The Gender Inequality Pendulum


In our modern era, it is difficult to believe that women still face discrimination. After all, Hillary Clinton put “eighteen million cracks” in the “highest, hardest glass ceiling”; we have female Supreme Court Justices and female CEOs. But there are still arenas in which females are unwelcome, a fact that has been highlighted by the recent controversy regarding IMB CEO Virginia Rometty and the Augusta National Golf Club.

Augusta National, the annual host of the Masters Tournament, has never offered membership to a woman since its founding eight decades ago. Historically, the club has offered membership to the CEOs of the biggest Masters sponsors, but this year at least one CEO – Virginia Rometty – was left out in the cold. The status and visibility of sponsorship is too valuable for IMB or Rometty to make a fuss about the snub, much to the chagrin of women’s rights activists.

Augusta National’s archaic membership policy brings to mind a time when men were doctors and women were nurses and when men were CEOs and women were their secretaries. Discrimination against women has a long history in our nation, but in many ways, women have risen far and fast. In fact, in one very important way, females have risen farther and faster than males: in educational achievement and attainment.

Today, women make up nearly 60% of all college students. By age 24, 27.6% of women have earned a college degree while only 18.7% of men have a degree. This might seem to be proof that women have finally reached – if not exceeded – parity with men, but some studies have suggested that these numbers would be even more unequal were it not for gender-bias college admissions policies. In fact, the UC Commission on Civil Rights opened an investigation into gender bias in college admissions in 2009 following suggestions that many selective colleges have been maintaining gender equity by admitting larger percentages of male applicants than female applicants, essentially utilizing affirmative action to admit less qualified males over females. The investigation was dropped in 2012 without reaching a conclusion, though one commissioner said that the data suggested evidence of gender discrimination.

The gender gap in higher education can be largely explained by gender gaps in K-12 education. State test scores show that girls have pulled nearly even with boys in math and science achievement while pulling farther and farther ahead of boys in reading and writing achievement. Although boys have always trailed girls in literacy achievement, the gap is continuing to widen, and since literacy skills are among the most fundamental skills necessary for college, it makes sense that male students would continue to trail female students in attaining college degrees.

Although this gap is far more noticeable among traditionally challenged demographics such as inner-city students, the gender gap exists across all races and all socioeconomic statuses. This suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way that we are teaching our students. One plausible theory is the widespread emphasis on early literacy. Developmentally, boys tend to be less able to tackle literacy challenges in early grades, so the emphasis on early literacy places them at a disadvantage from day one. The gap that begins on the first day of school only widens as students grow older; at the middle- and high-school levels, boys who have struggled with reading fluency are suddenly tossed into classes that focus on literary analysis and reading comprehension where they fall even further behind.

Ultimately, this cycle results in large numbers of teenage boys who feel frustrated, view reading or learning as “girly”, and lose any interest in their educations. It is no wonder, then, that only 67% of male students graduate high school while 74% of females graduate. And it is no wonder that many of those males who do graduate high school are uninterested in attending college.

What Does This Mean for Your Child?

First and foremost, parents should take great care to address their sons’ specific educational needs. Particularly when it comes to reading and writing, boys often require more help than girls. If this help is not forthcoming, boys are far more likely to become frustrated and give up. Here are some ways to help your son gain strong literacy skills:

  • Look for signs of early trouble: Young boys who don’t take an early interest in reading or who have limited writing skills are more likely to struggle.
  • Provide appealing reading material: Particularly early on, boys should read anything that strikes their fancy – as long as your son reads something, you’re doing a good job. For more on getting boys to read, check out our recent “Read This, Not That” post.
  • Encourage imagination: Young boys often have very fertile imaginations; sadly, your average school teacher tends to discourage boys from writing about alien attacks and space monsters. Allow and encourage boys to write imaginative tales; such creative writing activities will help to boost literacy skills.
  • Overcome stereotypes: As boys grow older, they tend to view education through the lens of society’s gender stereotypes – reading, learning, and doing well in school become “girly” or “wimpy”. Providing strong male role models who demonstrate good intellectual habits can go a long way towards keeping boys interested in education.
  • Consider ongoing literacy tutoring: Boys tend to do better with a phonics-heavy approach that is rarely emphasized in the classroom. Moreover, boys often struggle in elementary school when the focus shifts from reading fluency to reading comprehension – extra help at this point can stave off years of academic frustration.

C2 Education’s talented teachers provide excellent role models for young students. Many of our teachers – both male and female – have backgrounds in literature and history, and they enjoy sharing their passion for the written word with their students. And our reading programs (both our Summer Book Club and our year-round programs) tailor literacy tutoring to each student’s individual needs. For more information about C2 Education’s reading programs, contact your local center director.

Parents of both boys and girls should be aware of the gender bias that persists in college admissions, particularly at the most selective schools. In 2008, The College of William and Mary admitted 43% of its male applicants and only 29% of female applicants, while Vassar College admitted 34% of males and 21% of females. These statistics are hardly rare; in fact, some consider gender discrimination to be an “open secret” in college admissions. Here are some ways to leverage or overcome the gender bias:

  • Boys should apply to selective private schools: Private schools can legally use gender as a factor in admissions; as a result, many selective private schools are more likely to admit a less qualified male over a better qualified female. Male applicants at such schools will likely have a slightly better chance of admission.
  • Girls need to up their games: Female applicants at selective private schools will face slightly higher hurdles than their male counterparts; thus it becomes all the more imperative that female students present the strongest possible applications. The competition is stiffer, so stellar grades and test scores are of the utmost importance. And for female Asian students, the competition may be even worse – for more, check out our article about the Asian-American bias in college admissions.

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