girls are doing in secondary education, the better they would go on to do in higher education — except in countries where there were still quite sexist views. Those two factors roughly balanced each other out, but over time, one would hope that sexist attitudes toward the roles of women and men are going to decline. When that happens, the advantage girls have in the education system will become apparent. In other words, the closer we get to having more gender-egalitarian views about educational and economic opportunities, the more the gender disparities in education appear. That’s why these very gender-egalitarian societies in Scandinavia, for instance, are very inegalitarian when it comes to education. The gender gap just goes in the other direction.
Do you think the political sensitivities around these problems — as you mentioned, some of the solutions you offer are deliberately tailored to prioritize boys over girls — make them harder to fix? Or even talk about?
There are two conversations going on, the public and the private, and I’ve constantly been stumbling across that difference. What you’ll find is that for a lot of people, especially if they’re in the public policy world, this is not an issue they want to go near. But privately, they’ll say, “My God, I’m really worried about my boys.”
One of my hopes for the book is to create a safer space to talk about this, a space where things aren’t zero-sum. And it doesn’t require you to stop caring about women. My wife is trying to raise money for a start-up right now, so I know that it’s only 2 percent of venture capital money that goes to female recipients. I hear about it on a nightly basis!
There’s a lot of work that we can only do if we take away this fear that people are going to be asked to abandon their previous commitments. But as things stand, the mere reluctance to acknowledge the problem is politically dangerous because the problems are real, and if responsible people don’t deal with them, irresponsible people will exploit them. And viewed simply at the policy level, actually investing in policies that might help boys and men is impossible until we have an honest conversation about those problems. There’s a responsibility here, and the failure to engage honestly about these gaps, what’s causing them, and what can be done about them is a dereliction of duty.
This situation is likely to fester. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because of the real conviction that a lot of the things we care about — equity, human flourishing, a better society, stronger families — are threatened, and we cannot cover our eyes. That’s the worst of all worlds.
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