Men reading The Atlantic have had to reckon with more than a few hard truths these last few years. In a 2010 article entitled “The End of Men”—now a best-selling book—author Hanna Rosin noted that men had lost "three-quarters of the 8 million jobs" in the Great Recession, and that “for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same.” In 2011, an article by Kate Bolick argued that “American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be ‘marriageable’ men.” In a book review in October entitled “The Weaker Sex,” Sandra Tsing Loh notes that professional women, no longer financially dependent on men, are quicker to wonder “How long until I vote you off the island?”
What’s the deal, dudes? Why are we having such trouble getting it together?
A new study from Columbia University and the University of Georgia suggests it may not be entirely our fault. Males start falling behind when they’re little boys not because they’re less intelligent, the study indicates, but because of their classroom behavior.
Researchers looked at data on more than 5,800 elementary school students, from kindergarten to fifth grade, comparing their standardized testing scores with their grades in school and their behavior, as reported by their teachers. Starting early, the boys received poorer grades in every subject than their testing should have predicted.
So are teachers biased against boys when handing out grades? Not necessarily, but they do seem biased in favor a certain skills—what researchers called “approaches to learning.”
“You can think of ‘approaches to learning’ as a rough measure of what a child's attitude toward school is,” explained Christopher Cornwell, an economics professor at Georgia and a co-author of the study, in a press release from the university. “It includes six items that rate the child's attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization.”
Such skills, the researchers explain in the study, which appears in the current issue of Journal of Human Resources, are “non-cognitive,” having to do with “how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills.” They also belonged more often to girls.
There is, of course, a basic unfairness to a system in which one form of gender-correlated behavior is rewarded with better grades—a basis of assessment that should be objective and empirical, independent of anything that isn’t on the homework page. Whatever the reason, as a group, young boys and girls behave differently in school. The gender-based discrepancies found in this study indirectly indicate as much. We could argue nature vs. nurture until we’re blue in the face, but that debate is at least partly irrelevant: Gender-correlated behavior exists, and it shouldn’t translate into grade disparity. But it does.
It’s hard to imagine this subtle reward system is anything but unconscious, traceable only because it is consistent and widespread. Still, the implications of these findings may be much more concrete, and as far-reaching as their remedy is elusive. “The trajectory at which kids move through school is often influenced by a teacher's assessment of their performance, their grades,” Cornwell noted. “This affects their ability to enter into advanced classes and other kinds of academic opportunities, even post-secondary opportunities.
“It's also typically the grades you earn in school that are weighted the most heavily in college admissions,” he continued. “So if grade disparities emerge this early on, it's not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned.”
What to do? One problem may lie in the fact that elementary school teachers are overwhelmingly women. (According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, a mere 18 percent of elementary and middle school teachers were men.) Cornwell says the most common question he and other researchers have gotten is whether teacher gender is a determining factor. Unfortunately, there’s not enough data available, he says—probably in part because there aren’t enough male elementary school teachers to make a solid comparison.
As Rosin and others have argued, traditionally “feminine” strengths—flexibility, communicativeness, social aptitude—may be more valued attributes to have in the modern workplace than traditional “male” strengths, like aggressiveness and a stronger back. The solution, then, may be to simply encourage boys to better develop more “feminine” social qualities that will serve them better in the workforce of the future anyway. According to the new study, this is already happening. Researchers uncovered evidence of grade bonus systems among some teachers that rewarded boys for behavior more commonly associated with girls.
Women could argue that, for most of modern history, the professional world has rewarded typically “masculine” behaviors, and that successful girls and women were forced to adapt accordingly. They would be correct. In that context, today’s gender-based grade disparity in favor of girls could be viewed as a kind of gender-based affirmative action—one which acts correctively in the long-term by giving advantages to women today that counteract our culture’s long patriarchal history.
The danger there, of course, is that by rewarding “feminine” behavior in young boys, a new but equally unfair system is merely reinforced, not remedied. Surely disadvantaging an entire group, particularly at such a young age, isn’t good for anyone.